Spain's Ron Rahm produced one of the greatest final round performances in the history of the Irish Open to take another giant step towards the pantheon of golfing greats.
With a blustery Portstewart shrouded in a misty Irish rain that was reminiscent of a grey winter’s afternoon in his hometown of Barrika on the stormy Bay of Biscay, the beefy 22-year old Basque overcame a rules scare to win by six shots after an imperious seven-under par final round of 65.
It would be churlish to dwell too long on his getting the benefit of the doubt from Chief Referee Andy McFee when he appeared to replace his ball in the wrong spot on the sixth green after moving his ball marker the width of a putter head to avoid marking in playing partner Daniel Im’s line.
While he moved his marker back, he was out my millimetres in replacing his ball and McFee, having reviewed the video and heard Rahm’s explanation, was satisfied that no penalty was warranted following a change in the interpretation of the rule this year.
"I don't think the ball was put down in exactly the right place, but I think it falls within 'the player has made a reasonable judgment to put it back,' McFee said. "So that's why there's no penalty."
In joining compatriots Seve Ballesteros, José María Olazabal and Sergio García on the list of Irish Open immortals, Rahm’s final round performance was so dominant that it appears to be only a matter of time before he also joins them in the major winner’s club.
With The Open at Royal Birkdale next week, there was no better time to show form on a links course.
He later confessed that it was his mental strength — tested to the limit when McFee appeared on the 13th tee to discuss the incident at the sixth — that gave him the greatest satisfaction having struggled to keep his emotions in check during last month's US Open.
Tied for the lead with Im on 17-under par overnight, his round will forever be remembered, not for the rules controversy , but for the way he raced away to win by six strokes from Scot Richie Ramsay (65) and England’s Matthew Southgate (66) on 24-under par 264, setting the lowest total in the event’s long history in winning in just his eight official European Tour start.
Scotland's David Drysdale set the clubhouse target at 17-under par when he shot a course record 63, eventually clinching one of three exemptions into The Open by finishing tied fourth with Ramsay, New Zealand's Ryan Fox (68), Im (72) and the already exempt Justin Rose (68) on 17-under.
But as Im fell behind with bogeys at the second and third, Rahm grabbed the tournament by the throat with a stroke of genius at the par-five fourth, holing out with a seven-iron from 150 yards for eagle three to go two shots ahead having been forced to hack out of the rough.
He then extended his lead to five by going to the turn in five-under 31 thanks to birdies at the seventh, eighth and ninth before stretching his advantage with another birdie at the 10th.
"I was so proud of how I stayed in the moment step by step, from the first shot pretty much towards till end," Rahm said after claiming just over €1 million to return to the world's top ten and move to third in the Race to Dubai behind Tommy Fleetwood and Garcia.
“I was in the moment so much. I didn’t think about scores at all. I mean, when I made the putt on 10 and I got to 12 tee, I looked at the scoreboard and I'm like, oh, man, I'm 6-under for the round, I didn't even realise. I mean, I had no idea how far ahead I was."
Not even McFee's intervention as he walked off the 13th tee could break his will to win.
Showing immense mental strength, he responded to the distraction by rolling in a long-range putt from around 40 feet for eagle at the 14th to get to 25-under par, building up an advantage so great that he could afford to finish bogey-birdie-bogey and still win in a canter.
He surprised even himself with his performance, apologised for throwing his clubs twice down the stretch, and vowed to return to Ballyliffin next year to defend the title.
"I will be," he said. "I know it's a little north, right? A little bit farther north, just a little more rain... I'm sure the next golf course is going to be just as special as this one, so I would not miss that for the world."
Following in the footsteps, not just of the Spanish champions, but some of the European greats, gave him huge pleasure.
"I know the trophy is right next to me and my name is going to be there forever now, but it seems hard to believe that it's happened," Rahm said after being cheered home by the Irish fans as they might have cheered home the great Seve.
