Last Friday, Jon Rahm returned to earthly golfers. He played a four-over-par round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational tournament in Orlando, something he hadn’t seen in a long time. Because a series had lasted for three months that seemed almost superhuman on the golf greens. 4th, 8th, 1st, 1st, 7th, 3rd, 1st – these were the Spaniard’s placements since the beginning of the year. In Orlando, Rahm has now shared 39th place, which in a way was logical: he played perfect golf for weeks, he seemed almost unbeatable – and just before returning to normal spheres he got a little cocky.
Rahm was asked whether, in view of his record, he would still deal with the best players of the present, namely Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler; or whether it is only about the records of Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. He answered cautiously at first – he really only wanted to see from day to day – but Rahm then revealed the truth: “In a way: yes.”
Comparisons to Woods, Nicklaus, Palmer are more common in golf, The Neverending Story sells fantastically on TV. But, according to the mythology of this sport, putting yourself in this row with even the most cautious hints usually enrages the gods of golf: “They then humiliate you a little,” said Rahm. Things always went so incredibly well throughout his career, however, that comparisons seemed fitting; The world number one should have recognized that himself by now, who is already playing for his fourth win of the season at the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach in one of the most important tournaments of the year.
It’s the blend of his humble beginnings and fairytale rise that makes Rahm such a standout golfer and character. Almost 1,500 people live in his birthplace Barrika, half an hour’s drive north of Bilbao in the Basque Country. It was not at one of the golf-loving country’s prestigious clubs that young Rahm learned the game, but at a teeing ground with a putting green on a concrete base that withstood the harsh Basque winter better than real grass.
But the Basque Country has an excellent reputation in the European Gulf. Less than an hour and a half away from Barrika is Pedreña, the hometown of the man who started the golf boom in Spain: Severiano Ballesteros. Sevewho died of cancer in 2011, is an almost mystical figure in golf because, against all odds, he worked his way from humble northern Spanish conditions to the top of the world, which at the time was dominated by wealthy Americans and elitist Britons.
In college in Arizona they called him Rahmbo
The fact that the 1997 Ryder Cup took place at the Valderrama Club in southern Spain was thanks to Ballesteros – and in a way also decisive for Rahm’s career. “After that, all of my father’s friends convinced him that he had to teach me how to play golf,” Rahm said some time ago.
Like Ballesteros before him, young Jon quickly became his country’s best young player. At the age of 19 he immigrated to Arizona. There, Jon Rahm, talent from Spain, quickly became the flagship player at Arizona State University with the nickname Mercy, who sometimes found it difficult to control his temper. Despite that, he racked up ten collegiate victories, became the world’s top amateur player and twice won the Ben Hogan Award for best collegiate player – a feat unmatched before him.
So it’s logical in a way that at the age of 28 Rahm is now the best player in the world. For the second time in a row, he is the world number one at a tournament that enjoys a similar status among players as the four major tournaments. In a press conference, Rahm recalled how he lost his nerve on his first visit at the age of 22: “It was a wild time back then, I quickly made it into the top ten in the world – the attention you get with it is nobody prepared.” Mercy has since calmed down, started a family and, as he says, only uses his ferocity to spur himself on the pitch.
However, Rahm has retained one thing, in the tradition of Ballesteros, who always saw himself as an ambassador for sport. Like Ballesteros then and McIlroy today, Rahm mostly plays in the USA to compete with the best, but never neglects his home country. The Open de Espana is one of the more normal tournaments on the European DP World Tour, but it is a fixture on Rahm’s calendar. He has already won the trophy three times in his home country, and he keeps emphasizing how important the connection to Spain is to him, even though he now lives in Arizona.
Ballesteros not only inspired his home country to play golf, but also all of Europe with his passion for the Ryder Cup. Jon Rahm is also on his trail: in 2018 he won an important duel against Tiger Woods as a rookie, in 2021 he was the most successful European in a team defeat. The great triumph as a leader is still missing. In autumn, however, there will be the next chance in Rome to continue working on making comparisons between legends realistic at the Ryder Cup 2023.