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SAN DIEGO – So, what would trigger another Rahmbo explosion this time?
Maybe he’d flub a pitch shot like Brooks Koepka.
Perhaps he’d draw a series of gnarly lies in the rough like Bryson DeChambeau.
Or possibly he’d whiff a few crucial 5-footers like Rory McIlroy.
The toughest test in golf and the game’s most combustible player shouldn’t ordinarily mix, but there’s something you should know about Jon Rahm – something that doesn’t come across on your TV screens or in those viral social-media clips that show him thisclose to a meltdown after every bad break.
“He’s shy and gentle – seriously,” said Rahm’s wife, Kelley. “But then you get him on the golf course, and he wants to step on people’s necks.”
For Rahm, the challenge has never been about shooting the numbers. His talent has been glaringly obvious for more than a decade, ever since Tim Mickelson, then the head coach at Arizona State, perused the world amateur rankings, spotted the little-known Spaniard in the top 20 and emailed him a scholarship offer without ever seeing a shot. To Mickelson’s surprise, Rahm and his father committed the next day, setting in motion what looks like a generational career.
Rahm became one of the most prolific winners in Sun Devils history and earned the Hogan Award as the nation’s top amateur. By the time Rahm graduated, Tim Mickelson favorably compared Rahm to his Hall of Famer brother – just with better driving. Phil was a believer too, once cashing in on a bet that Rahm would be a top-10 player in the world within a year of turning pro.
“It’s worked out well for everybody,” Tim said.
Off the course, Rahm was just starting to come into his own. While at a college Halloween party, he met Kelley Cahill, a former track-and-field star at ASU. Dressed up as a NFL replacement referee – complete with a blindfold and walking cane – Kelley blabbered to the big kid in the SWAT officer’s outfit, unaware that he barely knew any English. “I was just thinking he was the best listener ever,” she laughed. Rahm took it upon himself to learn a new language, fast, and now he’s one of the most eloquent speakers on the PGA Tour, an authoritative and thoughtful voice on everything from the rules to course design to the pandemic.
“I think we both wanted the same thing out of life,” she said. “We both valued family and were very into our sports. I think we connected on that.”
Kelley has rode shotgun for the entirety of Rahm’s meteoric rise from a decorated amateur to a hotshot newcomer to one of the game’s most feared competitors. The wins came in bunches – now 13 in all – but he displayed that typical Spanish flair, a fiery presence who was capable of blowout victories but also embarrassing self-immolations. The nadir came at the 2017 U.S. Open, when his caught-on-camera moments included a tomahawked club, a half-dozen F-bombs and even a punched sign. Commentators scolded him. Fans heckled him. Just 22, Rahm was frazzled and confused about the best path forward; he described himself as a shaken Coca-Cola bottle that, messy or not, still needed to be opened.
“Sometimes you just gotta let him go,” said his caddie, Adam Hayes. “It’s like watching a train wreck. We can tell people all day long, but until you learn for yourself, that’s the deal.”
Before every major, Rahm’s temperament became one of the central talking points. His talent was unmistakable, but petulant behavior that was tolerated in his early 20s was growing tired by 25. Every interview seemed to include at least some mention of his tantrums. He internalized that discussion, hired sports psychologists (even a former bomb-disposal expert), vowed to improve. The narrative threatened to define him, to the point that he wondered aloud this week to a reporter: "Am I ever going to escape that question?"
“He’s so misunderstood, and it’s very upsetting,” Kelley said. “People mistake his passion for anger. They want to see the highs, but they don’t want to see the lows. He’s tried before to be happy all the time and not show the emotion, and it just doesn’t work for him. Because you don’t feel the highs and feel the emotion. He’s actually really shy off the course.”
“Terribly shy,” she said. “We only go to one restaurant in town because he likes going where he knows the waiters and where to sit. He’s very shy.”
“He’s misunderstood by the public,” Tim Mickelson agreed. “He’s the most caring guy ever. He’s very mature. He’s very thoughtful toward the people around him.”
When asked for any examples, he paused. “Let’s just say he’s one of the best friends you could ever ask for.”
Like any mid-20-something, Rahm remains a work in progress on the world stage. His wife has noticed a distinct softening since he became a father for the first time in April, to a baby boy named Kepa. But he also had a setback at last month’s PGA Championship, where Hayes said Rahm “acted horribly” on the course in the third round and then was requested into the media tent. “I really don’t want to be here right now,” Rahm hissed that day, but later that night he and Hayes had a heartfelt discussion about accountability and intention. There haven’t been any slip-ups since.
