San Diego — It took Jon Rahm four tournaments to secure a PGA Tour card out of college, and 12 events as a pro to deliver his first PGA Tour victory.
And it was far from routine.
The 22-year-old from Spain roared out of the pack to shoot 30 on the back nine at Torrey Pines, one of the toughest racks on the PGA Tour, and finish with a birdie and a 60-foot eagle putt to win the Farmers Insurance Open. He turned pro seven months ago and already is No. 46 in the world.
These are some of the signs that Rahm is on the fast track to stardom. Just don’t get the idea it was an easy path.
Rahm grew up in Barrika, a town of about 1,500 in the Basque country of northern Spain. He was recruited to play at Arizona State, which has more than 50,000 students at its main campus in Tempe. Rahm spoke barely enough English to process and sentence and answer either “yes” or “no.”
“When I showed up to my first class, there were 375 people,” he said. “And I came from a high school where the biggest class was 30 people. It was pretty different. I thought I walked into a movie theater, to be honest. I thought it was just a movie theater and I was in the wrong place. I’ll never forget that.”
Sure, it was intimidating, but not enough to scare him away.
Rahm stayed all four years as a Sun Devil. He won 11 times, won the Ben Hogan Award the last two years as the top male collegian and finished off his career with a degree in communications and the Jack Nicklaus Award for the NCAA Division I player of the year.
“I never thought I couldn’t make it,” he said. “I really don’t think that I can’t make it, really ever. That’s probably what happened today.”
He was never too far off the lead, though his name didn’t resonate because there were so many players with a chance on Sunday. At one point, 10 players were separated by one shot. Rahm got into the mix quickly with a tee shot into the bunker on the par-5 13th, which typically means laying up at the base of the hill.
That was his plan, anyway.
But then he looked over at his caddie, Adam Hayes, who told him, “Right at it, all day.” And what’s what Rahm was thinking from 227 yards out. He rehearsed in his head how he wanted the 4-iron to feel and the flight it should take, and he pulled it off perfectly. It settled 18 feet behind the cup and he made it for eagle.
Just like that, he was tied for the lead, and he never gave it back until his birdie-eagle finish. So solid was his game that he hit his last 11 greens in regulation, and putted for birdie on all but one hole in the final round.
“Jon doesn’t have weakness. Every part of his game is a strength,” said Phil Mickelson, whose brother Tim was the golf coach at Arizona State to recruited Rahm and served as a father figure to him. Tim Mickelson now is Rahm’s agent.
“When my brother coached him at Arizona State, he would go up to him and say, ‘What do you need from me, coach?’ He says, ‘I need you to birdie three of the last five holes.’ And he’d go do it. It’s just a little something that it’s hard to quantify. But he has that intangible.”
He also has full command of English, another tribute to Tim Mickelson.
Rahm knew he needed to learn English quickly, for his studies and his comfort level on the golf course. It didn’t help that Alberto Sanchez of Mexico was on his team, making it easy to converse in Spanish. Mickelson laid down the law. For every word spoken in Spanish in front of the team, he had to do one “burpee” — a pushup, jumping to his feet, followed by another pushup.
“So you say a sentence that has 10 words, you’re making 10 burpees,” Rahm said. “And they’re not easy. They’re tiring. And if he catches you having a five-minute conversation, you do not want to know what’s going on next.”
The ease of his English was helped along by studying not just his school work, but rap music— specifically Kendrick Lamar and Eminem. His favorite was Lamar’s “Swimming Pools.”