SAN DIEGO – Jon Rahm is a big believer in karma.
Fifteen days after he was informed that he had tested positive and had to withdraw from the PGA Tour’s Memorial Tournament despite holding a commanding six-stroke lead, the 26-year-old Spaniard sensed that the 121st U.S. Open at Torrey Pines belonged to him.
“It felt like such a fairy tale story that I knew it was going to have a happy ending. I could just tell, just going down the fairway after that first tee shot, that second shot, and that birdie, I knew there was something special in the air. I could just feel it. I just knew it,” he said. “It was like, man, this is my day; everything’s going to go right. I felt like that helped me become. I just knew that I could do it and believed it.”
Rahm woke up to crows on a cool overcast Father’s Day morning, his first time celebrating the occasion as a father, and poured himself a cup of coffee and pulled up a Call of Duty tournament from the night before featuring a team he follows, OpTic Chicago, and settled in to watch the 90-minute competition. Wife Kelley had noticed that he had been nervous the day before – which for Rahm means being quiet – but today she sensed a new-found calm on what would be a chaotic final round at the U.S. Open.
“I told my dad this is going to be really good or really bad,” Kelley said.
Big things have been expected for Rahm for some time. He grew up in the Basque coastal town of Barrika, Spain, population 1,500, and met the great Seve Ballesteros just once before Seve died. Rahm was around 12 years old at a prize-giving ceremony. Two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal was there too.
“I knew who Olazábal was,” Rahm recalled. “I had no idea who Seve was and I shook Olazabal’s hand and I almost missed Seve. And my dad almost had a heart attack because I had the chance to shake Seve’s hand and I almost didn’t. I have that memory. I never got to meet him again, never got to speak to him again.”
Jon Rahm has Phil Mickelson after winning the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course. (Photo: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)
But whether he knows it or not, Rahm has been compared with Seve ever since and chasing his records to be known as the greatest Spanish golfer. Rahm arrived in the U.S. in 2012 when then-Arizona State University men’s golf coach looked at Rahm’s position in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and sent him an e-mail offering a scholarship to play golf sight unseen. The next day Rahm accepted. He had never been to the United States, barely spoke English and he was not sure if college golf was for him. But he learned to speak fluently by repeating the lyrics to rap songs by Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. Rahm’s coach provided the necessary motivation, enforcing a stiff penalty of a burpee for every Spanish word Rahm uttered. His golf game? That translated in any language.
“His golf game was very refined from the first day he came to campus,” Tim Mickelson said.
At Arizona State, Rahm met Kelley, a javelin thrower on the track-and-field team, at a Halloween party her freshman year. She was dressed as an NFL replacement referee with a blindfold and walking cane, he as a SWAT officer, and she thought she was on a bathroom line, but it turned out to be a drink line. They began talking. Well, she did.
“I’m just going on and on and on and thinking he was the best listener ever,” she said.
Rahm kept a promise to his parents and stayed four years and graduated and wasted little time making his mark in the pro ranks. TaylorMade executive Keith Sbararo tells the story about how the first time he watched Rahm play he called Golf Channel analyst Tripp Isenhour and said he’d just met the sixth-best player in the world, and he still was an amateur.
“I may have sold Jon short when I said he was the sixth-best player in the world,” said Sbarbaro, who eventually signed Rahm to an endorsement deal.
Count Phil Mickelson among those who recognized raw talent when he saw it. He famously won a bet from fellow Tour pro Colt Knost, who gave Mickelson 2-to-1 odds that Rahm would reach the top 10 within a year of turning pro. Rahm did just that by May 2017.
“I can neither confirm nor deny that,” Tim Mickelson said of the wager with a smirk, “but I can tell you that neither of us would ever bet against Jon.”
Even before Rahm turned pro and notched his first PGA Tour title in dramatic fashion at the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open, Rahm and his wife have loved Torrey Pines and the surrounding area, which he said reminds him of home – from the coastline to the blue skies and temperate weather. He proposed to Kelley at Torrey Pines Reserve Park during a hike and they were married in nearby Del Mar. “I think it’s something that really just resonates with me,” he said, adding “I love Torrey and Torrey loves me.”
When Rahm reached World No. 1 last year, the expectations to win a major grew. All that seemingly was holding him back was his fiery temper. Rahm’s outbursts – from slamming clubs to smashing tee markers to foul language – have been well documented. Still, Tim Mickelson said he’s misunderstood by the public and his wife agreed.
