The Jon Rahm Interview: Being backed by Phil Mickelson, learning English by listening to rap songs, and how he went from World No 766 to No.5 in just 15 months
Rewind little more than a year and Spain's Jon Rahm was just another top amateur with huge potential. Now he's become the World no.4 with three Tour titles to his name, has comparisons with Tiger Woods and a Ryder Cup debut on the horizon. Golf World Editor Nick Wright visited him in North Carolina. (This interview comes from our sister magazine, Golf World. Click here to subscribe to their magazine.)
Jon Rahm 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. "They call me the best right-handed player in the history of the college," Rahm says, laughing, as we chat in the breakfast bar at Trump National Charlotte a week after the USPGA Championship.
Today Jon Rahm is not just a stellar right-handed collegiate golfer, he's the fifth-best golfer of any orientation 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 finishing 7th in the Tour Championship is meteoric.
Turning professional immediately after the US Open at Oakmont last year, 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, sinking a curling 60ft eagle putt on the 72nd hole to clinch the title, 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. Since then, he's also won the Irish Open and the European Tour's season finale DP World Tour Championship.
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," Phil Mickelson said in January. "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 is now 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 United States. Mickelson Google-searched Rahm's name, saw his playing record and immediately called him, saying, "Love to have you. Come on over now." 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 program. 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 come to ASU may have been easy but the process of acclimatising to life in America for the 19-year-old Spaniard was anything but affluent. Moving from a tiny fishing village of just 1,500 people to a sprawling campus with more than 50,000 students was a jarring culture shock that was made even more traumatic by the language barrier.
"It was very hard for the first few months, for sure," 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 would 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. It was the turning point of a season that would quickly gather pace.
Enlisting the help of Spanish-speaking teammate, Alberto Sanchez, Rahm discovered a somewhat unconventional method of improving his English – listening to rap songs. Eminem's Love the Way You Lie and Kendrick Lamar's Swimming Pools were his particular favourites.
As his command of the language grew courtesy of his hip-hop version of Rosetta Stone, Rahm also got his education back on track. He would eventually graduate with a 'B' in Communications. He would also go on to become the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world on two separate occasions, finish 5th in the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open and became the first player to win college golf's Ben Hogan Award in consecutive years.
CHASING PHIL MICKELSON'S RECORDS
Buoyed by his success in Portland, Rahm had turned his game around well enough by the end of his first season to arrive at the Capital City Club in Atlanta, Georgia, for the NCAA National Championship with two tournament victories already under his belt. If he could claim the national title, he would surpass Phil Mickelson's golden freshman year of 1989 by virtue of a lower season scoring average.
After shooting a 9-under-par 61 in the opening round, it looked as though Rahm would cruise to the title and into the record books, but he closed with rounds of 72, 71 and finished three shots behind eventual winner Daniel Berger. "That was when the comparisons with Phil really started and I first became aware of them. Had I won the nationals, I would have had the better freshman year," Rahm says.
Phil was a very tough act to follow. "He won 16 tournaments and he won the National Championship three out of the four years. And the one year he didn't win, he came second," Rahm says.
"I do have the record for the lowest scoring average ever for a freshman, which is nice, but it's only really because technology has changed and the competition has got better and better. If I'm honest, the only thing I think I really did better than Phil was winning our home ASU event three out of the four years I was there."
It was during his first year at ASU that Rahm first met Phil Mickelson face-to- face. The three-time Masters champion had just own home from the WGC- Cadillac Championship in Florida and had come out to San Diego Country Club to watch his former college team during the final round of the 2013 Lamkin Grips San Diego Classic, an intercollegiate event comprising 14 universities. Rahm was leading the tournament when he came to the par-5 8th hole.
After pulling his approach left of the green, he found himself short- sided behind a large mound. As Rahm prepared to hit his pitch, he turned and saw a man wearing flip-flops, sunglasses and an ASU T-shirt strolling back towards him from the next tee.
"I remember it clearly," Rahm says. "When he got closer and I recognised it was Phil Mickelson, I could only think of one thing: the first shot Phil is ever going to see me hit is a flopshot–are you kidding me right now!"
Rahm composed himself and floated the ball to within tap-in range for birdie. On the next hole, with Mickelson still watching, the Spaniard took out a 3-wood to ensure he finished short of two dangerous fairway bunkers. Pumped full of adrenaline and fear, he blitzed the fairway wood 20 yards past the hazards. "Phil was like, 'Man, that's a long 3-wood," Rahm says, "Now go get it up- and-down.'"
Rahm hit a 9-iron to a couple of feet and made birdie there, too. As you would expect given the family connection, Phil Mickelson has played a significant role in smoothing Rahm's transition from the cosseted environs of collegiate golf into the often surreal but always cut-throat world of the PGA Tour. The Californian has always been on hand for practice rounds and to offer insights on course management.
