JON RAHM – THE PRODIGY

Rewind lit­tle more than a year and Spain’s Jon Rahm was just an­other top am­a­teur with huge po­ten­tial. Now he’s World No.2 with two PGA Tour ti­tles to his name, com­par­isons with Tiger Woods and a Ry­der Cup de­but on the hori­zon. Nick Wright vis­ited him in N

Golf Australia - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY CHRIS STAN­FORD

Rewind lit­tle more than a year and Spain’s Jon Rahm was just an­other top am­a­teur with huge po­ten­tial. Now he’s World No.2 with mul­ti­ple PGA Tour ti­tles to his name, writes Nick Wright.

JON RAHM HAS AL­WAYS BEEN DIF­FER­ENT.

He was di er­ent when he won the Span­ish Un­der-16 Cham­pi­onship by nine strokes when he was only 14 years old. He was di er­ent a year later when he won the Un­der-21 na­tional ti­tle by five shots. He was di er­ent when he ar­rived at Ari­zona State Univer­sity (ASU) on a fouryear golf schol­ar­ship barely able to speak more than a few words of English. And he was di er­ent again when he started notch­ing up col­le­giate ti­tles at a rate not seen since Phil Mick­el­son passed through the very same cam­pus in the late ’80s. Rahm would even­tu­ally claim 11 NCAA in­di­vid­ual ti­tles to Phil Mick­el­son’s 16.

They call me the best right-handed player in the his­tory of the col­lege,” Rahm says, laugh­ing, as we chat in the break­fast bar at Trump Na­tional Char­lotte, North Car­olina.

To­day Jon Rahm is not just a stel­lar right-handed col­le­giate golfer, he’s the sec­ondbest golfer of any ori­en­ta­tion on the planet. The only ad­jec­tive that comes any­where close to ad­e­quately de­scrib­ing his tran­si­tion from low am­a­teur in the 2016 US Open, ranked 551st in the world, to fin­ish­ing 7th in the 2017 Tour Cham­pi­onship is me­te­oric.

Turn­ing pro­fes­sional im­me­di­ately af­ter the US Open at Oak­mont in 2016, Rahm earned his PGA Tour card in just four starts and has vir­tu­ally camped out on leader­boards ever since. Af­ter win­ning the Farm­ers In­sur­ance Open at Tor­rey Pines in Jan­uary, sink­ing a curl­ing 60ft ea­gle putt on the 72nd hole to clinch the ti­tle, he em­barked on a blis­ter­ing stretch of golf that saw him fin­ish T5 at the AT&T Peb­ble Beach Pro-Am, T3 at the WGC-Mex­ico Cham­pi­onship and run­ner-up to Dustin John­son at the WGC-Dell Tech­nolo­gies Match­play. In the fi­nal against John­son, he re­cov­ered from go­ing five-down early to take the match all the way to the fi­nal hole. But for a por­ta­ble toi­let door slam­ming shut just as Rahm was about to chip from the back of the 18th green, he may very well have be­come the quick­est player since Tiger Woods to break into the World’s Top 10 af­ter turn­ing pro­fes­sional.

Ei­ther way, he’s ar­guably the most com­plete golfer to emerge onto the pro­fes­sional scene since Woods back in 1996.

“Jon doesn’t have weak­nesses,” Phil 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.”

At the time, the com­ment seemed like a typ­i­cal Lefty ex­ag­ger­a­tion but, as we have since dis­cov­ered, the five-time ma­jor win­ner is not averse to act­ing on a lit­tle in­side in­for­ma­tion. For four years, Phil was able to study Rahm at close quar­ters. His younger brother Tim was Rahm’s head coach at Ari­zona State be­fore be­com­ing his full-time agent and per­sonal manger.

A MA­JOR GAM­BLE

In 2012, Mick­el­son ju­nior re­cruited the young Spa­niard on to the ASU golf team sight un­seen, but iron­i­cally Rahm wasn’t his first choice. When an­other top-level Span­ish am­a­teur player de­cided at the last minute not to trans­fer across from an­other univer­sity, Mick­el­son was left with a place to fill on his ros­ter. The tim­ing was per­fect when he re­ceived a phone call from Ri­cardo Relinque, di­rec­tor of US col­lege place­ment for the Span­ish Golf Fed­er­a­tion, telling him that he had a ‘very spe­cial player’ who wanted to play in the United States. Mick­el­son Google-searched Rahm’s name, saw his play­ing record and im­me­di­ately called him, say­ing, “Love to have you. Come on over now.” Rahm emailed back the next day, “I’m in.”

