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ATLANTA – We may have wanted Brooks-Bryson, but that’s not the way rivalries work.
If reality flowed from fiction we’d have a month of Sunday showdowns between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to cherish. Instead, the two greatest players of the generation went the majority of their careers at arm’s length, at least on Sundays with significant titles on the line.
While anyone with even a passing interest in golf spent the last few weeks pining for a showdown between Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau, that’s simply not on the dance card at the Tour Championship, where the PGA Tour’s super-season wraps up on Sunday.
Koepka withdrew on Saturday with an ailing left wrist and DeChambeau faded from the hunt with a 2-over effort. But if the consolation doesn’t exactly polarize the base the way Brooks-Bryson would, the competitive reality is Patrick Cantlay-Jon Rahm is so much better.
What the duo may lack in hyperbole and PIP (Player Impact Program) appeal, they more than makeup for with genuine substance.
Saturday was the 20th time Rahm and Cantlay have been grouped together in a Tour event. “Patty Ice,” the nickname given to Cantlay by the crowd last week at the BMW Championship, has outplayed Rahm in those head-to-head gems 10 times. Do the math.
Maybe Rahm and Cantlay don’t move the Q Rating needle enough for those who live their lives 280 characters at a time, but a rivalry – a true rivalry – is defined by parity, and your mild-mannered twosome is filthy with the stuff.
This strange season has inextricably tied the two together. Although Sunday will be the first final round they will play together, that anomaly ignores what happened at the Memorial.
COVID-19 robbed the golf world of the only chance to see the two go head-to-head on a Sunday earlier this summer when Rahm was diagnosed with COVID-19 and was forced to withdraw after 54 holes with a six-stroke lead. Cantlay went on to win at Jack’s place, the $1.67 million prize, the FedExCup and world ranking points and the circuit’s three-year exemption, but it felt like a missed opportunity.
“I mean, listen, confidence-wise, personal boost-wise, I did win. Resume-wise, I did not. So on paper I didn’t; mentally, I did,” Rahm said of his Memorial near miss.
The duo was paired together last week at the BMW Championship on Saturday when Cantlay scorched Caves Valley with a 66 on his way to victory and a four-stroke advantage over the Spaniard to start the Tour Championship.
Despite nearly flawless play from Cantlay, he made just one bogey through his first 39 holes, Rahm took a share of the lead on Day 3 with a birdie at the third, but the moment was short-lived.
If Saturday is any guide, the final round should be as good as advertised with the two trading birdies down the stretch and separated by just two shots.
The recipe for most great rivalries demands both the yin and the yang of the fan experience. Baked into the best rivalries is always a hero and an antagonist, or at the least a less sympathetic figure to play opposite the leading man, but there’s none of that with Cantlay-Rahm.
Both are far too reserved for any he said/he said nonsense like, well, you know who. On Sunday at the finale, there’ll be no snarky back and forth on social media, no chants of “Patty” derisively directed at Rahm, no reason to pick a side, just impossibly solid golf at one of the most crucial points in the season and a wonderful study in contrasts.
“It’s something I really enjoy, but I don’t think about it as a rivalry, one person as opposed to another,” Cantlay said.
Of course, Cantlay would dismiss the notion of a rivalry, but that’s why it has the potential to be so compelling.
Cantlay, the 29-year-old SoCal kid whose swing is classically long and languid like a modern version of Fred Couples. And Rahm, the 26-year-old phenom from Spain with a backswing as short as his climb to the top of the golf world.
For all the physical differences in their swings it’s the similarities that make what’s to come – both Sunday and beyond to the Ryder Cup in three weeks – appointment viewing.
“I think we’re both very consistent, and I think we both hit it where we’re looking a lot, and that’s why we play well,” Cantlay said simply.
Rahm was equally reserved in his assessment of Cantlay’s game, “He’s a very well-rounded player overall. There’s not really anything that you can say is a weakness,” he said.
Brooks-Bryson is a gift that just keeps giving for headline writers and social media influencers, but Rahm-Cantlay – maybe Patty Ice-Rahmbo is more appealing – is the game’s best legitimate rivalry. Their seasons have been intertwined ever since the surreal outcome at Muirfield Village and on Sunday at East Lake, it seems perfectly apropos that this strange season will be decided by a true rivalry.