• Rahm: Spanish train on track

    Jon Rahm
    Jon Rahm

    The new European Tour No 1 golfer, Jon Rahm, will have his sights set on the Majors in 2020 as he continues his rise.

    The first thing Jon Rahm said to his fiancee after knocking in a putt on the 18th green to win the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, was ‘wedding gift’. Victory not only saw the Spaniard wrap up the European Tour’s Race to Dubai title for the season, it also came with a tidy cheque of $5-million ($3m for the win and $2m for the overall R2D title).

    A week earlier Tommy Fleetwood had captured the Nedbank Golf Challenge at Sun City and taken the $2.5-million prize that came with it before offering, ‘It’s not about the money. The money is nice and we’re all grateful for it, which goes a long way to setting up my family’s future, but holding this trophy is what it’s all about.’

    Rahm has been knocking on a lot of doors ever since he turned professional after the 2016 US Open. He made an immediate impact and it’s hard to believe he’s been playing for pay for only three and a half years. In that period he has won nine titles, been a Ryder Cup winner for Europe and risen to No 2 in the world, hitting those heights for six consecutive weeks in January and February 2018.

    Victory in Dubai saw him move back to No 3 in the world, behind Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy. Surely 2020 is the year he will launch his assault on the No 1 ranking and become a serious contender at the Majors. First things first, and the 25-year-old has got his priorities right.

    He and his fiancee Kelley Cahill are getting married in December and in the buildup to the season-ending tournament in Dubai in November he took a break from the game.

    ‘I didn’t touch a club for a month,’ he said during the week of the DP World Tour Championship. ‘Honestly, I needed it. After Spain, I stayed home for a week and after that I think it was three more weeks in Arizona where I truly didn’t even step on a golf course.’ Actually the break between the Open de Espana – which he won – and Dubai had been six weeks. Time clearly stops for no one.

    ‘Ever since I became a good amateur in Spain, it’s almost been 10 straight years of non-stop golf. I’ve never had a break like that,’ he said. And after winning in Dubai and picking up all the riches that came with the victory, he again touched on the importance of rest. ‘It can be as important as playing,’ he said.

    But after those 10 years, he had to
    force himself to do nothing.

    ‘I’m not going to lie,’ he told reporters in Dubai. ‘At first it was hard to step away from it. Honestly, I did nothing special. Just being a 25-year-old, enjoying time with my friends and Kelley. We spend so much of our life making decisions just for me and my golf game, that it was nice to say to her for a month, “What do
    you want to do?” instead of what I need to do. I wish I could do it every day of the year, but golf is somewhat of a selfish sport in that sense.

    ‘We didn’t go on any trips or do anything extravagant like that. We just tried to be at home for a month and enjoy time with our friends and family and live as normal a life as possible. Knowing I’m getting married around Christmas and the year we’re going to have, I needed that. I feel like it was the only time I’d get a break to recharge a bit and make sure I’m going to be fresh for next year.’

    And in his winning moment he wanted to remind his fiancee that all the sacrifices that had been made for his golf were worth it – just like Fleetwood had said in his winning speech at Sun City.

    Make no mistake, travelling the world for almost a year takes its toll. South Africa’s Justin Harding admitted to spending only four weeks at home before the end of November 2019. And whether or not the elite golfers travel first class or in private planes, they experience jet lag like the rest of us. It was the prime reason former SA Open and Scottish Open champion Brandon Stone and his wife decided to make Surrey in England their home midway through 2019. South Africa can
    be a long way from anywhere when you are trying to compete week in and week out against the world’s best.

    And yet for every success story of Rahm and Fleetwood – who finished first and second on the Race to Dubai moneylist – there are countless other professionals sleeping in low-budget hotels and motels, and some even
    spending nights in their cars as they head to yet another tournament, hoping for the win that will help provide a better lifestyle for themselves and their family.

    Rahm obviously never has to worry where his next dollar, pound or euro is going to come from. He has always been destined for stardom and turned pro on the back of an amateur career that had seen him ranked No 1 for a record 60 weeks. His best finishes at the Majors have been tie-third (2019 US Open), fourth at the 2018 Masters and tie-fourth at the 2018 PGA Championship.

    It probably doesn’t help that he is Spanish, as it brings its own expectations and comparisons, with fantastic golfers like Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Sergio Garcia all picking up Majors in their careers. However, the expectations around Rahm are realistic. He is the highest-ranking golfer in the men’s World Ranking to have not yet won a Major, but against that backdrop we have to remember he is only 25 and been a pro for just 43 months.

    But if someone is living the dream, it’s Rahm. A year after he turned pro he appeared on Feherty, a chat show with former pro-turned outspoken television presenter David Feherty.