Nev­er­the­less it was still a gam­ble. “Tim took the chance with­out meet­ing me. He didn’t know who I was and he didn’t know any­thing about me be­sides what he saw on pa­per, but he de­cided to take the chance,” Rahm says. “Luck­ily for me it was a great op­tion. Ari­zona State has a very rich golf pro­gram. Be­sides be­ing able to study and play golf with some of the best play­ers, com­ing from rainy, cold Bar­rika, Spain to lots of sun­shine, it seemed like a very easy choice.”

The de­ci­sion to come to ASU may have been easy but the process of ac­cli­ma­tis­ing to life in Amer­ica for the 19-year-old Spa­niard was any­thing but flu­ent. Mov­ing from a tiny fish­ing vil­lage of just 1,500 peo­ple to a sprawl­ing cam­pus with more than 50,000 stu­dents was a jar­ring cul­ture shock that was made even more trau­matic by the lan­guage bar­rier. “It was very hard for the first few months, for sure,” Rahm says. “I didn’t re­ally know what was go­ing on and I strug­gled. I missed out on a lot of what was hap­pen­ing for a while.”

The class­room wasn’t the only place where Rahm ini­tially floun­dered. For a while it ap­peared as though his golf game had failed to ac­com­pany him on the 5,500-mile jour­ney from north­ern Spain. When Rahm lost his tem­per and broke his golf bag stand in his very first tour­na­ment and had to run steps at the univer­sity’s sta­dium as pun­ish­ment, Mick­el­son was al­ready be­gin­ning to ques­tion his de­ci­sion to re­cruit Rahm with­out first meet­ing him. By the time the team ar­rived at Pump­kin Ridge GC in Port­land, Ore­gon, for the third tour­na­ment of the sea­son – the Pac-12 Pre­view – Mick­el­son had pretty much ac­cepted that his gam­ble had back­fired and was al­ready think­ing about how he would re­place Rahm on the team the fol­low­ing sea­son. Rahm’s open­ing round of 77 did lit­tle to con­vince Mick­el­son and the ASU coach­ing staœ they should change their minds, but his next two rounds did. Telling Mick­el­son not to worry and that he ‘felt good’, Rahm closed with rounds of 64 and 65 to fin­ish 2nd and save his schol­ar­ship. It was the turn­ing point of a sea­son that would quickly gather pace. En­list­ing the help of Span­ish­s­peak­ing team­mate, Al­berto Sanchez, Rahm dis­cov­ered a some­what un­con­ven­tional method of im­prov­ing his English – lis­ten­ing to rap songs. Eminem’s Love the Way You Lie and Ken­drick La­mar’s Swim­ming Pools were his par­tic­u­lar favourites. As his com­mand of the lan­guage grew cour­tesy of his hip-hop ver­sion of Rosetta Stone, Rahm also got his ed­u­ca­tion back on track. He would even­tu­ally grad­u­ate with a ‘B’ in Com­mu­ni­ca­tions. He would also go on to be­come the No. 1-ranked am­a­teur in the world on two sep­a­rate oc­ca­sions, fin­ish 5th in the 2015 Waste Man­age­ment Phoenix Open and be­came the first player to win col­lege golf’s Ben Ho­gan Award in con­sec­u­tive years.

CHAS­ING PHIL’S RECORDS

Buoyed by his suc­cess in Port­land, Rahm had turned his game around well enough by the end of his first sea­son to ar­rive at the Cap­i­tal City Club in At­lanta, Ge­or­gia, for the NCAA Na­tional Cham­pi­onship with two tour­na­ment

RAHM DIS­COV­ERED AN UN­CON­VEN­TIONAL METHOD OF IM­PROV­ING HIS ENGLISH – LIS­TEN­ING TO RAP SONGS

vic­to­ries al­ready un­der his belt. If he could claim the na­tional ti­tle, he would sur­pass Phil Mick­el­son’s golden fresh­man year of 1989 by virtue of a lower sea­son scor­ing av­er­age. Af­ter shoot­ing a 9-un­der-par 61 in the open­ing round, it looked as though Rahm would cruise to the ti­tle and into the record books, but he closed with rounds of 72, 71 and fin­ished three shots be­hind even­tual win­ner Daniel Berger.

“That was when the com­par­isons with Phil re­ally started and I first be­came aware of them. Had I won the na­tion­als, I would have had the bet­ter fresh­man year,” Rahm says.

Phil was a very tough act to fol­low. “He won 16 tour­na­ments and he won the Na­tional Cham­pi­onship three out of the four years. And the one year he didn’t win, he came sec­ond,” Rahm says. “I do have the record for the low­est scor­ing av­er­age ever for a fresh­man, which is nice, but it’s only re­ally be­cause tech­nol­ogy has changed and the com­pe­ti­tion has got bet­ter and bet­ter. If I’m hon­est, the only thing I think I re­ally did bet­ter than Phil was win­ning our home ASU event three out of the four years I was there.”