“I vowed to myself to be a better role model for my son,” Rahm said. “He won’t remember any of this because he’s only 10 weeks old, but I do. Hopefully in the future, he can grow up to be someone who’s proud of his dad. I hope I can provide that example.”
Said Hayes: “For him to mature the way he’s matured, it’s been all on him, really. He’s looking himself in the mirror. Since the PGA, that’s been a big thing.”
Of course, Rahm needed that deeper perspective two weeks later, when he was in the midst of arguably his greatest career performance at The Memorial, only to have it cut short because of a positive COVID-19 result. As social media melted down, Rahm didn’t complain about the unfairness of the PGA Tour’s policy, or whine about his misfortune. He returned home to quarantine in Arizona, less upset at his erased six-shot lead than he was about not seeing his parents, visiting from Spain, meet his young son for the first time.
“He handled it with so much grace,” Kelley said. “He never let himself get too down about it. He handled it amazingly. I was very proud of him.”
Cleared to return to competition about a week before the U.S. Open, Rahm’s focus shifted to one of his favorite courses in the world, to the site of his first Tour win in 2017 and the spot where he proposed to Kelley a few years ago. At what could be the final U.S. Open at Torrey, Rahm opened with back-to-back sub-par scores, withstood a nervy Saturday 72 and entered the final round just three shots back – the same position from which he roared back to win in ’17.
Waking up Sunday morning, Kelley sensed something different in her husband. He was quiet, reflective, calm. “I told my dad, ‘This is either gonna be really good or really bad,’” she said.
It was the former: Rahm birdied each of the first two holes to cut his deficit to a single shot, then showed, at least to his peers, another sign of his evolution. In his only rough patch of the day, he got up-and-down from a thick lie to save par on 3, stomached his lone bogey after a poor drive on 4 and then used his deft touch to save another shot on 5. Through it all, he never grew frustrated. “When he stayed really calm and level-headed through a challenging stretch, that’s the result,” Phil Mickelson said. “You can see the difference. You can see where it was a couple years ago and where it is now. It’s inspiring and impressive.”
“I’ve accepted it,” Rahm said. “I’m not saying it’s going to be smooth sailing until the end, but I feel like that Sunday of the PGA changed things a little bit.”
On a day when there were 10 players within a shot of the lead at one point, it was the turbulent Rahm who remained the steadiest, reeling off 11 pars and a single bogey to put himself just one back of Louis Oosthuizen with two to play. That’s when Rahm’s monster talent and sense for the moment took over. That’s when he poured in a sweeping 25-footer for birdie on 17. And that’s when, after a smart greenside bunker shot to splash out 18 feet right of the flag, he drained the go-ahead birdie and unleashed a torrent of fist pumps, screaming, “LET’S GO!!!” as the crowd roared.
“From here on out, there’s gonna be a lot less about the tough stages, and that the U.S. Open will blow your head off,” said Alberto Sanchez, one of Rahm’s closest friends. “He’s gonna win a bunch of these.”
Having posted 6-under 278, Rahm waited about an hour for his victory to become official. Immediately afterward he and Hayes were whisked away on a cart while Kelley decamped to the clubhouse patio, cradling Kepa and watching the action unfold on TV. When Oosthuizen’s tee shot on 17 found the penalty area, leading to a bogey, Rahm’s father quietly clenched his fists, knowing the outcome was all but assured. At that point, Kelley left to join Rahm on the range, where the clubhouse leader hit a few wedges to keep warm. About 30 hearty fans lingered in the grandstand to watch the moment when so much promise and potential was realized, when the narrative was about to change forever.
“No freakin’ way!” Rahm said, leaning in to kiss his son on his first Father’s Day. “You have no idea what this means right now.”
The rest of the golf world does, of course.
It means that Rahm won the first of what could be several major titles. (“He can win the Grand Slam,” Tim Mickelson said.)
It means that Rahm climbed to No. 1 in the world for the first time.
And it means that, in the championship that pushes players to the breaking point, Rahm didn’t crack – or even come close.
Phil Mickelson waited on the range to congratulate Rahm and grew emotional when talking about the maturation of his protégé. “He’s got a great game and a lot of heart, and I think he’ll actually elevate even higher than what we saw today,” Mickelson said, turning to walk away.
“Fortunately, I’m 51 and not going to have to deal with it.”