If it hadn’t been for the 1997 Ryder Cup, Jon Rahm might never have tried golf.
Although his father Edorta was a big fan of sports, Edorta tended to lean more towards extreme sports such as free rock climbing, parasailing and free skiing.
But, after he suffered some accidents in those high-risk sports, and when the Ryder Cup came to Spain and he saw Spanish great Seve Ballesteros lead Europe to victory, Edorta and a young Rahm took an interest in the slower-paced game. That’s when he stepped onto a golf course for the first time.
Rahm’s parents began taking him to lessons after school and once he got a feel for the game, he knew he was destined for great things.
“Pretty much since I was 13 or 14, I think I told my coach I was going to be best player in the world at some point,” Rahm told CNN Living Golf’s Shane O’Donoghue.
Fast forward to July 19, 2020, and after winning the Memorial Tournament, the Spaniard fulfilled his prediction as he became golf’s highest ranked player.
In the eyes of the 25-year-old, being ranked world No. 1 is more of an achievement than winning one of golf’s four majors.
“Becoming a world No. 1 is a consequence of playing really good golf for a very long time, right? Winning a major championship is performing really well for a week,” explained Rahm.
“Now, the odds of people just coming in and just having a better week than you are very high. The odds of, not an annual player, but somebody to perform better than you for four years, can be a little bit harder. They need to improve week after week after week.”
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Born in northern Spain in the Basque region, Rahm and his older brother tried their hands at a whole host of sports – apart from golf.
While his family were always interested in sports, there was no sporting dynasty in the Rahm family DNA. His mother was – and still is – a midwife and his father has had numerous jobs, his latest being working for a company that owned gas stations.
In fact, Rahm’s first golf club was less of an actual club and more of an “activity club.”
“The way I started, my parents would pick me up from school when we finished, and then we’d go get the golf lesson when I was six, seven, eight years old. Sometimes I’ll have a snack,” he said.
“(The way) my mom tells it, sometimes I’ll fall asleep. At some point I was always a curious kid, I played as many sports as I could. I just picked up the golf club and that’s how I started.”
Rahm moved between a few other courses, before he realized that he “might be onto something” and deciding to commit more of his time to the sport.
“At 14 is when I realized I was top at a national level. There was a big jump in 13-14 because I really hadn’t won anything nationally at 13, but at 14, I hit my growth spurt.
“So I hit it a lot further and I won my first event at a national level. Shortly after that year, we had the national Under-16 event at my home club luckily, and I was able to win that one by nine [shots].
“So that’s when I really realized: ‘Okay, we might be onto something.’ But then still working hard, there’s been other times in my career when I’ve proved [to] myself that I belong to be where I can be and I can accomplish certain things.”
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In an effort to help Rahm achieve his full potential, his parents decided it would be best for him to go to college in the US to play at a higher level. Rahm, however, needed to be swayed.
“It took some persuading from my parents; I wasn’t so convinced. It was a big change; my English wasn’t the best at the time. And credit to my parents, who both told me: “Go to the US. Worst case scenario you learn English, which in this line of work you need to know to be able to communicate right.’
“I promised my parents I was going to get my degree when I came to college. So I kept my promise and I’m glad I did, because for all those people wondering if you should turn pro early or not, luckily you can play golf for 30-plus years. You can always start golf later and become a great golfer and have a great career, but you can’t go back and go to college and experience that the same way.”
With the benefit of hindsight, you might expect Rahm to have been inundated with college scholarship offers, with universities rolling out the red carpet to try and lure the Spaniard to choose them.
In fact, before he eventually chose to commit to Arizona State, he had just one other offer, from San Francisco University. Rahm ultimately chose to play for the Arizona State Sun Devils because it was a “better school, better weather, better fit for me, and it helped that so many Spanish players had success [there].”
On top of the language challenge, the size of his classes at college took him by surprise since he came from “small town” with a population of around 1,300 people.
“The biggest classroom I’d ever been I think was 40 people and that was by putting two of them together. When I went to my first class, I’ll never forget, it was Macroeconomic Principles, which at that time I probably couldn’t even pronounce it,” Rahm remembers.
“I sit down and there’s 365 people. It was like a movie theater to me; there’s PowerPoints, there’s microphones, speakers, everything, and I’m there like: “Where am I?” Now, out of 365 people, only one came in with a pen and paper, and that was me, because I had never seen a laptop in a classroom before.”
