CAN THIS 22-YEAR-0LD WIN THE US OPEN?

JON RAHM HAS A BIG GAME AND OLD WORLD TAL­ENT

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Life - by jaime diaz

102 or so kilo­grams don’t ex­actly ta­per along his 6-2 frame. In­stead, they set­tle with an even thick­ness, leav­ing him with the nat­u­ral bal­last that has his­tor­i­cally con­trib­uted to stick-and-ball ge­nius. Not that there’s any­thing plod­ding about Rahm.Watch­ing the Spa­niard swing a driver is to be re­minded that large land mam­mals of­ten move with star­tling speed. ▶ Fa­cially, Rahm (pro­nounced Rom) evokes a young Stal­lone, the strong bone struc­ture soft­ened by droopy lower eye­lids, more rea­son the nick­name Rahmbo will stick. Golf­in­gly, the best com­par­isons might be the chunky, ex­plo­sive, per­sim­mon-driver-crack­ing Jack Nick­laus, circa 1962. Or a prime­time Roberto De Vi­cenzo, the brawny Ar­gen­tine known for his won­drous ac­tion and pure strik­ing. ▶ Th­ese days in pro­fes­sional golf, power play­ers aren’t un­usual. Many young­sters have been pro­jected for suc­cess, but awe­some ball speeds and ma­jes­tic ball flights alone do not low scores make. Many who hit it can’t re­ally chip it and putt it. Dustin John­son suf­fered from the syn­drome un­til do­ing the hard work to es­cape it made him No 1 in the world.

‘I CALLED THE SHORT GAME “THE HOS­PI­TAL.” WHEN MY LONG GAME WAS SICK, THAT’S WHERE I TOOK IT TO MAKE THINGS BET­TER.’

In con­trast, Rahm’s com­plete­ness is his dif­fer­en­tia­tor. It’s ar­guable that he has more game through the bag at 22 than all but one of the best young play­ers to emerge since the 1990s.Among Phil Mick­el­son, Ernie Els,Tiger Woods, Ser­gio Gar­cia, Ja­son Day, Rory McIl­roy and Jor­dan Spi­eth, only Woods at 22 was as well-rounded as Rahm.

A litany of num­bers tell much of the story. Rahm be­gan his pro­fes­sional ca­reer last June and se­cured his card with fin­ishes of T-3 and T-2 in his first four events. In his first vic­tory, at Tor­rey Pines in Jan­uary, he closed the show with a drive and 5-wood to the back of the green and a mag­i­cal 60-foot ea­gle putt. Rahm fol­lowed with fin­ishes of T-16,T-5 and T-3 be­fore the WGC-Match Play. On the fi­nal day in Austin, Rahm hit a 426-yard drive in his semi­fi­nal win over Bill Haas and a 438-yard drive in a 1-down loss to John­son in the fi­nal.

Rahm’s av­er­age launch-mon­i­tor num­bers are eerily close to op­ti­mum – 286 kilo­me­tre-per-hour ball speed, 190-kph club­head speed, 12-de­gree launch an­gle, 2 200 rev­o­lu­tions per minute.“He can al­ready com­mand any shot – low, medium, high, right to left, straight, left to right – bet­ter than just about any player in the game,” says Keith Sbar­baro of Tay­lorMade. “And as his body keeps get­ting fit­ter, his ball speed (which has pro­duced a driv­ing dis­tance av­er­age of 302.7 yards, 21st on PGA Tour) will get faster.”

Be­fore his first Masters, Rahm was fourth on tour in over­all strokes gained, sec­ond in strokes gained/tee to green, and third in strokes gained/driv­ing. He also had risen to 12th on the World Golf Rank­ing in only 17 ap­pear­ances as a pro, hav­ing earned more points this sea­son than any player but John­son.And when the Euro­pean Tour be­gins tab­u­lat­ing qual­i­fy­ing points for the 2018 Ry­der Cup matches out­side Paris, the likely num­bers will hold the prom­ise of a trans­for­ma­tional ad­di­tion to the team.

“Jon doesn’t have weak­nesses,” Mick­el­son said in Jan­uary.“Ev­ery part of his game is a strength. I think he’s more than just a good young player – I think he’s one of the top play­ers in the world.”The com­ment seemed like an ex­am­ple of Lefty over­state­ment with a nepo­tism booster, given that Rahm’s coach at Ari­zona State, and now his agent, is Phil’s younger brother,Tim. But af­ter Rahm’s spring run, Phil gloated,“He con­tin­ues to val­i­date.”