"It's kind of somewhat surreal. It's hard to explain. I just look at it and I see Nick Faldo, I see Jose Maria Olazabal, I see Nick Faldo again, I see Colin Montgomerie, Ian Woosnam, Seve.
"That's a great list of the greatest European Tour players ever, and to have my name next to it, and the last one, Rory McIlroy, it's so special."
It was a good final day for many of the Irish with Gavin Moynihan's closing 64 the highlight, not just for the Donabate man but for the rest of his Irish colleagues.
“I played a practice round with him on Tuesday, and I still owe him a hundred quid actually," said Shane Lowry, who tied for 20th on 12-under after a 66. "So I have to give it to him now and make it a really good week!
“He played unbelievable on Tuesday actually. Myself, Gavin and Paul Dunne played, and he cleaned us out.”
Lowry was unsurprised to see Paul Dunne approach Moynihan and give him the thumbs up as he conducted a TV interview even though he was disgusted with his own play as a closed with a scrappy 71 to share 54th on seven under.
“Ah yeah,” Lowry said of the camaraderie, adding that he’d like to see more Irishmen on tour. "Once the harp is on that passport, we are pulling for each other and we will look after them when they come out here."
Michael Hoey fired a 67 to share 30th on 11 under, earning €49,909 as Pádraig Harrington slipped to 42nd on nine-under after a 71.
The Dubliner was still mightily impressed by Moynihan’s 64 and happy with his own game as he heads to Scotland this week to put the finishing touches to his preparations for The Open.
Dunne finished 54th on seven under after a 71 and immediately gave pal Moynihan the thumbs up, peering in cheekily behind the media scrum, joking that he was there to hear all about "Gav's masterclass."
But he was disgusted with his own performance, fuming: “I played terrible all week, to be honest.
“I barely deserved to make the cut. I hit about 30 percent of fairways this week which is disgraceful."
“It's really hard to explain right now. I know the trophy is right next to me and my name is going to be there for ever now, but it seems hard to believe that it's happened.
“It's somewhat surreal. It's hard to explain. I just look at it and I see Nick Faldo, I see José Maria Olazábal, I see Nick Faldo again, I see Colin Montgomerie, Ian Woosnam, Seve. That's a list of the greatest European Tour players ever, and to have my name next to it, and the last one - Rory McIlroy – it's so special.
“Not just to win this event but to win it at the place I just won it, Portstewart – a great golf course – and with the fans supporting me better than I've ever seen anybody support me. It's been unbelievable.
“I've never played my best golf. To actually play my best golf that I can remember till this day and shoot 24-under on this golf course and win it by six - that is not something I would have believed I was capable of. I learned a lot about myself and what I'm capable of, and it's a really, really special day.”
“I’m massively pleased. It was a tough last few weeks missing the cut in France but I hung around over the weekend and grinded and worked hard. I'm a big believer that if you work hard, success will come.
“This year, it's taken a little longer than it should do but I've managed to get there in the end. It was great to play and play to win. Jon was obviously playing some fantastic golf out there.
“So I needed to keep the foot down and make some birdies. I’m a little bit disappointed with the last hole but I played to the wind and that's a great focus out there and great belief in myself that I can actually go out there and chase down such a big tournament like the Irish Open.
“I knew there were spots for The Open but it had totally gone from my mind. I was that focused on what I was doing, which is great to have, but it's a massive bonus.”
“I'm absolutely thrilled to bits. That's some of the best golf I’ve ever played today. I really stuck to it out there and I just made it so easy. I wasn't sweating over any par putts, and I've done my job as well as I could today. I'm really completely over the moon.
“I've driven the ball really well. And I've done some work with Titleist at the start of the year to just tweak my driver and we went a little bit longer in the shaft, which they were a bit sceptical about doing, but something I had done as an amateur.
“And the first ball I hit in Dubai with the new driver, I thought, wow, that's how I used to hit it. It's taken me a few months to get it bedded in but I feel confident with that at the minute.
