As the favorite at Torrey Pines, will Jon Rahm finally take the next step?

Jon Rahm's career has been nothing short of incredible thus far. But his chase for his first major chugs on.

Stephen Denton

This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of GOLF Magazine. It has been lightly edited for clarity since shipping time.

After every pro golf event is won, there comes a time when the interviews are finished, the cameras stop clicking and the thrum of victory just goes quiet. 

Now, what?

Some pros splurge until the sun rises, either on booze or the luxury items in their Amazon cart. An emergency trip to Vegas might be in order. But for Jon Rahm, after his improbable win at the BMW Championship last August, the post-tourney celebration at Olympia Fields Country Club came with a simple, surprising request: Can we set up a private dinner for me and the missus in the locker room? 

For all his talent and the tens of millions of dollars he’s banked, a few things are certain about the 26-year-old Spaniard. He’s as grounded as superstars come. And he likes things his way. 

That win in Chicago — perhaps the most exciting finish we saw in all of 2020 — was equal parts flamboyant and redemptive. He stole it with a 64 on Sunday, punctuated by a curling, 66-foot putt that dropped on the first playoff hole to beat Dustin Johnson. OFCC members have since dubbed it the “Rahm Bomb.” But only those closest to Rahm understood the significance of the win taking place at Olympia Fields. Things didn’t end so amicably the last time he made a run there. At the 2015 U.S. Amateur, Rahm, just 20 at the time and the best amateur on the planet, blew a 1 Up lead in a quarterfinals match with three holes to play. Then he blew up in the locker room. 

“He kinda had a fight with his locker,” remembers one OFCC member who’d followed Rahm that day. “And the locker lost.”

Fast-forward five years and Rahm is seated in the center of that same cavernous locker room, his pregnant wife, Kelley, by his side and a buttery, 22-oz bone-in rib eye plated in front of him. The enormous chop — smothered in sautéed mushrooms and balanced on 460 cc’s of whipped potatoes — is now a staple of Olympia Fields’ clubhouse menu. The “Jon Rahm BMW Victory Dinner” will set you back $55.

jon rahm victory dinner
Rahm’s come-from-behind victory last summer has been immortalized at Olympia Fields in more ways than one. Courtesy of Olympia Fields

It goes without saying that this version of Rahm — in familial bliss and feasting on success — is significantly different from the kid who came to blows with an inanimate, metal locker. 

“It’s crazy looking back on these past few years and really seeing how much has changed for me,” Rahm says. 

For those who aren’t quite ready to believe it, he’s eager to prove that notion. Rahm was one of the betting favorites at the Masters in April, despite being the last player to arrive on-site. He even told gamblers weeks prior, Maybe don’t bet on me, because family comes first. Kelley had just given birth to their first child, a beautiful boy named Kepa, and Dad was beaming as he told the press all about it. 

Rahm waxed on like a seasoned midwife about the delivery process (“When does labor start, really?”), his newfound respect for mothers and paternal instincts he didn’t know he had. The way he was received you’d have thought that he won in San Antonio the week before, not Jordan Spieth. For perhaps the first time ever, baby gifts were exchanged on the Augusta National driving range. And yet, after an opening-round 72 some 30 hours later, there he was in Rahmbo mode, bickering with a writer about just how animated — or not — he seemed during his first nine holes as a dad. Old habits die hard. 

“When people look at Jon’s temperament, they make it sound like he’s got this chip on his shoulder,” says Dave Phillips, Rahm’s coach of nearly a decade. “He doesn’t. He’s just deeply passionate about the game and wanting to perform. Any [frustration] that comes out is really directed at himself.” 

Jon Rahm
Rahm reacts after his tournament-winning putt dropped at Olympia Fields. Getty Images

From a front-row seat, Phillips has witnessed Rahm’s progress, since the days when his star player was the best 17-year-old stick in Spain. He’s seen the blowups of the old Rahm and the maturation of the new Rahm — and knows there’s something still undetermined but definitely expected of Dad Rahm. Golf writers certainly play a role in that. As soon as he reached the pro ranks, Rahm was hyped as heir to his boyhood idols, Seve Ballesteros and José María Olazábal. But so does the rest of the Tour. After a rookie season in which he played 15 rounds alongside Rickie Fowler, Rahm and his talent were framed this way by Fowler’s caddie Joe Skovron: “If Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia had a baby, that’s who Jon Rahm is as a golfer.”

Rahm has followed through with four straight winning seasons on Tour, bagging 13 titles on the PGA and European tours along the way. He was 18 holes of smooth golf away from making that five straight winning seasons earlier this month, but a positive Covid test forced him to withdraw from the Memorial after three rounds — with a six-shot lead.

It was the ultimate doomsday scenario for the PGA Tour’s Covid protocols, creating a soft asterisk when discussing Rahm’s career win count. But it seems he’s already moved on from that, getting clearance earlier than expected to travel and prep for this week’s major. He even watched the final round of the Memorial by himself in isolation. Now, 12 days on, he spoke with the press on Tuesday and made clear he didn’t want pity, or for anyone to criticize the PGA Tour. “We move on,” he said, simply. On to the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where he’s the betting favorite.

It’s weeks like this where we are reminded of the nattering, ever-present crowd pros are asked to appease: those who measure career success exclusively on the majors metric. And to date, Rahm’s number is zero, a stat that only gets weightier with time. Can we actually think of him as the best player in the world — as many holistic rankings suggest — if he hasn’t won a major? It’s worth remembering that, even for the most ascendent pros, growth doesn’t always happen at a Spieth-, Morikawa- or Ko-like pace. Rahm’s pace has been entirely his own.