“I don’t think a sin­gle player out here would ar­gue he’s not one of the top-five, top-10 play­ers in the world,” Haas said of Rahm be­fore their match in Austin.“He’s hun­gry. He wants more. He wants a ma­jor. You can just see it in him. He’s got that thing about him that’s go­ing to make him a big-time win­ner out here.”

Johnny Miller senses an even brighter fu­ture, say­ing that Rahm has fu­ture No 1 “writ­ten all over his fore­head.”

It’s al­ready a cer­tainty that Rahm, who fin­ished T-23 as low ama­teur in the US Open last year at Oak­mont, will be among the favourites at Erin Hills.

“I think my game is pretty suited to the US Open,” says Rahm, his Span­ish ac­cent dis­cernible but mit­i­gated by his im­pres­sive English vo­cab­u­lary af­ter five years of liv­ing in the United States.“It’s a re­ally big deal to be pre­cise off the tee, which I am. I’ve got a good short game and good feel with the put­ter, too. It’s one I could win.”

Rahm’s con­fi­dence is mat­ter-of-fact. He ad­mires John­son, with whom he shares power and a sim­i­lar bowed left-wrist po­si­tion at the top of the swing.“I’m be­gin­ning to think it’s an advantage,” Sbar­baro says.“Both those guys have the least club ro­ta­tion through im­pact of any­body we’ve seen.”Af­ter los­ing to DJ at the WGC-Mex­ico Cham­pi­onship, where Rahm led with three holes to go, he good-na­turedly tweeted, I look for­ward to a Sun­day re­match soon. He also said that his goal is to win 19 ma­jor cham­pi­onships, though he has tried to quell that talk­ing point, now go­ing with the stan­dard,“I just want to be the best golfer I can be.”

free spirit adapts

From where I’m from, we’re usu­ally strong, con­fi­dent peo­ple,” says Rahm, who grew up in the coastal Basque town of Bar­rika (pop 1 500).“It can get to a lit­tle bit of ar­ro­gance, which I don’t think is one of my traits.”

In­tel­li­gence is. He came to Ari­zona State Univer­sity in 2012 with al­most no English skills, hav­ing been re­cruited sight un­seen by Tim Mick­el­son, re­ly­ing on an ex­change of emails.“I’m kind of a free spirit, but it was hard,” Rahm says of his first few weeks in Tempe.“I couldn’t smile that much, just be­cause I didn’t know what was go­ing on.There were prob­a­bly a lot of jokes I missed the first month of school.”

Mick­el­son ad­mits that one month into that first se­mes­ter, he didn’t think Rahm would make it past Christ­mas. But with the help of a Span­ish-speak­ing team­mate, Al­berto Sanchez, and an im­pro­vised crash course of mem­o­ris­ing ver­bally ac­ro­batic rap songs, in par­tic­u­lar Eminem’s “Love the WayYou Lie” and Ken­drick Lamar’s “Swim­ming Pools,” Rahm re­cov­ered to pull a 3.6 grade-point av­er­age in his first se­mes­ter, grad­u­at­ing with a B av­er­age in com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Along the way, he won 11 col­lege events, ty­ing Phil Mick­el­son’s school record, be­came the No 1-ranked ama­teur in the world, fin­ished fifth in the 2015 Phoenix Open and be­came the first tow­in­col­lege­golf’sBenHo­ganAward back-to-back.

“The best word for Jon is gen­uine,” says Tim Mick­el­son.“There were a lot of ru­mours that he would be go­ing pro early, but when he told me that he was com­mit­ted to grad­u­at­ing, I never doubted him. I could tell what kind of kid he was by his par­ents, who never asked about golf. Their fo­cus was on Jon as a stu­dent and a per­son.”

It’s quite a pack­age, but the X fac­tor in Rahm’s suc­cess as a player might be his affin­ity for the short game. For all his size and strength, he is at heart a touch and feel player, match­ing the “Span­ish hands” stereo­type es­tab­lished by his home coun­try’s best golfers, Seve Balles­teros and Jose Maria Olaz­a­bal.Though Rahm reveres the late Balles­teros, it is for tales of his charisma and pres­ence more than his game, which he was too young to ap­pre­ci­ate.And though Rahm has great re­spect for Olaz­a­bal, a fel­low Basque, the two have not had a lot of con­tact. Rahm’s gift is a prod­uct of sev­eral other fac­tors.

