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U.S. Open underscores disparate trajectories of Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm

PINEHURST, N.C. – As he forces us to rethink what’s possible in this supposed era of parity, Scottie Scheffler stands alone here at the 124th U.S. Open. Whether he reigns again at Pinehurst is almost irrelevant to the overall conversation; there’s no disputing, with five wins in his last eight starts and a Tiger-esque stat line, that he’s the best player on the planet. And it’s not particularly close.

But please, if you can, try not to mention that to him.

As proficient as Scheffler has been with a 7-iron in his hand, he’s proven to be just as effective at deflecting behind a microphone.

“I still don’t feel like there’s much of a target on my back,” he said Tuesday. “When we start tournament week, we’re all at even par, and it’s not like anybody is out there playing defense.”

Scheffler said, in his brilliant mind, he’s battling himself and the course more than anyone or anything else.

“A target on my back, I don’t really feel it,” he said, “and I don’t really think about it much, no.”

What Scheffler didn’t know, of course, was that over the previous seven hours, his fellow playing competitors had sat on that very podium and thought about it plenty, analyzing the gulf that now exists between him and everyone else.

Bryson DeChambeau described Scheffler as the “gold standard.”

Viktor Hovland noted that Scheffler, with no gaping holes in his game, is “very reliable” and that makes even his average weeks exceptional.

Rory McIlroy marveled at how “relentless” Scheffler has been – that even through his various adversities this year (putting woes, greater levels of fame, fatherhood, a public arrest) he has remained a consistently dominant force.

“The only thing that took him from winning a golf tournament was going into a jail cell for an hour,” McIlroy said, laughing. “Undoubtedly the best player in the world at the minute, by a long way. It’s up to us to try to get to his level.”

Most interesting, though, was the perspective of Jon Rahm, and what he did (and didn’t) say.

At this tournament a year ago, they were viewed as equals, and perhaps even budding rivals. Combining for six wins in the first five months of the season, Scheffler and Rahm were Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the Official World Golf Ranking, separated by just one point. Still in their late-20s, they were frequent combatants in the biggest events, including singles opponents in the Ryder Cup, while remaining deeply respectful of the other’s immense talents.

But for now, at least, they appear headed in different directions.

Scheffler is on such a tear that he’s nearly doubled up the new second-ranked player, Xander Schauffele, in the world ranking. He’s just the second player since 1950 to post five victories, including a major, before the U.S. Open.

A reporter asked Scheffler, straight-up, what it was like to be “by far” the best golfer in the world.

He chuckled.

“I try not to think about the past. I try not to think about the future. I try to live in the present,” Scheffler said. “That’s how I’ve always been. … I try to live one moment at a time and soak it all up, because you never know how long it’s going to last.”

Rahm has to be wondering the same thing.

It isn’t just that he’s winless over the past 14 months. It isn’t just that he’s fractured some of his relationships after bolting for LIV Golf in a deal that will pay him a reported $300 million. But in recent press conferences, Rahm has also seemed to bristle at the perception that he’s fallen off, or that he’s become somewhat of an afterthought amid the Scottie tsunami.

Some of the season-long metrics at least partially support his argument – he’s still top 10 in Data Golf’s rankings and strokes-gained total across both tours – but his tone has come across as dismissive, terse and defensive.

When asked about his chances this week at Pinehurst, Rahm said, “Anytime I tee it up, I feel like I have a good chance.”

That came on the heels of another question about whether he felt any added pressure, knowing how inevitably excellent Scheffler has been.

“No,” Rahm shot back.

Later, he said, “It’s not like I’ve been playing bad, even though a lot of you make it sound like I’m playing bad.”

Rahm had been battling a left-foot cut and infection before withdrawing late Tuesday afternoon.

Rahm just so happened to have played his worst in the two biggest events of the year so far. He was a non-factor in his title defense at the Masters, tying for 45th, and then he missed the cut last month at the PGA Championship. His substandard major season got even worse Tuesday, when he withdrew because of a painful infection in his left foot.

“To say I’m disappointed is a massive understatement,” he said.

The U.S. Open has been the major in which Rahm, the 2021 champion, has consistently fared the best. But it was also a missed opportunity for a player who, in this current divide, has just four chances each year to remind the wider golf world of his well-earned stature. If he’s not in the mix next month at Royal Troon, he must know the scrutiny will only intensify – about his controversial choice, about his weekly preparation, about LIV’s competitive atmosphere.

Before his withdrawal, Rahm was asked three questions specifically about Scheffler, two about his readiness to compete and another about his level of career happiness – a collection of queries that, when packaged in a single 15-minute session, must gnaw at a fiercely competitive player in his prime. Left unsaid was that, last year, he was the fascination of the golf community – a player who had won five times in a nine-event span. The dominant world No. 1 others were asked about incessantly. The gold standard.

“It’s quite incredible to see what he’s been able to accomplish,” Rahm said. “As a competitor, it’s added motivation to see somebody do so well because that’s what we all strive for.”

That part will have to wait. For now, he’s headed back home, winless and with a throbbing foot, with one last chance in 2024 to do something about golf’s new world order.