"The knowledge Phil has on every golf course out here is beyond belief," Rahm says. "We all know how much he likes to think about things. He's been on Tour for 25 years so he's thought his way round those golf courses more than anybody I know. He tries to give me advice but a lot of the time, I just watch what he's doing and try to copy."
"The best thing he did for me was tell everybody I was going to be a Top-10 player within two years. I have always believed in myself, but when somebody like Phil Mickelson puts their confidence in you and puts their name and credibility on the line for you, it really is amazing. It's helped me get to where I am right now."
DEVELOPING SPANISH HANDS
Where Jon Rahm is right now, living in a newly-refurbished home in an upscale Phoenix suburb is a million miles and several million dollars away from where he grew up. Barrika, a small coastal town in northern Spain known for its fishing and surfing, is set as deep into the Basque country as you can possibly get. Golfers were a rare sight until Rahm's parents, Edorta and Angela, and a handful of their friends decided to take up the game after attending the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama.
"My dad was into extreme sports like free rock climbing, free skiing, massive mountain hiking and parasailing. He and my mum hiked up Mont Blanc and came down skiing," Rahm says. "Golf was so unlike him but somehow his friends convinced him. They all ended up trying it."
After showing an immediate aptitude for golf, Rahm participated in a series of group lessons. As the dozen-or-so juniors initially struggled with the long game, they quickly gravitated towards the chipping green for their kicks.
"My driving and iron game were not good at all at that time. I also played at a course with a lot of trees. Where we got the most amount of joy was in chipping and putting competitions," Rahm says. "When you've got seven, eight, nine or 10 kids together, you have chipping competitions where none of the shots are remotely sane. You're doing the stupidest things you can find."
At 6'2" tall and weighing the best part of 220lb, Rahm is undoubtedly one of the modern breed of power hitters on the PGA Tour. When he leans on a driver, he's comfortably as long as a Rory McIlroy or a Dustin Johnson. Against Bill Haas in the semi-final of the WGC- Dell Technologies Matchplay, Rahm crushed a 426-yard drive on the 12th hole at Austin CC, leaving him only 145 yards into the 571-yard par-5.
But for all his size and strength, the core of Rahm's game is an ability to conjure up a vast array of shots around the green that can be traced all the way back to the pressure-packed chipping competitions from his youth.
Many of the games included punishments, such as going around the putting green twice on your knees or forced running. The game that invoked the most fear among the group, though, was a race to 10 points. A point was won by chipping closest to the pin.
"In all honesty, it was never about who won," Rahm says. "Whenever a player reached six points, any player on zero had to drop their pants [trousers] and underpants around their ankles until they won a hole. You really didn't want to be on zero when there were a few players on five points. When you're a 12-year-old competing against 20- and 21-year-olds, that was not just pressure, it was absolute fear. "
"Keep in mind, too, that the chipping green was next to the 9th, 10th and 18th holes as well as the driving range. There was a lot of traffic and one of the cars could easily have been your parents. Out of 10 people, somebody was always going to hit it to gimme distance so if you were on zero you knew you needed to hit a really good shot to win a point.
"It's probably the closest in pressure to the feeling someone has when they're fighting for their card or fighting to make the cut. When I go back home, I don't have the best short game. There are always a few people there still doing the same thing – and they're better than me."
TRUE TO HIS ROOTS
When he was 13 years old, Rahm started working with a local teaching pro, Eduardo Celles. Observing his young pupil's unhealthy obsession with trying to hit powerful draws, Celles convinced Rahm to weaken his grip and shorten his swing. "Eduardo told me I wouldn't lose any distance," Rahm says.
Watch Jon Rahm's swing in slo-mo below
"I have to say, I thought he was crazy, but by the time I was 15, I was a much better player." Unlike many players who switch coaches and start making changes to their technique when they hit the big time, Rahm has never been tempted to change anything since joining the paid ranks.
"Eduardo taught me very well in understanding how things happen," Rahm says. "He told me that the golf ball would be the best teacher I'll ever have. At school, we had all the technology you could possibly need to tell you what you were doing. I would look at it all myself. I like to fix things myself. I don't have Eduardo with me each week so I need to be a perfect self diagnostician."
During his junior year at ASU, Rahm also enlisted the help of a mental coach, Joseba del Carmen, a former professional basketball player and retired police officer from his home town who specialised in deactivating terrorist bombs. Carmen has helped Rahm improve his work/life balance with the goal of helping him better manage his emotions and frustrations on the golf course.
With so much maturity in the rest of his game, the only giveaway sign that Rahm is still only in his early 20s is his hot temper (notably at the U.S Open). Now with a tournament victory on each side of the Atlantic which includes two Rolex Series wins on the European Tour, the only thing missing from Rahm's already impressive resumé is a strong performance in a major championship.
By his own admission, Rahm hasn't yet produced his best golf in the game's premier events, but the past 17 months have shown that he's a very quick learner. So it's fair to say that once he does discover that consistent winning formula, he'll be different again.