“It’s very upsetting. People mistake his passion for anger. They want to see the highs but they don’t want to see the lows,” she said. “He’s tried before to be, you know, happy all the time and not show emotion but it just doesn’t work for him.”
Phil Mickelson called Rahm “a gentle giant,” and said, “he’s got the kindest heart, and yet he has a great fire and passion to the game.”
“He’s actually terribly shy off the golf course,” Kelley said. “At home, he only likes to go out to one restaurant because he only like to go where he knows the waiters and he knows where he’s going to sit.”
Shy off the course, but once his competitive juices start flowing, she said, “get him on the golf course and he wants to step on people’s necks.”
Jon Rahm and his family celebrate with the trophy after winning he U.S. Open golf tournament at Torrey Pines Golf Course. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
The general consensus was that despite 12 victories heading into the U.S. Open – six on the PGA Tour and six on the European Tour – if Rahm could only learn to mask his emotions better and accept failure, his record would be even better. Rahm tried, but he always fell back on the excuse that getting mad helped him win tournaments. His caddie, Adam Hayes, feared he was trying too hard to act mature. Then along came Kepa in April. The proud new papa radiated joy when he arrived at the Masters, but that only lasted until he made his first bogey. During the third round of the PGA Championship, he behaved unprofessionally. His latest Mount Vesuvius eruption proved to be an A-ha-moment.
“I know I can perform at my best without showing my frustration so much. I made that deal with myself after the third round of the PGA. I wasn’t happy with how I ended, and I could have handled it better, and I vowed to myself to be a better role model for my son,” he said.
Kelley concedes it’s a cliché but she says the birth of their son changed Rahm for the better. When he tested positive for COVID-19 on June 5, he handled the situation with grace and said all the right things at his pre-U.S. Open press conference. It was the most telling sign that he could maintain his composure at the most mentally-taxing championship. Rahm also benefited from calls from European Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington who recounted how much like Rahm at the Memorial he was leading a tournament by five strokes after 54 holes when he was disqualified for signing the wrong scorecard. Harrington’s message: “He learned a lot more than he would ever learn from the win,” Rahm said.
Nick Faldo texted a similar story and emphasized how he had won the very next week. Rahm thought of those stories on Sunday as he faced a leaderboard with Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Louis Oosthuizen, Collin Morikawa, all major winners to boot. He tried to keep his head down and go about his own business, but the fans, who seemed to be in his corner all week, perhaps feeling he was owed one after the strange circumstances at the Memorial, kept telling him about the wild fluctuations on Sunday.
“I decided to embrace it. You see all those great names, and to myself I thought whoever wins this one is going to be the one who won a U.S. Open with a star-packed leaderboard,” he said.
Let’s not forget that Rahm is a believer in karma and he kept telling anyone who would listen that “something good is going to come. I don’t know what, but something good is going to come, and I felt it today out there on the golf course,” he said. “I just had to be close. I knew I could get it done.”
He got a grip on his temper in time to win the U.S. Open on the course he loves and reclaimed the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking. He did so with two unforgettable putts. The first was a 25-foot putt at 17 to tie for the lead. None of this surprised his father, Edorta, who had been here in 2017 to see his son win for the first time and had arrived only a week earlier after not having seen his son for more than a year due to COVID. He recalled seeing his son make hundreds of putts as a kid at home in Spain always to win a major. Of the winning 18-foot left-to-right bending putt at the final hole, Rahm recalled how Lee Westwood had missed a similar putt to tie Rocco Mediate at the 2008 U.S. Open and aimed 3-4 feet to left.
“As soon as I made contact, I looked up and saw where the ball was going. It was exactly the speed and line I visualized, and I told myself, that’s in,” he said. “If you could see my thoughts with 10 feet to go, in my mind, I’m like that’s in the hole, and it went in.”
No Spaniard, not even Seve, had ever won the U.S. Open, just as no one had ever birdied the last two holes to win the U.S. Open by one shot until Rahm.
“He’s won two tournaments in a row. I don’t care what anyone says. He had that title [at the Memorial],” Rory McIlroy said. “It was unfortunate. Mentally, I think you have to be in a good place to bounce back from something like that. Obviously, he knew his game was there. He just had to go out and play the way he knows he can.
“And he’s obviously had success here at this golf course. I don’t think there’s a golf course where he can’t have success on. He’s that good of a player. He was a major champion in waiting. It was just a matter of time.”
Or as Rahm put it, the stars were aligned.
“It almost feels like it’s a movie that’s about to end and I’m going to wake up soon,” he said.
When he does, his name will be engraved on the silver trophy and he’ll have quite the story to tell Kepa some day.