Rahm’s par­ents took up golf af­ter at­tend­ing the 1997 Ry­der Cup atValder­rama, where Balles­teros was the vic­to­ri­ous cap­tain. Edorta Rahm, a sales­man in the petroleum in­dus­try, is a devo­tee of ex­treme sports, in­clud­ing rock and moun­tain climb­ing, para­sail­ing, sky div­ing and free ski­ing. He has climbed Mont Blanc, the high­est moun­tain in Europe, sev­eral times. “Ba­si­cally any­thing but golf,” Jon says. “The kind of sports where a mis­take has se­ri­ous con­se­quences. He’s re­ally dis­ci­plined and a great com­peti­tor.”

Rahm’s mother, An­gela, is a mid­wife, a gen­tle soul who prac­tices tai chi.“She’s the sen­si­tive part of the fam­ily,” Rahm says.“Al­ways more in­ter­ested in how I was feel­ing rather than how I was do­ing.

She has al­ways said that her goal for me is to be happy. She al­ways taught me to care more about peo­ple, and just be nice in gen­eral. I think my per­son­al­ity is the best of both.”

Adds Rahm’s dad:“When he plays cards with his grand­mother, he wants to win.”

Rahm was 8 when he be­gan go­ing to a lo­cal golf club with his par­ents and older brother, Eriz. Mean­while, Jon was get­ting handsy with other sports. He was a goalie in soccer and ex­celled at pelota, a Basque ver­sion of jai alai played with a skinny, flat-sided wood bat that de­mands ex­cep­tional eye-hand co­or­di­na­tion.

Af­ter show­ing im­me­di­ate ap­ti­tude in golf, Jon was en­rolled in group ju­nior lessons.The dozen or so boys – Jon was the youngest – be­gan spend­ing most of their time around the chip­ping green, which be­came Rahm’s refuge.

“All I did was make up shots around the green, try­ing hard ones with dif­fer­ent clubs,” he says.“It was the op­po­site of putting down 50 balls and chip­ping the same shot over and over.That’s not fun.”

now that was pres­sure

One group game might have been in­spired by Lord of the Flies. “We would go from one shot to an­other un­til some­one got clos­est to the hole six times,” Rahm says.“But if you were at zero when that hap­pened, there were pun­ish­ments, like go­ing around the putting green twice on your knees, which is not easy. But the worst one was the guys with zero had to drop their pants, un­der­wear and all, to their an­kles, and couldn’t pull them up un­til they won a hole.You did not want to be at zero when some­one at five would chip it close.That was not just pres­sure, that was ab­so­lute fear.Trust me, that was a lot worse than hav­ing a putt to win a tour­na­ment.

“I never had to drop my pants, but I came close,” Rahm says.“One thing I learned from watch­ing was the amaz­ing things a per­son can do un­der pres­sure. Be­cause a lot of times, more of­ten than you think, the kid with zero would some­how pull it off.And the other good thing was, it de­vel­oped the killer in­stinct. Be­cause if you won the first few holes, you were like, Okay, if I win the next four, every­body has to pull their pants down. That hap­pened a cou­ple of times.”

His short game had to be sharp to score.Al­though Rahm has evolved into a con­trolled shot­maker, that was not the case grow­ing up.

“I hit the ball all over the place,” he says. “As a ju­nior, prob­a­bly my short game was bet­ter than it is now, be­cause I had to use it a lot more. If I played good, I’d hit nine greens a round and shoot five un­der. Just be­cause on par 5s I would be close to the green and get up and down ev­ery time. I called the short game ‘the hos­pi­tal.’When my long game was sick, that’s where I took it to make things bet­ter. I spent a lot of time in the hos­pi­tal.”

Broc John­son, a for­mer team­mate at Ari­zona State who calls Rahm “a big teddy bear,” has seen Rahm’s skills.“Just mess­ing around,” John­son says,“he could hit bet­ter flop shots with a 4-iron than the rest of us could with 60-de­gree wedges.”