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Given his close family ties, living in the US in the age of coronavirus hasn’t been easy for Rahm.
Unable to travel back home, he remembers spending hours on FaceTime with his dad and brother, with both of them unable to leave the house as his mum was working in the hospital.
His grandmother also passed away in June.
“She got to see me get married, she got to see her first great grandchild be born, and shortly after she just passed away peacefully in her sleep,” says Rahm.
“So I believe she had seen everything she had to see in life and just left us. But still, it’s just the weightiness of heart. Even my mom was expecting it; she was just old at 90 years old, good health, had a great life. And if that woman taught me anything, because she’s the one that spent the most amount of time with me as a kid when my parents were working, is to just hold onto life and enjoy every single moment.
“Her grasp on life, her grip on life was strongest I’ve ever seen,” Rahm continues, “and if that teaches me anything, it’s just to enjoy every moment and hopefully I can get to live to a point where I see my first great grandchild and moments like that.”
Since moving to the US and honing his game under Tim Mickleson – brother of five-time major winner Phil – Rahm’s success has skyrocketed.
As an amateur, Rahm spent a record 60 weeks as golf’s amateur world No. 1 – as well becoming the first player to win the Ben Hogan Award, given to the best college golf player in the US, twice – before turning professional in 2016.
Since winning his maiden PGA Tour title at the Farmers Insurance Open with a 60-foot eagle putt on the final hole in January 2017, Rahm has gone on to win four other times on the Tour, as well as six times on the European Tour.
His most recent win came at the BMW Championship in August, when he sunk an incredible 66-foot putt to beat Dustin Johnson in a playoff after the American had sunk his own weaving 43-foot putt to force the playoff.
Although Rahm admits that he’d much rather “walk down the 18th hole with a six-shot lead” than be playing in a playoff, he believes those “hero moments” are what young golfers aspire to recreate when they are watching their heroes play.
“You see Tiger [Woods] have spectacular moments to win tournaments and Pádraig Harrington and all of his majors and how he came back to, for example, win the PGA – unfortunately against my man Sergio [Garcia].
“No matter how many times you win and how many putts you make, any time you prove yourself, that you belong to be the champion that week when you do something like that, it’s an overwhelming feeling.
“So that’s the good thing about those moments of pressure. That’s what you practice for; you’re there thinking: “Okay, I’m nervous, I’m tense, but this is what I’ve worked so hard for. And I always think about like: ‘How cool would it be if I made this putt right now?’ So it’s a thing to do that; it’s no matter how stressful it might feel, it’s a joy that comes with it. It’s such an enjoyable feeling.”
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The biggest stage in the sport
One thing that has proved elusive to Rahm so far is that maiden major victory. He’s finished in the top 10 on four occasions, including a tie for third at the US Open in 2019.
While he notes that he is improving at the majors, Rahm believes they somehow bring an additional mental pressure for him.
“I feel like there’s some magic formula that people have with their routine and what to do and how to deal with the stress of a major that maybe I haven’t figured out yet. But I’m getting closer; each time I’m getting more comfortable and I’m having better chances.
“I know there’s one; some people have found it, somebody like Jordan Spieth found it really early and some of us have taken longer. But it’s something you got to figure out.”
The postponed 2020 Masters presents the next opportunity for Rahm to break his major barren run, as the competition begins on November 12.
As he attempts to follow in the footsteps of Spanish Masters winners Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, Rahm is hoping some birthday luck – he turns 26 that week – can help secure him that iconic green jacket.
“I don’t know how the course will be set up, but if there’s one golf course in this world we should have confidence on being in prime shape no matter what time of year, that’s Augusta National. So I can imagine the greens will be exactly the same; fairways, I don’t know.
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“But I think we’re all excited and looking forward to it because no matter what, whoever is this Masters champion, will be remembered forever; it will be a different feeling. It will be a championship where possibly Magnolia Lane is brown, which would be an unbelievable sight to see, different colors at the Augusta.
“Will the azaleas be there or not be there? Who knows? It might be a colder Masters; we don’t know. It’s going to be a different one. It’s going to be one of those where maybe the past experiences may not help you so much because we might be different. Things might be a little bit different this coming Masters, but I think we’re looking forward to it because we know whoever wins it is going to be remembered.”