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Will, Creativity and Talent Drive Rahm to Karmic Victory

June 21, 2021 San Diego, Calif. By Dave Shedloski
Jon Rahm was able to share his memorable U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines with his wife, Kelley, and 2-month-old son, Kepa. (Jeff Haynes/USGA)

In his formative years growing up in Barrika, Spain, Jon Rahm, whenever he was not distracted by soccer, would follow his brother Eriz to a local driving range. But instead of hitting balls, he would usually join other boys on the putting green, where they would invent a variety of short-game shots and putting contests. The green was firm and fast, great training for a major championship, particularly a U.S. Open.

When he later attended Arizona State University on a golf scholarship, his coach, Tim Mickelson – yes, the younger brother of and caddie for six-time major winner Phil – predicted that his first major victory would be in the U.S. Open.

“I thought, no way,” Rahm recalled on Sunday after rallying to win the 121st U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego. 

But for all the power and pugilistic might at his disposal, for all the karma and poetic justice pulling him toward a magnificent performance, it was the kid who learned to hit a flop shot with a 4-iron – as he once told veteran golf journalist Jim McCabe – who learned to navigate fast greens, who authored the right shots to bring him his first major title.

With two holes remaining and trying to chase down hard-luck Louis Oosthuizen, Rahm cozied home the most exquisite 24-foot, left-to-right slider for a birdie on the 17th hole. And then after finding the right greenside bunker on the par-5 18th – the hole where Tiger Woods made a magical birdie in 2008 to force a playoff he eventually won – Rahm played safely, expertly, to the right rather than risk seeing his ball race downhill into the water beyond the hole. And then he sank that one, too, from 18 feet, will and experience and creativity and talent conspiring to deliver the ball into the cup.

As they will always remember Woods screaming with elation after his 12-foot birdie putt somehow crawled into the right side of the hole to tie Rocco Mediate, so, too, will they remember Rahm punching the air emphatically to celebrate what ended up being the winning stroke.

“I knew history could get close to repeating itself,” said the champion, 26, who was not referring to Woods but to his own history, when he finished birdie-eagle to win the first of his six PGA Tour titles in the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open on the South Course. “Man, I got it done in a fashion that apparently can only happen to me at Torrey Pines.

“It had to happen in a beautiful setting like this. … It’s hard to explain. It’s incredible it happened the way it did.”

Well, of course it could only happen to him at Torrey Pines, a place that reminds him of home, a place with significant personal meaning, and a place where he came into the week a collective 51 under par in the last five years in the annual PGA Tour event, five strokes better than anyone else.

The first Spaniard to win the U.S. Open, Rahm calls San Diego and the surrounding area his “happy place” because it does remind him so much of home, be it the sea air, the weather or, quite fortunately, the turf upon which the championship was contested. He proposed to his wife Kelley on the beach just below the adjacent North Course. Though they live in Scottsdale, Ariz., the couple make it a point to visit this Southern California enclave monthly.

They just had a child, a son, Kepa Cahill, on April 3, just before the Masters. Wouldn’t Torrey be an appropriate name for their second offspring?

Rahm’s parents, Edorta and Angela, were athletes growing up but they didn’t play golf. They became interested in the game after countryman Seve Ballesteros, a five-time major winner and world No. 1, captained Europe to a Ryder Cup victory in 1997 in Spain. At 13, after those few years messing around with the game, Rahm got serious and took up instruction under Eduardo Celles, with whom Rahm still keeps in touch. Within a year, Rahm won the Spanish Junior Boys Championship, but only after learning to eschew a draw in favor of a power fade.

Then he went to play for Tim Mickelson at ASU, becoming an All-American, and he finished 2015 with the Mark McCormack Medal for being No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. He topped off his amateur career by winning the Jack Nicklaus Award in 2016 as NCAA Division I Player of the Year.

When Phil Mickelson got a good look at the Spanish youngster, he predicted that his fellow ASU graduate would be a force when he turned professional. The two men became fast friends, which is why you saw Phil, the reigning PGA champion, sitting in a folding chair next to Kelley as Rahm hit balls as Oosthuizen completed his round. Tim, naturally, was among the first to high-five his former charge as Rahm made his way to the scoring trailer after that scintillating finish.

“It's incredible that I'm sitting next to this trophy,” Rahm said after his closing 4-under 67, tied for low round of the championship, yielded a 6-under 278 total, one better than Oosthuizen, one of a trio of 54-hole leaders. “A couple weeks ago, I watched my good friend Phil win it. Not this one, but win the PGA, and I took a lot of inspiration from that. I've been close before, and I just knew on a Sunday, the way I have been playing the last few majors, I just had to be close. I knew I could get it done.”

Just two weeks ago in Columbus, Ohio, it was unknown if Rahm would get the chance. Winner of the 2020 Memorial Tournament on a Muirfield Village layout that was fast and fiery, Rahm was on his way to defending his title, completing 54 holes in a record-tying 18-under 198. He led by a record six strokes. But as he exited the 18th green, he was informed that he had tested positive for COVID-19. He had been vaccinated but was not outside the 14-day immunization window. PGA Tour rules stipulate that he must be withdrawn from the tournament.

It looked like Rahm would have to quarantine until Tuesday of U.S. Open week, but he got a break with consecutive negative test results the Friday before. He wasn’t sure how prepared he would be, but he hadn’t lost his confidence from the Memorial, “the best performance of my life,” as he called it.

“I’m a big believer in karma,” said Rahm, who won $2.25 million, more than making up for the likely $1.67 million he forfeited at the Memorial, and returned to the top spot in the world ranking.

He also believes in the power of positive thinking. And the COVID episode left him feeling blessed, in a way, because no one around him got sick, and he felt only mild symptoms. And, strangely, it put him in a better frame of mind, not insignificant for a player who used to run exceedingly hot when things would transpire against his expectations.

“I feel like coming in here without having practiced much relaxed me a little bit,” he said. “I thought, you know what, in case I play bad, I have an excuse. I have a bailout in case. I can convince myself, hey, I had COVID.”

With four holes to play on Sunday, he convinced himself that he had an opportunity, not room for excuses. He told his caddie Adam Hayes that if he could make two 3s and two 4s coming home that he could win. And that is exactly what he did. 

“It felt like such a fairy-tale story that I knew it was going to have a happy ending,” he said, almost teary-eyed. “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. That's why I played as aggressive as I did because it was like, ‘Man, this is my day; everything's going to go right.’ I just knew that I could do it and believed it. 

“It’s incredible to finish the way it did,” he marveled.

No, what was incredible was the way he finished it. Probably no different than those funny games he used to play as a kid, games that prepared him for the ultimate prize.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.