It was dur­ing his first year at ASU that Rahm first met Phil Mick­el­son face-to-face. The three-time Masters cham­pion had just flown home from the WGC-Cadil­lac Cham­pi­onship in Florida and had come out to San Diego Coun­try Club to watch his for­mer col­lege team dur­ing the fi­nal round of the 2013 Lamkin Grips San Diego Clas­sic, an in­ter­col­le­giate event com­pris­ing 14 univer­si­ties. Rahm was lead­ing the tour­na­ment when he came to the par-5 8th hole. Af­ter pulling his ap­proach left of the green, he found him­self short-sided be­hind a large mound. As Rahm pre­pared to hit his pitch, he turned and saw a man wear­ing flip-flops, sun­glasses and an ASU T-shirt strolling back to­wards him from the next tee.

“I re­mem­ber it clearly,” Rahm says. “When he got closer and I recog­nised it was Phil Mick­el­son, I could only think of one thing: the first shot Phil is ever go­ing to see me hit is a flop shot – are you kid­ding me right now!” Rahm com­posed him­self and floated the ball to within tap-in range for birdie.

On the next hole, with Mick­el­son still watch­ing, Rahm took out a 3-wood to en­sure he fin­ished short of two dan­ger­ous fair­way bunkers. Pumped full of adren­a­line and fear, Rahm blitzed the fair­way wood 20 yards past the haz­ards. “Phil was like, ‘Man, that’s a long 3-wood,” Rahm says, “Now go get it up-and­down.’” Rahm hit a 9-iron to a cou­ple of feet and made birdie there, too.

As you would ex­pect given the fam­ily con­nec­tion, Phil Mick­el­son has played a sig­nif­i­cant role in smooth­ing Rahm’s tran­si­tion from the cos­seted en­vi­rons of col­le­giate golf into the of­ten sur­real but al­ways cut-throat world of the PGA Tour. The Cal­i­for­nian has al­ways been on hand for prac­tice rounds and to o¡er in­sights on course man­age­ment. “The knowl­edge Phil has on every golf course out here is be­yond be­lief,” Rahm says. “We all know how much he likes to think about things. He’s been on Tour for 25 years so he’s thought his way round those golf cour­ses

more than any­body I know. He tries to give me ad­vice but a lot of the time, I just watch what he’s do­ing and try to copy. The best thing he did for me was tell ev­ery­body I was go­ing to be a Top-10 player within two years. I have al­ways be­lieved in my­self, but when some­body like Phil Mick­el­son puts their con­fi­dence in you and puts their name and cred­i­bil­ity on the line for you, it re­ally is amaz­ing. It’s helped me get to where I am right now.”

DE­VEL­OP­ING SPAN­ISH HANDS

Where Jon Rahm is right now, liv­ing in a new­lyre­fur­bished home in an up­scale Phoenix sub­urb is a mil­lion miles and sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars away from where he grew up. Bar­rika, a small coastal town in north­ern Spain known for its fish­ing and surf­ing, is set as deep into the Basque coun­try as you can pos­si­bly get. Golfers were a rare sight un­til Rahm’s par­ents, Edorta and An­gela, and a hand­ful of their friends de­cided to take up the game af­ter at­tend­ing the 1997 Ry­der Cup at Valder­rama. “My dad was into ex­treme sports like free rock climb­ing, free ski­ing, mas­sive moun­tain hik­ing and para­sail­ing. He and my mum hiked up Mont Blanc and came down ski­ing,” Rahm says. “Golf was so un­like him but some­how his friends con­vinced him. They all ended up try­ing it.”

Af­ter show­ing an im­me­di­ate ap­ti­tude for golf, Rahm par­tic­i­pated in a se­ries of group lessons. As the dozen-or-so ju­niors ini­tially strug­gled with the long game, they quickly grav­i­tated to­wards the chip­ping green for their kicks. “My driv­ing and iron game were not good at all at that time. I also played at a course with a lot of trees. Where we got the most amount of joy was in chip­ping and putting com­pe­ti­tions,” Rahm says. “When you’ve got seven, eight, nine or 10 kids to­gether, you have chip­ping com­pe­ti­tions where none of the shots are re­motely sane. You’re do­ing the stu­pid­est things you can find.”

