From humble beginnings in a small town in Basque country, 22-year-old Jon Rahm has quickly developed into a force on the PGA Tour. With the length to overpower the par-5s and a touch and imagination that calls to mind his legendary countryman, Rahm has the game to contend in his first trip to Augusta.
How did Jon Rahm go from a relative unknown playing amateur golf to a Masters favorite in a mere nine months? It's a complicated story, and it involves a tiny bunk bed, a shabby practice putting green, a game-winning fútbol save, YouTube videos of Seve Ballesteros, lyrics from Kendrick Lamar, a fetching javelin thrower, quantum physics, a magic recipe for spaghetti carbonara and quite possibly the worst shot in the history of college golf. Allow us to explain.
Rahm is a big-boned, 22-year-old Spaniard who has been one of the breakout players of 2017. Everybody's All-America at Arizona State, he turned pro after graduating last summer and has been schooling the PGA Tour competition ever since. Rahm tied for third in his pro debut, won at Torrey Pines in January with a walk-off eagle and tied for third at the WGC-Mexico Championship. Two weeks ago, in the final of the Match Play Championship, he pushed world No. 1 Dustin Johnson to the brink, matching him yard for yard off the tee. Along the way he has vaulted from 551st to 12th in the World Ranking. With his power and touch, Rahm possesses a game that is tailor-made for Augusta National, and he is clearly not one to shrink from the moment.
Yes, it is somewhat preposterous to expect a kid to contend in his first Masters, but Rahm is not a typical rookie. "Jon's whole game is built on self-belief," says Alberto Sanchez, an Arizona State teammate and still a close friend. "Because of his success, other people have always tried to pick his brain. He couldn't even explain how he does what he does. He would just say, 'I believe I'm the best, and I believe in every decision 100%. Every shot, every chip, I believe I will pull it off. So even if it is the wrong shot, I believe so much in myself, I can still pull it off.'"
Rahm's sense of self has a lot to do with his family and his wide-ranging sports background. He grew up in Basque country, in the tiny town of Barrika. His father, Edorta, works in the gasoline industry helping to calculate fuel prices. In his younger days Edorta was a rock climber and extreme athlete. "From him I got the feeling that if you push past your fear, anything is possible," says Jon. His mother, Angela, spent three decades as a midwife. "She was the one we would go to if we needed to discuss emotions and feelings," he says. Jon's 28-year-old brother, Eriz, a set designer for a theater company, nurtured his baby brother on the golf course. "He's the happiest person I know, always smiling," says Jon. "I have tried to model that. And he's always cheering me on, even to this day. I go to sleep and he is texting me; I wake up and he is texting me."
Rahm's upbringing was rich with love and support, but otherwise he comes from humble origins. His college teammate Ben Shur still has vivid memories from the 2014 visit he made to Rahm in his hometown. "His family treated me like a king," Shur says. "Man, every meal was so good, and some lasted for four hours. But I'll never forget seeing Jon's room. It was tiny, and there was this little bunk bed for him and his brother that took up most of the room. The mattress was so small that when Jon lay down, his feet would dangle off the edge. So, as much success as he's having now, he's never going to forget where he came from."
Rahm was a strong kid with eclectic athletic pursuits: competitive canoeing, jai alai, karate and hoops. His first love was soccer, and he nursed the fantasy of lining up for Athletic Bilbao, the popular professional team in his region. Rahm played at a high level into his early teens. "I always wanted to be the guy who decides the game," he says. "In basketball, I wanted the last shot. In fútbol, I wanted to be goalie. I'll never forget when I was 13, we played in a big tournament with other top teams. We were leading 32 in the final seconds, and there was a penalty kick, so I had to stop the shot. Both teams were lined up watching, all the fans were yelling, and I stopped the ball and we won. I loved that feeling, of everyone counting on me. But it can be hard to get that in team sports. In golf there is that internal pressure on every shot. I think that's why I fell in love with the game."
When he was 14, Rahm began to focus exclusively on golf, and a year later he won the Spanish Junior Boys championship. He quickly assumed his nation's golfing identity. If South Africans are typically easygoing characters with gorgeous swings and English lads tend to be short-hitting grinders, Spaniards are, through nature and nurture, swashbuckling escape artists. Rahm gorged on YouTube videos of his idol, Seve Ballesteros, particularly his breakthrough victory at the 1979 British Open, in which a car park made an important cameo.
Over time Rahm absorbed the mannerisms, shot selection and duende that pored through the screen. Ballesteros moved like a lithe jungle cat, but Rahm's legs call to mind the trunks of the pine trees at Augusta National, so he fashioned a game all his own, with a strong, repeatable swing powered by his lower body and featuring a notably sawed-off backswing.
"The shorter it is, the less that can go wrong," Rahm says sensibly.
But even as he grew to his current dimensions of 6'4" and 230 pounds, Rahm continued to hone a Seve-esque touch. Ballesteros famously learned the game on the beaches of Pedreña, with a hand-me-down 3-iron; as a pro he would wow his peers by playing delicate shots out of practice bunkers with a long iron. Rahm had a driving range near his house, but "it wasn't a five-star practice facility," says Shur. "The balls were like rocks, and the mats were all worn out. The practice bunker was terrible, full of rocks. The putting green was as hard as marble and rolling like 20 [on the Stimpmeter]. Jon has the best hands I've ever seen on a golfer, and I'm sure it's because of that green. You had to play a great shot just to get the ball to stop."