    ‘I’ve already accomplished more than I ever would’ve thought I could when I started playing golf,’ Rahm said. ‘Never in my life … somebody from Barrika – a town with a thousand people, where there are more animals than people. I never imagined I would end up playing golf. I always wanted to be a soccer player and I never thought I would become one of the best players in the world.’

    However, he has grown into the role.

    In doing so he has leapfrogged Olazabal and Garcia and is only the second Spaniard to become the European No 1 golfer of the year. ‘It gives me goosebumps to think about that,’ Rahm admitted before the final round in Dubai, where he stretched his lead to six shots early on before needing a birdie on the par-five 18th to see off Fleetwood. ‘I’ve said it many times: as a Spaniard, any time you have the chance to put your name on a list where there’s only one name and it’s Seve, it’s pretty impactful. It’s emotional for all of us. To think not even Sergio or Miguel Angel or Ollie or many other great players could get it done. It’s hard to believe I have the chance to be the second.’

    Rahm, however, is also putting himself in the frame to be compared with another great – in fact, the greatest of them all, Tiger Woods. In addition to having nine tournament wins across the PGA Tour and European Tour in only 89 starts as a pro, Rahm has also racked up 44 top- 10 finishes in that span. That equates to finishing in the top 10 some 49% of the time he tees it up. Only Woods has a higher percentage of top 10s (57.9) since the introduction of the Official World Golf Ranking in 1986.

    In soaking up the success greenside in Dubai, Rahm wiped his hand over his face. ‘I can’t believe some of the things I’ve accomplished. I feel like I’m going to start crying. Man, it was such an up- and-down day. On the 8th tee I had a six-shot lead and I came down 18 needing a birdie to win. It was hard trying to battle out there; I kind of lost the swing a little bit.

    ‘It’s hard to believe that besides the putt, the first three shots on 18 were about as calm as I’ve been all day. I told myself on 18, “How many times do you dream of having to birdie the last hole to win a tournament?” I hit the best drive of the week, a great 4-iron the wind didn’t take, an outstanding bunker shot and then made the putt.’

    While the entire golfing world has been on red alert ever since Rahm turned professional, it’s as if the golfer has been loathe to believe all the hype. At the BMW Championship in September he walked into the media room where he had been asked to assess his efforts to date, having taken only 61 weeks to break into the top five in the World Ranking, with only Woods, who did it in 33 weeks, having achieved that milestone faster.

    ‘Well, I can’t complain, can I?’ he replied. ‘I’ve played really good golf and I’ve achieved a lot of what I’ve done faster than I thought I was going to.’

    He was always going to be in the spotlight once he turned pro – doing so after being the leading amateur at the 2016 US Open – and through the unforgiving lens of modern technology and social media there was never going to be a place to progress unnoticed.

    There have been famous temper tantrums, perhaps the headliner being at the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills, where he shot a second-round 73 to miss the cut. Afterwards he explained his outbursts: ‘I know golfers are supposed to try to internalise everything. I wish I could. Every time I try to keep it to myself. Just imagine a Coca-Cola bottle. You shake it once. You shake it again. Once you open it, it’s a complete mess. That’s what happens when I try to keep things down. I’m going to miss a shot that’s not that bad and I’m going to lose it. Sometimes I need to get mad.’

    However, three years along the road Rahm has had a chance to reflect. ‘You have to understand, I turned pro right out of college. How many of the people in this room will have the maturity level at that age – I was 21 at the time – to handle being one of the top 10 in the world and the attention that comes with it? It’s hard. I definitely wasn’t expecting it. Mentally I didn’t have the strength or the maturity to handle it. So I did do some things I’m not proud of and it’s a work in progress. I’m a passionate person, extremely competitive, but I don’t have to tell you that, right?

    ‘When I’m playing good, it’s good, and it’s really entertaining to watch. When it’s going bad, it’s got the best of me a few times and it’s something I always work on. Even three years ago, I was held to a certain standard I should have met but I didn’t, and thanks to those mistakes I’m where I am now and hopefully I can get better. I guess, mentally, I didn’t see myself as such a role model so quickly. It takes time to adjust, but slowly I’m trying to improve and be a better player and person on the golf course, because off the course, I’m a different person in that sense.’

    Life off the course will also have become a whole lot better, what with the wedding and the $5-million sweetener that could be dipped into for the honeymoon. But from the beginning of 2020 it will all start to ramp up again. And, with all the building blocks in place, there’s every reason to believe – and expect – Rahm to not only break into double figures in terms of professional victories, but also get his name on the Majors winner’s board.

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