Sport Golf

Sunday 25 February 2018

Rahm showing signs of blossoming into golf's next big thing

Jon Rahm: ‘My dad literally dropped me off at the airport and said “Goodbye, son. Let me know when you get there”’. Photo: Orlando Ramirez/USA Today
Jon Rahm: ‘My dad literally dropped me off at the airport and said “Goodbye, son. Let me know when you get there”’. Photo: Orlando Ramirez/USA Today

Dermot Gilleece

Each new candidate used to be known in the US as a 'Bear Apparent', as a respectful nod to the great Jack Nicklaus. And for an aspiring Spaniard, there can be no greater accolade than to be described as the next Seve.

This is how they're referring to 22-year-old Jon Rahm, sensational winner at Torrey Pines last weekend, when two eagles in a closing nine of 30 included one at the 72nd. With talent to match a formidable frame, he is being tipped for a Major title before making his European Ryder Cup debut in Paris next year.

Paul McGinley thought so highly of Rahm last August that in a casual chat about possible wild cards for the European team for Hazeltine National, he named the Spaniard as a realistic candidate. Six months on, McGinley said: "He plays very much the modern, power game with a Spanish touch around the greens. He's also got heart and plenty of ambition, which is a pretty powerful combination.

"The fact that Phil Mickelson's brother, Tim, quit as coach of Arizona State so as to manage Rahm, speaks volumes for the guy's potential. And the changes to Ryder Cup qualifying, with the requirement for European Tour membership being reduced from five tournaments to four, were done with guys like him in mind."

It is so difficult for Spaniards from working-class backgrounds to break into golf that their star players have been few in number. But they have not been short on quality.

The first of them that I heard about was Angel Miguel, who had the effrontery back in 1958 to beat our own Harry Bradshaw in a play-off for the individual title in the Canada Cup in Mexico City. As it happened, he and his brother Sebastian finished runners-up to The Brad and Christy O'Connor Snr in the main event.

Two decades later, a hugely gifted 19-year-old by the name of Severiano Ballesteros took the 1976 Open Championship by storm when sharing second place with the great Nicklaus behind Johnny Miller. That was when the inimitable Pat Ward-Thomas wrote in The Guardian: "The memory of Ballesteros will live long. Far from being unnerved by having led for three days, he continued to attack. This was the happy nature of the man, but it was expensive. He hit only three fairways from the tee, and as Miller said: 'He was so bold, but his driver killed him'.

"Many a golfer, having shed early strokes, would have vanished without trace. That he came back so strongly was a tremendous feat and gave the huge crowds great entertainment. I hope the Spanish properly understand that he is a great player in the making."

Five years on, I saw another Spanish golfer of extraordinary promise. That was in the Junior World Cup at Portmarnock in September 1981, when 17-year-olds Billy Andrade and Sam Randolph represented the US while Spain had the reigning British Boys Champion, Jesus Lopez Moreno, and a 16-year-old named Jose Maria Manterola. Only later did I discover that 'Olazabal' was the more accepted surname of the younger player.

He, too, was British Boys champion in 1983, when Spanish hopes rested on him in the final of the European Amateur Team Championship against Ireland - the favourites for the title at Chantilly. Despite losing the morning's foursomes, Ramon Taya, the Spanish captain, had such respect for Ireland's talisman, Philip Walton, that he declined to lead from strength in the afternoon singles.

So Olazabal, his best player, was placed at the bottom of the order, where he thrashed Tom Cleary by 8 and 7. By which stage the match was all over: Walton and Garth McGimpsey were victorious at one and three, and between them, Arthur Pierse secured a halved match.

Olazabal went on to win the British Amateur in 1984 and completed a treble with the British Youths title in 1985 when, still in the amateur ranks, he was tied 34th behind Ballesteros in the Carrolls Irish Open at Royal Dublin.

Sergio Garcia was still 19 when he became the next young Spaniard to capture the imagination of world golf. Little more than a month after winning the 1999 Irish Open at Druids Glen, he sparkled during the climactic minutes of the PGA Championship at Medinah, with an amazing six-iron recovery shot from the roots of a tree on the 16th in a vain attempt at overhauling Tiger Woods.

This prompted a delightfully boyish skip and run up the fairway, to see where the ball was landing. "That was great," he later recalled to me with obvious pleasure. "I've always considered that to be the greatest week of my life. Being so young, it was quite an experience for me to be having a chance of winning one of the Majors in my first year as a professional.

"In a way, it almost felt like a win, because of the doors it opened for me. I got my card on the US Tour and it got me into the Ryder Cup for the first time. That was a dream. I didn't ever dare to hope for such things in my first year as a pro. So yes, it was a huge week."

Rahm, who stands 6ft 2ins and weighs 15st 10lbs, was the world's top amateur and a communications graduate from Arizona State (ASU) when he turned professional after winning the amateur medal in the US Open at Oakmont last June. "Rory McIlroy stepped out of his way to come to me, congratulate me," he said. "Nick Faldo too. Just brings a smile to my face every time I think about it." Now, as a professional, he's ranked 46th in the world and 40/1 to win the US Masters.

Asked recently in Golf Magazine who he would most like to meet from history, he replied: "Either Michael Jackson or Seve Ballesteros. I did meet Seve when I was younger, but I really wasn't conscious of the moment because I had no idea yet who he was."

Now that he knows more, has the Seve influence on Rahm been enhanced? "There have been a few really successful Spanish players - Seve, Olazabal, Sergio," he replied. "So, for all of us, they are the reference - Seve being the major one. He revolutionised the way golf was seen in a lot of the world, so he's someone I want to copy. His way of being on the golf course, his presence - I would love to emulate that."

Rafa Cabrera Bello, his partner in last November's World Cup, texted congratulations on Sunday's win and Olazabal pledged to see him at the Masters.

Growing up in Barrika in northern Spain, Rahm had the same broad interests in sport as Ballesteros. "Golf is the last one I picked up," he said.

"I was a goalie in soccer until I was about 14 and I did canoeing and Kung Fu for a while, and a bunch of other different sports."

Remarkably, he credits his splendid English to a study of the celebrated writings of Kendrick Lamar and Eminem, two of the better-known US rappers.

"Memorising rap songs in English actually helped me a lot," said Rahm, making particular mention of Lamar's 'Swimming Pools', and Eminem's 'Love the Way You Lie'. "You can look them up; they're good," he insisted.

Then, with mischief that would have done justice to the bold Seve, he explained his departure for ASU: "My dad literally dropped me off at the airport and said 'Goodbye, son. Let me know when you get there'."

More seriously, he added: "My dad always told me my future in golf would be in coming to the States. That's something really impressive to think, because not many Spanish players came here at my age.

"He told me that if I didn't like the States, the worst that could happen would be that I could learn English. Turned out great for me."

Indeed. And it's clear that the best is yet to come.

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