At 6’2” tall and weigh­ing the best part of 220lb, Rahm is un­doubt­edly one of the modern breed of power hit­ters on the PGA Tour. When he leans on a driver, he’s com­fort­ably as long as a Rory McIl­roy or a Dustin John­son. Against Bill Haas in the semi-fi­nal of the WGC-Dell Tech­nolo­gies Match­play, Rahm crushed a 426-yard drive on the 12th hole at Austin CC, leav­ing him only 145 yards into the 571-yard par-5. But for all his size and strength, the core of Rahm’s game is an abil­ity

THE BEST THING PHIL MICK­EL­SON DID FOR ME WAS TELL EV­ERY­BODY I WAS GO­ING TO BE A TOP-10 PLAYER WITHIN TWO YEARS

to con­jure up a vast ar­ray of shots around the green that can be traced all the way back to the pres­sure-packed chip­ping com­pe­ti­tions from his youth. Many of the games in­cluded pu­n­ish­ments, such as go­ing around the putting green twice on your knees or forced run­ning.

The game that in­voked the most fear among the group, though, was a race to 10 points. A point was won by chip­ping clos­est to the pin. “In all hon­esty, it was never about who won,” Rahm says. “When­ever a player reached six points, any player on zero had to drop their pants [trousers] and un­der­pants around their an­kles un­til they won a hole. You re­ally didn’t want to be on zero when there were a few play­ers on five points. When you’re a 12-year-old com­pet­ing against 20- and 21-year-olds, that was not just pres­sure, it was ab­so­lute fear.

“Keep in mind, too, that the chip­ping green was next to the 9th, 10th and 18th holes as well as the driv­ing range. There was a lot of traŠc and one of the cars could eas­ily have been your par­ents. Out of 10 peo­ple, some­body was al­ways go­ing to hit it to gimme dis­tance so if you were on zero you knew you needed to hit a re­ally good shot to win a point. It’s prob­a­bly the clos­est in pres­sure to the feel­ing some­one has when they’re fight­ing for their card or fight­ing to make the cut. When I go back home, I don’t have the best short game. There are al­ways a few peo­ple there still do­ing the same thing – and they’re bet­ter than me.”

TRUE TO HIS ROOTS

When he was 13 years old, Rahm started work­ing with a lo­cal teach­ing pro, Ed­uardo Celles. Ob­serv­ing his young pupil’s un­healthy ob­ses­sion with try­ing to hit pow­er­ful draws, Celles con­vinced Rahm to weaken his grip and shorten his swing. “Ed­uardo told me I wouldn’t lose any dis­tance,” Rahm says. “I have to say, I thought he was crazy, but by the time I was 15, I was a much bet­ter player.”

Un­like many play­ers who switch coaches and start mak­ing changes to their tech­nique when they hit the big time, Rahm has never been tempted to change any­thing since join­ing the paid ranks. “Ed­uardo taught me very well in un­der­stand­ing how things hap­pen,” Rahm says. “He told me that the golf ball would be the best teacher I’ll ever have. At school, we had all the tech­nol­ogy you could pos­si­bly need to tell you what you were do­ing. I would look at it all my­self. I like to fix things my­self. I don’t have Ed­uardo with me each week so I need to be a per­fect self di­ag­nos­ti­cian.”

Dur­ing his ju­nior year at ASU, Rahm also en­listed the help of a men­tal coach, Joseba del Car­men, a for­mer pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball player and re­tired po­lice oŠcer from his home town who specialised in de­ac­ti­vat­ing ter­ror­ist bombs. Car­men has helped Rahm im­prove his work/life bal­ance with the goal of help­ing him bet­ter man­age his emo­tions and frus­tra­tions on the golf course. With so much ma­tu­rity in the rest of his game, the only give­away sign that Rahm is still only in his early 20s is his hot tem­per.

Now with two tour­na­ment vic­to­ries on each side of the At­lantic, the only thing miss­ing from Rahm’s al­ready im­pres­sive re­sumé is a strong per­for­mance in a ma­jor cham­pi­onship. By his own ad­mis­sion, Rahm hasn’t yet pro­duced his best golf in the game’s premier events, but the past 14 months have shown that he’s a very quick learner. So it’s fair to say that once he does dis­cover that win­ning for­mula, he’ll be di¡er­ent again.

WHEN I GO BACK HOME, I DON’T HAVE THE BEST SHORT GAME. THERE ARE PEO­PLE BET­TER THAN ME

Rahm cel­e­brates win­ning his first PGA Tour ti­tle af­ter hol­ing a 60ft ea­gle putt on the 72nd hole.

A duffed chip on 18 cost Rahm his chances of win­ning the WGC-Dell Tech­nolo­gies Match­play against Dustin John­son.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.