“This afternoon, I've driven it as good as anyone can drive it. Just every single drive's come out completely neutral. There are not really many golf courses in the world that are that difficult, if you slap-bang it in the fairway, and I'm not a short hitter. So we've taken the course apart, really, with driver this week.”
Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free
“Congratulations to Jon Rahm on a spectacular win. The golf course here at Portstewart provided an absolutely stunning backdrop and plenty of challenges to the competitors, which really added to the sense of occasion around the week.
"This has become such an important event due to the fact that it is one of just eight tournaments on the Rolex Series, meaning that it has a substantial prize fund of over US$7 million this year. The tournament has developed and grown since the Rory Foundation became involved and we took over the title sponsorship three years ago and it is now one of the European Tour’s most important events.”
264 J Rahm (Esp) 65 67 67 65,
270 M Southgate (Eng) 65 68 71 66, R Ramsay (Sco) 68 70 67 65,
271 D Drysdale (Sco) 66 69 73 63, R Fox (Nzl) 67 66 70 68, D Im (USA) 64 67 68 72, J Rose (Eng) 67 70 66 68,
272 J Quesne (Fra) 70 68 64 70, B Hebert (Fra) 64 67 69 72,
273 H Tanihara (Jpn) 70 65 66 72, T Fleetwood (Eng) 70 67 68 68, O Fisher (Eng) 65 68 70 70,
274 B Dredge (Wal) 68 69 67 70,
275 P Hanson (Swe) 68 71 66 70, H Matsuyama (Jpn) 67 68 72 68, P Uihlein (USA) 69 67 69 70, G Moynihan (Irl) 67 71 73 64, S Jamieson (Sco) 70 69 66 70, W Ormsby (Aus) 67 70 70 68,
276 A Sullivan (Eng) 72 68 68 68, S Walker (Eng) 69 71 67 69, S Lowry (Irl) 68 71 71 66, A Chesters (Eng) 70 67 70 69, J Smith (Eng) 69 69 69 69, D Stewart (Sco) 67 72 72 65, S Hend (Aus) 71 68 64 73, A Wall (Eng) 67 68 71 70, A Otaegui (Esp) 68 69 68 71, A Dodt (Aus) 71 66 69 70,
277 R Karlsson (Swe) 69 69 70 69, M Hoey (Nir) 68 72 70 67, L Slattery (Eng) 69 68 70 70, G Bourdy (Fra) 70 68 70 69, C Shinkwin (Eng) 68 70 68 71, F Zanotti (Par) 67 69 72 69,
278 C Hanson (Eng) 70 70 72 66, M Armitage (Eng) 71 69 69 69, H Li (Chn) 68 70 70 70, H Porteous (RSA) 71 66 72 69, M Fraser (Aus) 71 67 69 71, S Gallacher (Sco) 67 69 72 70,
279 M Jiménez (Esp) 69 70 73 67, E De La Riva (Esp) 70 70 72 67, M Pavon (Fra) 71 69 69 70, A Romero (Arg) 68 71 70 70, I Poulter (Eng) 68 70 73 68, P Harrington (Irl) 68 69 71 71,
280 F Aguilar (Chi) 67 71 70 72, D Horsey (Eng) 67 69 78 66, P Peterson (USA) 67 67 71 75, M Manassero (Ita) 72 66 73 69, T Detry (Bel) 70 68 70 72, T Olesen (Den) 71 69 73 67,
281 J Luiten (Ned) 71 69 69 72, P Dunne (Irl) 67 69 74 71, R Karlberg (Swe) 68 70 72 71, M Fitzpatrick (Eng) 66 72 72 71,
282 S Lee (Kor) 68 71 73 70, D Burmester (RSA) 70 67 74 71, N Kimsey (Eng) 72 68 70 72, R Langasque (Fra) 69 71 72 70,
283 S Kjeldsen (Den) 68 68 72 75, S Brazel (Aus) 70 70 71 72,
285 S Dyson (Eng) 68 72 75 70,
** J Donaldson (Wal) 66 70 WD 0,