Rahm im­proved his ball-strik­ing when he be­gan work­ing with a Basque teach­ing pro, Ed­uardo Celles, on a scruffy range with mats.“When I went to Ed­uardo at 13,” Rahm says,“I was big­ger than any­body else my age, and my ob­ses­sion was just to hit hard draws with a real strong grip, just try to hit it miles. He said,‘What are you do­ing? What’s the point? You have an amaz­ing short game, and that’s why you score well. But why not put it on the fair­way and the green and make more birdies than you do now?’ He weak­ened my grip and made my swing shorter. He told me I wouldn’t lose any dis­tance. I thought he was crazy, but I didn’t. By the time I was 15, I was much bet­ter with ev­ery­thing and kept im­prov­ing. It was a no-brainer.”

Adds Celles:“When he was 14, he started to make big progress. One day we were prac­tis­ing and he turned to me with a very se­ri­ous look and calmly said,‘Ed­uardo, I’m go­ing to be the cham­pion of the world.’ There was such self-be­lief in his voice, that it got my at­ten­tion. He was just a kid, but I thought, Re­mem­ber this mo­ment. Be­cause he just made me think that he can do what he said.”

Celles has re­mained Rahm’s only swing coach, but Jon tries not to over-rely on him.“Ed­uardo also did a great job of teach­ing me how my swing me­chan­ics worked, and how to cor­rect my­self,” Rahm says.“Most times I know the fix, but if I don’t, I text him, and he usu­ally nails it. It hap­pens four or five times a year, and then we work when I visit home in De­cem­ber. But I try to do it my­self.”

It’s in­ac­cu­rate to say that Rahm is with­out weak­ness.The most ap­par­ent, and one he ad­mits to, is young man’s tem­per. At ASU, he broke a bag stand in anger in his first match, caus­ing Tim Mick­el­son to sen­tence him to run­ning steps in the foot­ball sta­dium. Rahm has made strides in keep­ing his com­po­sure, but in the fi­nal against John­son at Austin, he be­came flus­tered af­ter miss­ing a short putt on the front nine, lead­ing to the loss of five of six holes.“I wish I would have been able to han­dle my­self a lit­tle bet­ter,” Rahm said a few days later.“Ob­vi­ously, I’m an emo­tional player, and that can present chal­lenges. But, hey, that’s golf, that’s life and some­thing I need to learn from and make sure I don’t do it again.”

It’s likely to be an on­go­ing process. Rahm be­gan work­ing on this area in earnest be­fore his ju­nior year at ASU, when he en­listed the help of a men­tal coach, Joseba del Car­men, from his home­town. A for­mer pro bas­ket­ball player and re­tired po­lice of­fi­cer, del Car­men spent part of his law-en­force­ment ca­reer spe­cialised in de­ac­ti­vat­ing ter­ror­ist bombs.“So if any­body knows the mind, he does,” Rahm says. “Joseba works with my true emo­tions and how that af­fects my game and my per­sonal life. Re­ally, the main thing we worked on is just life in gen­eral. I had al­ways put golf as the No 1 thing in my life. But he’s helped me learn that the hap­pier I am out­side the golf course, the bet­ter I play golf.That’s why when I’m off the course, I try to be golf-free in my mind.And it’s been a great thing.”

“I just hope that we all don’t push too many ex­pec­ta­tions on him, so that he loses the joy,” says Euro­pean Ry­der Cup cap­tain Thomas Bjorn.“Be­cause that joy is help­ing him do the things he’s do­ing now.”

Rahm, who lives in Scotts­dale, has a girl­friend, Kel­ley Cahill, a for­mer javelin thrower for ASU whom he met as a fresh­man. Be­sides be­ing an In­sta­gram star, she’s an ex­cep­tional cook who cleaned up the food-lov­ing Rahm’s diet and en­cour­aged his work in the gym, help­ing to get him down from 116kg to 102kg.

“Be­cause of Kel­ley, I feel bet­ter, and I con­sis­tently play golf bet­ter,” Rahm says.“I’ll never for­get when I brought her to Spain for a week. It was her first time in the coun­try, and I was go­ing to de­vote all my time to her. But the first day she wakes up and says, ‘Aren’t you go­ing to prac­tice to­day?’And I said,‘No, not while you’re here.’And she says,‘No, you need to prac­tice.’ She al­ways sup­ports my ca­reer.And, no mat­ter what, be­lieves in me.”

Go­ing into Erin Hills, more and more peo­ple are feel­ing that way about Jon Rahm.

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