Man On Fire
Golf Asia|November 2020
Jon Rahm’s route to the top of the game has been quietly orchestrated and delivered in double-quick time. From a tiny fishing town in Basque Spain to the top of the world, this is his story.
He was different when he won the Spanish Under-16 Championship by nine strokes when he was only 14 years old. He was different a year later when he won the Under-21 national title by five shots. He was different when he arrived at Arizona State University (ASU) on a four-year golf scholarship barely able to speak more than a few words of English. And he was different 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. Today, right now, Jon Rahm is not just a stellar collegiate golfer. He’s also one of the best golfers 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 ascending to the ranking’s summit with victory at the Memorial, is meteoric.

Turning professional immediately after that US Open at Oakmont, 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 2017, 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 on to the professional scene since Woods back in 1996.

“Jon doesn’t have weaknesses,” was Phil Mickelson’s take in January 2017. “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 and later 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 US. Mickelson Googled Rahm’s name, saw his playing record and immediately called him, saying, “Love to have you. Come on over.” 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 programme. 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 join 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 culture shock made even more traumatic by the language barrier. “It was very hard for the first few months,” 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’d replace Rahm on the team the following season. Rahm’s opening round of 77 did little to convince Mickelson and the ASU coaching staff 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.

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