Jon Rahm: The Boy from Bilbao
Jon Rahm is from Barrika, a small town on Spain’s northern coast, near Bilbao and just 60 miles east of Pedrena, where the great Seve Ballesteros was born. Both men grew up with the Bay of Biscay as a backdrop, and that is where their similarities only begin
Jose Maria Olazabal had to overcome the problem and it nearly drove Sergio Garcia mad. Now it is Jon Rahm’s turn to cope with the meteoric expectations attached to being “The Next Seve”.
Every time Rahm recovers brilliantly from a wild drive (thankfully Rahm is less afflicted by wild drives than the late Seve Ballesteros), every time he wins, every time he loses his temper—that does happen a bit—he gets compared to Ballesteros. It’s the curse of being such a remarkable, Spanish talent.
“Who would ever compare me to Seve?” Rahm protests, understandably. “I am never going to be Seve. He was unique, so special, and what he did for golf in Spain was unbelievable. He is my idol and it is beautiful in a way to be compared but I am Jon Rahm. I would be extremely happy to influence one kid to take up golf, whereas Seve influenced thousands.”
And it was not just the kids who fell under Seve’s spell; Rahm’s father Edorta took up golf thanks to him. Edorta and his friends were all inspired to take up the game after Ballesteros captained the victorious European Ryder Cup team in 1997 on home soil, at Valderrama. If Edorta had not taken up golf then his son’s ambitions might never have been drawn away from trying to become a professional soccer player. Jon Rahm, a lifelong fan of his local soccer club Athletic Bilbao, was a promising goalkeeper but decided to concentrate on golf aged 14. The following year he won the Spanish Boys Junior Championship and his course was set.
Before then, Rahm did meet Ballesteros although he nearly blew it.
“I was 12 years old and too young to appreciate who I was meeting,” says Rahm, who turned 25 in November. “It was at a prize giving ceremony in the Basque Country and Olazabal and Seve were both there. I knew who Olazabal was but I had no idea who Seve was. I shook Olazabal’s hand and I almost missed shaking Seve’s hand. My dad almost had a heart attack because I nearly missed the chance! I never met him again but I have since become friends with Seve’s son Javier.”
Despite the unstoppable rise of Rahm since turning professional after the 2016 U.S. Open at the age of 21—winning nine times in the three years since—it is unfair to measure him up against the incomparable Ballesteros, one of the most charismatic players ever, a driving force of Europe’s first Ryder Cup golden age in the eighties and nineties, the first Spaniard to win a major (The Open in 1979), the first European to win the Masters, in 1980, and a winner of five major trophies in all.
Despite the generation gap Rahm is impressively versed on the life and times of Ballesteros, but perhaps it should not be surprising when Rahm has spent much of his life being compared to Seve. After a while you would look him up.
“I was not fortunate enough to watch Seve play golf,” says Rahm, “but I have watched every clip of Seve you can find on YouTube.”
Rahm did not learn to play golf like Ballesteros, who taught himself to play a vast array of shots with a handed-down 3-iron on the beach at Pedrena, but Rahm likes to perform his 4-iron flop shot on practice grounds, which he picked up from watching videos of Seve.
The water in the Bay of Biscay probably tastes awful, but it might be worth sinking a glassful anyway, just in case.
“I have watched Seve winning The Open at Lytham a million times,” adds Rahm. “How he played that back nine without hitting a fairway, yet shooting three or four under par to win is unbelievable. He was unorthodox and actually it was unheard of to play golf the way Seve did. He showed golfers that there is more than one way to win tournaments, no matter how big the occasion.”
Forging a new path
That Lytham Open was Seve’s first major victory, in 1979, after a final round in which he took his driver off the tee nine times but found the fairway with it just once. It was the week when Ballesteros made his global breakthrough, at the age of 22, and this brings up the most striking similarity between the two golfers. Rahm is nothing like Ballesteros in looks, voice, stature, walk or golf swing, but like Seve, Rahm came to global prominence aged 22. That moment came when he holed a 60-foot eagle putt on the final hole at Torrey Pines to win the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open, having only earned his PGA Tour card a few weeks before.
“To win my first title like that, playing the way I did, it is hard to explain how it felt,” recalls Rahm. “Once the winning putt had dropped it was such an emotional explosion.”
Phil Mickelson finished in a tie for 14th that week and saw Rahm’s finish. “He’s more than just a good young player,” said Mickelson of his Arizona State University alumnus at the time. “He’s one of the top players in the world. There’s an intangible that some guys have where they want to have the pressure, they want to be in that tough position, they want to have everything fall on their shoulders, and he has that.”
Rahm holds the record for the longest uninterrupted spell at the top of the World Amateur Ranking (60 weeks) and won 11 individual titles during his career at Arizona State. The only player to emerge from ASU with more wins was Mickelson (16) and in fact it was Mickelson’s brother Tim who coached Rahm through his college years.
At the European Tour’s 2019 DP World Tour Championship in November, Rahm notched his ninth tour title in less than three years. It was Rahm’s sixth European title after he had already overtaken Ballesteros as the fastest Spaniard to reach five European Tour titles, having been victorious in October’s Spanish Open. Rahm won six from 40 European starts, at a win rate of 15 percent, whereas Ballesteros reached five wins after 49 starts. If you exclude majors and WGC tournaments, which are included in Rahm’s 40 European Tour appearances, the Spaniard has won six times in 15 regular European Tour events. That represents a staggering win rate of 40 percent.
Like all of the most promising tour pros, Rahm now needs to convert his talent into success in the majors and he is getting closer. In 2018 he finished fourth in the Masters and tied for fourth in the PGA Championship, before sharing third place at last year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Rahm is ranked third in the world (before the start of the 2020 Waste Management Phoenix Open), he is the highest ranked player without a major title and to no-one in world golf does this phrase apply more: “It’s only a matter of time”. The chasing pack also hunting their first major is led by an impressive quartet of Patrick Cantlay, Tommy Fleetwood, Xander Schauffele and Tony Finau but Rahm is first in line.
If Rahm wins this week at TPC Scottsdale he will become world number one for the first time.
“Well, I can’t complain can I,” says Rahm as he contemplates his professional success so far. “I’ve played really, really good golf. A lot of what I’ve done has been a lot faster than I expected. In my first year I ended up winning twice and I was surprised how quickly I got to the Top 10 in the World Rankings.
“Right now, my goal, hopefully, is to give myself a chance in a major at some point. I’ve been close. I’ve been in top fives but not really ever contending for a major title. That is the main thing this year.”
September 2018 brought Rahm’s Ryder Cup debut in Paris. He was despondent after losing two fourball matches over the first two days before uncovering the real Jon Rahm in the singles, defeating Tiger Woods 2&1 to secure a vital point for Europe when the matches were in the balance.
“That was for Seve,” said Rahm of his birdie putt to win. “That was for him, not for me. That was probably the best golf of my whole life on that last hole and it was very emotional. I couldn’t be happier that I could help the team.”
No, it’s not fair to compare Rahm to Ballesteros, but sometimes you just can’t help it.