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Rahm riding high as he takes on Augusta for first time
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    AUGUSTA, Ga. — Rap music might be the last thing you'd associate with Augusta National. Jon Rahm is proving there's a first time for everything.
    The 22-year-old Spaniard oozes talent, which explains why he hit town as the most heralded Masters rookie since Rory McIlroy in 2009, and perhaps even Tiger Woods in 1997. Almost as impressive is how well Rahm handles interviews in English after only five years on this side of the Atlantic. He credits long hours listening to rappers Eminem and Kendrick Lamar.
    "It was more, not necessarily to learn new words, but to be able to pronounce certain words and be able to talk faster, talk without pausing," Rahm said Monday. "Otherwise, right now I would probably still be in the first part of the interview trying to explain how I felt. ... It really helped me to keep up with some conversations."
    Those language skills will come in handy this week, since Rahm is the subject of one of the more intriguing questions heading into the Masters. Namely, can golf's latest "next Nicklaus" pull together enough of the puzzle pieces to solve Augusta National in his first go-round?
    More than a few of his elders, frankly, wouldn't be the least bit surprised.
    Phil Mickelson, whose brother, Tim, coached Rahm during his college career at Arizona State, labeled the youngster a likely top-10 player even before he turned pro last summer. Turns out Lefty, a two-time Masters champion himself, wasn't far off.
    Despite playing just 17 times on the PGA Tour since, Rahm already posted a win, two second-place finishes and nine top 10s, and has climbed to No. 12 in the world. Two weekends ago, he took top-ranked Dustin Johnson to the final hole of match play before losing 1-up at the World Golf Championships.
    The loss stung, especially his uncharacteristically shaky start on the front nine of the final day. But he learned a lesson that could prove invaluable if Rahm finds himself contending in a pressure cooker like the Masters.
    "I couldn't control my body, honestly. I don't know, it was like my body was independent from my mind. I was trying to focus and do my routine, but things just weren't happening," he recalled.
    Rahm made a charge on the back nine, "and if I had been a little luckier on 17 and 18, maybe I would have had a chance to score in the match or go into a playoff.
    "But the damage was already done," he added a moment later. "I tried my hardest. But I learned that, you know, if I'm having a good day, I can face the No. 1 player in the world."
    He arrived at Arizona State with little hype and less English, but mastered the skill to move the golf ball both ways and left as the team's unquestioned leader and the No. 1-ranked amateur in the country.
    Asked whether he'd earned his place in the conversation about favorites this week, he broke into a broad smile and copped an attitude not unlike his favorite rappers.
    "If I didn't think I could win it, I wouldn't be here."

Last Masters for Ernie?

    Ernie Els has memories at every corner of Augusta National, typical of someone who is playing the Masters for the 23rd time.
    Nothing haunts him as much as the sight of the practice green.
    That's where he was in 2004, hopeful of a playoff after closing with a 67, tied for the lead as Phil Mickelson made his way up the last hole to face an 18-foot birdie putt. Els couldn't see the 18th green because of the crowd. All he could do was listen for the outcome.
    The putt swirled in the cup. Mickelson leapt. The cheer shook the ground.
    Els scooped up his golf balls and walked away.
    "That was a blow," Els said Monday in a quiet reflection. "I didn't play quite good after that."
    The moment stands out even more this week as the 47-year-old South African returns for what could be his last Masters. Past champions can play for life, and most everyone would have put Els on that list when the Big Easy showed up for the first time in 1994.
    He won the first of his two U.S. Opens that summer. Two British Open titles followed, the last one in 2012 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, which earned him a five-year exemption to the Masters.
    That exemption runs out this week.
    "You can put a line on it and say most probably it will be the last one," Els said. "We'll see, unless we do something down the road. But you know, it's been good. Whatever. If I come back again, great. If I don't, it's been good."
    Els is on a list of great players who never won a green jacket.
    Greg Norman seemed to have chances just about every year for a decade. He sent a shot into the gallery in 1986 for bogey that allowed Jack Nicklaus to win a sixth Masters. A year later, Larry Mize chipped in from 140 feet on the 11th hole to win a sudden-death playoff. Norman famously blew a six-shot lead to Nick Faldo in 1996, and Jose Maria Olazabal beat him in a back-nine duel in 1999.
    Tom Weiskopf was runner-up four times. David Duval had a chance to win four in a row starting in 1998, when Mark O'Meara beat him with a 20-foot birdie on the last hole. Duval last played the Masters seven years ago.