Adds Sanchez, "Have you seen the video on Instagram of Jon hitting flop shots with a 4-iron? It's insane."
Seve would be proud.
By the time he was 17, Rahm was one of the top amateurs in Europe but largely unknown to college coaches in the U.S., because he was playing mostly small-time events. Luckily, Tim Mickelson was desperate. Phil's younger brother had just finished his first year coaching at Arizona State, and the thin roster he inherited had yielded one of the worst seasons in the program's history. Acting on a tip from a friend affiliated with the Spanish Golf Federation, Mickelson offered Rahm a scholarship, sight unseen. Jon arrived in Tempe speaking virtually no English, and his freewheeling game didn't translate well to college golf, where sacrificing for the team takes precedence over artistic expression. In his first tournament, at Spring Hill Golf Course in Wayzata, Minn., Rahm lost his drive into the trees on the short par-5 16th hole. "I had a little window that was about as big as this table," Rahm said over a recent lunch. "I'm trying to hit a 30-yard slice with a 5-iron below some branches and then up a ridge to a green covered with bunkers. It didn't happen. I hit the branches, and my ball rolled 50 yards in front of me."
"This other coach saw the whole thing," recalls Mickelson, "and he came up to me and claimed it was the stupidest shot he'd ever seen a college player attempt."
"Still made par," sniffs Rahm.
Mickelson secretly loved the kid's self-belief, not least because it reminded him of Phil's. Still, at the Sun Devils' next tournament, in Bremerton, Wash., Mickelson instructed an assistant coach to walk every hole with Rahm and encourage proper course management. Rahm got the message and played adroitly enough to earn the trust of his coaches. They in turn loosened the reigns just a tad, and at his next event, at Pumpkin Ridge outside Portland, Rahm closed 6465 to finish second in the third start of his career. The rest is history: His 11 wins rank second in school history, behind Phil Mickelson's 16. Rahm also became the first two-time winner of the Ben Hogan Award as the nation's top collegiate golfer.
Adapting to college life was nearly as seamless, once Rahm discovered hip-hop. In his first few weeks in school he sought out Sanchez to speak his native language, but Mickelson put the kibosh on that by making them do a burpee for every Spanish word they uttered. Rahm found it was easiest to learn English by rapping along to the rhymes of Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. With a little prodding he can still freestyle "Swimming Pools," his favorite Kendrick song: Pool full of liquor then you dive in it/I wave a few bottles, then I watch 'em all flock/All the girls wanna play Baywatch. O.K., it's not Dylan, but it worked.
When he was a freshman, Rahm couldn't touch his toes, but he increased his strength and flexibility through diligent work. He got extra motivation trying to keep up in the gym with his girlfriend, Kelley Cahill, a former javelin thrower on the Sun Devils' track team. They now live at Grayhawk in Scottsdale, and he plays out of Whisper Rock, where Phil Mickelson is the patron saint; Rahm tools around town in a Porsche Panamera GTS with a rahmbo vanity plate.
Cahill is finishing her degree in biology and global health, and last fall she pushed Rahm to get serious about his diet. After blood tests revealed 95 deleterious foods and nutrients that upset his body's chemistry, he cut out gluten, dairy, sugar, apples, bananas and olive oil, which is mother's milk to a Spaniard. When Rahm turned pro, Tim Mickelson left Arizona State to serve as his agent. "We had an eight-figure olive oil deal lined up," he says, "but we had to cancel it." (Mickelson is joking. We think.) Rahm says his new diet has given him more energy, mentally and physically, and he's not exactly going hungry. "Kelley is an amazing cook," he says. "She makes a spaghetti carbonara that has no dairy, no gluten, no bacon and somehow tastes good. I don't know how the hell she does it."
For the last two years Rahm has been working with Joseba del Carmen, a mental coach who might be more accurately described as a philosopher. "We've been talking about quantum physics," Rahm says. "Different planes of existence, different dimensions. Our focus has always been on keeping my mind and body in balance, and it's just another way of explaining it. I like it even if I'm not sure I fully understand it. Basically, as soon as you are on the path to the future, you're not in balance anymore."
In Rahm's immediate future is an invitation to the Masters. Augusta National is the site of much of Ballesteros's mythmaking, and Rahm has been studying those YouTube videos too.
"Comparisons are not easy," says his swing coach, Eduardo Celles. "Seve was unique and is still our idol. There will never be another one like him. But Seve and Jon give off an energy that is special, that is unlike other players'. Both have a lot of charisma and a magic in their game."
Asked recently for the difference-maker among similarly talented players, Rahm fell silent. "It's very hard to identify that," he said finally. In his case, the answers can be found in where he grew up, the way he learned to compete, the legend who inspired him and the loved ones who continue to help Rahm better himself. It remains to be seen if he can summon a certain magic at Augusta National, but this burgeoning talent has already come so far. "So many things shape you as a player and a person," Rahm says, "but ultimately you have to take the final steps down the path by yourself. That's what is exciting and scary about it. How do you know if you're ready? You don't. But you have to go for it anyway."