Jon Rahm knew that playing Tiger Woods in the Ryder Cup would be different than facing down any other golfer in the world.
“All year long I was looking forward to the day I was going to play with Tiger Woods, and it didn’t happen until singles at the Ryder Cup,” Rahm said in an interview with GOLF.com. The 23-year-old, playing just his second full year on Tour, hadn’t yet been paired with a revitalized Woods. “It wasn’t the best time, because there’s a lot that comes into play with Tiger, right, a lot of memories I have, as he is one the people I grew up idolizing.”
Rahm and the rest of the European side held a commanding four-point lead heading to Sunday’s singles matches at Le Golf National. But when Rahm drew Woods in the fourth match of the day, he knew the showdown could be pivotal, and prepared accordingly.
“It took an incredible amount of mental work to get ready for it,” he said. “My swing, my body was feeling good. But I knew my mind was the one that had to be ready.” Rahm spoke with his mental coach and his captain, Thomas Bjorn. He talked to Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari, too, the duo that had faced down Woods three times that weekend. Sunday morning, he met with his mental coach again.
“It was a long process,” he said. “When I got on that tee I had been getting ready for, y’know, more than 12 hours.”
The preparation seemed to work right away; Rahm stuck his wedge in close at No. 1 and holed his birdie putt in front of thousands of European fans. One up. He and Woods halved No. 3 with birdies and No. 4 with bogeys, and the match stayed Rahm 1-up until the Spaniard won the 7th hole with a par to go 2 up.
But Woods struck back. With Rahm in position to make birdie at the 9th, his 14-time major champion opponent poured in an eagle putt punctuated with a scream and a fist-pump that drew a roar even from the Euro-heavy crowd. It was the most expressive that Woods had been all week. Back to one down.
As the pair turned to the back nine, Rahm continued to throw down par after par against a more turbulent effort from Woods, who birdied 12 to get the match all square. Was the American charge on? For a moment, the U.S. side held at least a share of the lead in the first six matches of the day. But Rahm seized back control, making pars against Woods bogeys at 13 and 14. Two up again. Through it all, Rahm did his best to stay within himself.
“I played the first 16, 17 holes without looking at him,” he said. “I realized that if I don’t look at him, if I pretend I’m playing alone, it’s just me, then it would be easier to deal with.”
At 16, Rahm faltered for the first time all day. Facing a three-footer for par to halve the hole, he pushed his putt ever so slightly. It caught the lip and spun out, shrinking his lead to a tenuous 1 up. The match still hung in the balance; could Woods salvage a much-needed point for the U.S. side?
No chance. Rahm saw to that. After a thunderous tee shot down the left side, the Spaniard flighted a wedge from the first cut of rough that landed just short of the pin and released to just inside five feet. Woods’s birdie effort slid past the hole, which meant Rahm’s putt was to win the match.
“People don’t realize how big a moment it was for me,” Rahm said. “It was the first time I’d ever played with him. And right before I hit that putt someone yelled, ‘Do it for Seve!’ in Spanish. So I was like, ‘whoa.’ As if that putt wasn’t important enough?”
When Rahm’s ball found the center of the hole, he threw down his putter and let out a guttural scream, running towards the crowd, which had gone berserk. He continued to yell as he embraced his caddie, Adam Hayes.
“It wasn’t until I made that putt that the emotion of winning because I was containing myself all day long trying to keep it under control,” Rahm said. In the midst of his embrace with Hayes he noticed Woods, who was approaching for a congratulatory handshake.
“He was coming towards me with a smile still. I mean, I started crying. I got emotional, tears started coming out of my eyes.” Rahm got choked up as Woods approached him, and again as he spoke about the round in an interview afterwards. The moment resonated with him so much that Rahm found Woods later at the closing ceremonies, just to tell him what an honor the match had been.
“It meant an incredible moment then and it still does,” he concluded. “It’s going to be tough to beat that moment in my life.”