LA QUINTA, Calif. – Jon Rahm may be making just his second start at the CareerBuilder Challenge, but the 23-year-old is no stranger to its golf courses.
Rahm, who went to college some 250 miles east at Arizona State, played four times in The Prestige at PGA West, a college event held at the La Quinta resort. For three years, the tournament was contested on the Greg Norman Course, but in 2015, the event was held on the Nicklaus Tournament Course, one of three host courses for this week’s PGA Tour event. And Rahm tied for second.
“This type of golf is something I love,” said Rahm, who blitzed La Quinta Country Club, another host course, to the tune of a blemish-free 10-under 62 to take a one-hot lead after 18 holes.
“La Quinta is really, really similar to Phoenix Country Club, which I played many times; I’ve also shot 10 under there, funny enough, and it’s just really familiar to what I’m used to playing. Four years of college on these golf courses, it’s something you’re not going to forget, so just happy to start the tournament the way I did.”
Rahm birdied his first two holes before hitting what he described as three “perfect” shots on the par-5 fifth hole. The second one was extra perfect: a 5-iron from 215 yards out that hit 15 feet below the hole before ending up just 5 feet away.
The rest of his round, a record low for Rahm on Tour (64 at the 2016 Quicken Loans National was his previous best), was seemingly just as flawless. Rahm, the highest-ranked player in the field at No. 3 in the world, missed just two fairways and three greens, and needed only 25 putts to get around. He had 11 straight one-putts at one point.
To put Thursday’s round into further perspective: Rahm was a shot better under par in Round 1 than he was in 72 holes last year, when he tied for 34th.
“I was 9 under last year in four days and I’m 10 under today,” Rahm said. “So things have changed a little bit.”
Rahm, who was runner-up to Dustin Johnson at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, skipped the Sony and returned home to work on his game. He needed a mental reset; Rahm’s first practice round back in Phoenix was poor as he was still used to the conditions at wide-open, windy Kapalua.
“I was aiming so far left on every hole because of the wind that we had most of the time left-to-right at Kapalua,” Rahm said.
He didn’t have that problem Thursday. So far, Rahm has followed the CareerBuilder’s winning formula: go low, especially on La Quinta and the Nicklaus. La Quinta, which ranked as the second easiest course on the PGA Tour last season, was again susceptible to red numbers, yielding a scoring average of 68.44. Nicklaus was slightly harder, at 68.69.
Of the 14 players at T-9 or better through 18 holes, seven of them played La Quinta, including Andrew Landry and Jason Kokrak at 9 under, and five played Nicklaus, led by Austin Cook at 9 under.
Cook, a rookie who won last fall at the RSM Classic, was 6 under through his first seven holes, putting people on early #59watch. Adam Hadwin shot 59 at La Quinta last year.
“Honestly, I had no clue at how low I was,” Cook said. “I knew I was playing good golf and just wanted to continue. (59) never really crept into my mind all day, luckily, I think I would have probably put a little more pressure on myself, but I was just glad to put a good round in, it’s a first round and hopefully it continues.”
For as superb as Rahm’s opening round was, the two players in the top 10 who played the Stadium Course at PGA West – Nick Watney and Grayson Murray – had equally impressive rounds. Both shot 7-under 65 on a course that had a first-round scoring average of 70.84.
Watney missed six fairways, but avoided a single bogey on his card. Murray’s 65 included one bogey, but he also took just 20 putts, making 107 feet of them. They’ll get La Quinta on Friday.
“I don’t expect to shoot 62 around there like Rahm did today; he’s No. 3 in the world for a reason,” Murray said. “I mean, Adam Hadwin shot 59 there last year, it’s definitely gettable and some of the best greens we play on all year, so I’m looking forward to getting over there and hopefully continuing the momentum.”