This is the guy who, in a distinctly un-American way, spurned the pro ranks for a four-year stint at Arizona State. Spieth and Justin Thomas left college without their degrees. Rahm promised his family he’d graduate. So he trounced collegiate golfers by day and crushed Netflix by night. “I feel like he’s known it his whole life, that in his own time he’d take the next step,” says Alberto Sanchez, one of Rahm’s college teammates. “He hasn’t really changed. It’s just his stature in the game that has changed.”

jon rahm progression
Same move more than a decade later. Courtesy // Stephen Denton

When Rahm, then a 17-year-old freshman with a heavy accent and not much English, met Sanchez, he clung to him. (Sanchez spoke Spanish, too.) The two of them roomed for three years, and Sanchez, now competing on the Canadian Tour, remains part of an unsurprisingly tight circle. The group chat they share, named “Jon’s BP” (as in, Jon’s Bachelor Party), has become an essential means of communication and support these days. And a little humility. 

“It’s so important to have friends like Alberto, ones that will not let me forget the embarrassing moments,” Rahm says. “They’re always there for me, and it’s big to have that balance of when you’re playing versus when you’re not.” 

Gratitude aside, Sanchez says Rahm does his share of ribbing in the chats. After all, only one of these guys is a Mercedes-Benz ambassador. Only one of them flies private. Only one of them is a guest of honor at his favorite Spanish soccer club’s games (¡Vamos, Athletic Bilbao!). 

And only one of them got the full-court press from Callaway when he became an equipment free agent last year. When the pandemic shut down the Tour in March 2020, the gear manufacturer wooed Rahm like never before. He’d played some Callaway clubs in college, and his close relationship with Phil Mickelson helped get Callaway a seat at the table. But at the highest level of the game, equipment changes rarely go smoothly. The world’s best love maintaining the status quo. 

In the way that big-time colleges recruit talent to their programs, Callaway assembled an exhaustive presentation for Rahm at its Carlsbad headquarters. Here’s where you’re great. (Off the tee.) Here’s where we think we can make you better. (Short game.) Here’s where we can benefit your brand, your coach, your foundation, your agent. The list goes on. Their vision was to have Rahm be the face of Callaway for decades to come. 

“I think it showed him that we’re not just handing him a golf club and saying, ‘Try this,’” says Jacob Davidson, a Tour manager at Callaway. “We wanted to go through the process; show him that we’d done our homework. We probably knew more about Jon than he knew about himself.” 

“What really stood out to me,” Rahm says, “is how committed they were to working with me; to letting me, at my own pace, figure out what I was looking for. I was out there for four days, working hard to get everything — the clubs, the ball, the putter — in a place I really liked.” 

The effort paid off in the form of a multiyear agreement. Rahm inked the contract, then, famously, shot 59 during his first practice round with the new gear. It sounds straight out of a marketing department, but it’s true. A few weeks in and both sides of the relationship were delivering. Rahm now plays a full bag of Callaways and — in a corollary deal — rocks TravisMathew threads on the course. 

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Jon Rahm’s first career Tour win came at Torrey Pines, where the U.S. Open will be played this week. Getty Images

Unlike plenty of pros whose results tumble after a major equipment change, there has been no drop-off in Rahm’s game. He’s notched 10 top 10s this season, two more than anyone else. Again, considering the asterisk that was the Memorial, that number would be 11 and three clear of the field. One of the top 10s came at Augusta National, where his final-round 66 was the best of the day by two strokes and his 15th straight Masters round at par or better. The man simply does not miss.

“Just going about it, doing his thing and making it look not very difficult,” as Sanchez likes to say. He’s watched this show for about a decade now. 

In contemplating Rahm’s future, Coach Phillips looks back to 2020, when his star pupil won on two of the toughest Tour setups the players saw all season. To that point, Rahm had proven he could win all over the world, on birdie-fest tracks in a breezy race to 18, 20 or 22 under. But he won in dominating fashion at a difficult Muirfield Village in 2020, by three strokes, with a score of nine under. Then, in his win at Olympia Fields, he summoned more grit than Phillips had ever seen in him. Rahm trailed by one with four to play and had just fanned his drive on the par-5 15th, banking it off the trees and narrowly missing the hazard. A break, to be sure, but his position on the hole (in the thick stuff ) and in the tournament (trailing by one) fooled Paul Azinger, who, from NBC’s tower, thought Rahm’s next shot called for a hard, slicing long-iron. Hero ball, really, is what Azinger wanted to see. Not for Rahm, who chose, instead, to ease an 8-iron back into the fairway.

“That, to me, was maturity,” Phillips says. “All I have to do is put this in the middle of the fairway. I’m swinging really well. I can still make birdie with a 6-iron. That’s what a guy does who’s using his mind and knows his talent.”

For the immensely gifted, it’s sometimes as simple as that. It’s exactly the type of golf that is required to win a U.S. Open. Perhaps the greatest theater the event ever presented came from Tiger Woods laying up from the fairway bunker at Torrey Pines instead of going for the green in two, knowing that he can make birdie with a wedge in hand. You’ll watch the highlight no less than 20 times this week.

Back in Chicago, of course, Rahm did make birdie with his 6-iron, and would soon share the BMW lead. Two hours later he was cradling a trophy and, undoubtedly, thinking about steak.

Around 10 o’clock that night, as darkness enveloped a nearly empty Olympia Fields, Rahm and his wife bid the waitstaff goodnight and strolled hand in hand to their cottage on the South Course. A group of OFCC members had gathered to toast their own volunteering efforts that week, and Rahm called out to them. “I just had the best meal I could possibly think of,” he shouted. “You should have joined us!” 

His next initiative for professional growth? Send early invites. 

Sean Zak Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine, currently working on a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews. You can read about those travels here and catch his latest thoughts on the Drop Zone Podcast:

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