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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 17 July 2018

Jon Rahm exclusive: 'I have a sickness … I have a disease for golf'

The Spaniard has taken the world of golf by storm since turning pro 22 months ago. He speaks to John McAuley about how the late Seve Ballesteros indirectly inspired him to take up the sport, his ultra competitive spirit and how hip hop helped him improve his English

John Rahm has five career wins to date including the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. Courtesy Rolex
John Rahm has five career wins to date including the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. Courtesy Rolex

“I have a sickness … I have a disease for golf,” Jon Rahm says, leaning forward in his chair, eyes wide, voice only a little playful. “My girlfriend hates it. She’s hated it since we were dating. We’d be trying to sleep at 10pm or 11pm and I’ll be watching YouTube videos, watching every golf video there is.”

Rahm need not really worry, though. As far as afflictions go, it hardly classifies as life-threatening. He would most probably argue life-changing, in fact, and with considerable merit, too.

At 23, Rahm is ranked the world’s fourth best golfer; the game’s lead European, ahead of the likes of Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson.

The Spaniard may have only one full season as a professional under his belt, but has won five times already, securing notable victories at the Farmers Insurance Open, the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and the DP World Tour Championship. On Sunday, Rahm won the Open de Espana, his national championship, describing it as the most difficult and therefore most pleasing title he has secured to date.

Two years on from sitting in his classroom at Arizona State University, he was perched atop another leaderboard, nestling ever more nicely into his position as one of golf’s most exciting young talents.

That “sickness”, that “disease”, those hours spent whiling away the nights and testing his girlfriend’s patience at the North Scottsdale house they now share, have contributed to lifting him to where he is now. Personal bliss has at times been sacrificed for professional gain, but Rahm, relaxing in a hospitality suite emblazoned with Rolex insignia, the company he serves as a Rolex Testimonee, has made the trade-off work.

“I just like the game,” he says. “I like studying the game. I feel like the more you like something, the more you study it, the better you understand it and the better you get at it. That’s the way I see it.”

All Rahm has seen has been rapid progress. His rise has been meteoric and seems set to maintain. Built like a bull, he is a matador and a magnetic presence, good company and an even better golfer, a young man tipped for multiple majors and an enduring impact on the Ryder Cup.

In 45 worldwide starts as a professional, Rahm has five victories and 17 top-five finishes. He has won three times in his past 10 events. Sunday’s triumph made him the fifth player to have three titles on the European Tour and two on the PGA Tour before turning 24. The other four? Tiger Woods, Garcia, McIlroy and Jordan Spieth.

He is precocious, prodigious and, at times, prone to outbursts on the course that threaten to upset his quest for prizes and plaudits, muddy his route to the summit. But it is also what makes Rahm who he is. He is actively trying to temper the tantrums. Yet the fire in his belly drives him.

Jon Rahm fired a final-round 67 to hit 19-under par and seal the title by one shot from Shane Lowry and Kiradech Aphibarnrat. Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images
Jon Rahm fired a final-round 67 to hit 19-under par and seal the title by one shot from Shane Lowry and Kiradech Aphibarnrat. Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images

“It comes from my competitiveness,” he says. “My brother’s probably a better athlete than I am, to be honest. And I don’t consider myself to be a bad athlete. My dad is into free-rock climbing, free-skiing, hiking, parasailing. He loved doing all those things. I’m just a golfer. So it kind of makes me sound a little weak.

“But out of my brother and I, I inherited my dad’s competitiveness. He hates losing. His brothers and his sister have told me that. He doesn’t take it well. And that’s the perfect mirror of me. I hate losing and I don’t take it well.”

Given the capriciousness of elite golf, that could be someone’s undoing. Not so for Rahm.

“In a game where you’re going to lose more than you win, it’s going to come in handy,” he counters. “Because in those moments where you have the chance to win, your desire is going to pull through. That’s why I think I’ve accomplished what I’ve accomplished. My will to win is what takes me on this path.”

Inadvertently, Seve Ballesteros helped set him on that road. It was following his captaincy at the 1997 Ryder Cup that Rahm’s father, Edorta, took up golf. Bitten by the bug, he passed it down to his son. Soon Rahm consumed everything he could about Ballesteros, devouring clips on YouTube, trawling written accounts of what made him great.

Rahm confesses to watching online “probably a million times” a 45-minute video of Ballesteros en route to winning his first Open Championship, at Royal Lytham, in 1979. Presumably, girlfriend Kelley can attest to that.

“Out of those million, around 950,000 were before I met her,” Rahm says, smiling. “She doesn’t like it because afterwards I’m like ‘do you remember this video?’ and ask random trivia out of nowhere.”

But, then again, it is Seve.

Seve Ballesteros in the sandhills of Royal Birkdale, Southport, during the 1977 British Open. John Leatherbarrow / Getty Images
Seve Ballesteros in the sandhills of Royal Birkdale, Southport, during the 1977 British Open. John Leatherbarrow / Getty Images

“He was a great influence,” Rahm says. “In a kind of an indirect way, I’ve got to thank him. Because if my dad never started playing golf, I probably wouldn’t be here.

“So it was something that once I learned that happened I started studying his life a little more, what he stood for and what he was able to create. What he did, from being just a caddie at Pedrena who wasn’t allowed to be at the golf course to becoming one of the best European players of all time, to the guy who made the Ryder Cup what it is today, first European to win the Masters, at the age of 22. The accomplishments just pile up.

“But the one thing that stands out is his ability to get people to play golf, to inspire. It was like contagious. His love for the game was contagious for anyone who watched it around him. That’s what I strive for. If I can be that way, if I can get people to play golf in Spain, if I can get people to love the game of golf, it’s something I’d love to do, to be as inspiring and as charismatic as he was. I know it’s hard, because when it comes to that he’s top of the list probably. But if I can get close it will be very satisfying.”

Born not too far from Ballesteros’ Pedrena, Rahm grew up in Barrika, a modest town in Basque Country. Edorta works in the fuel industry; mum Angela spent 30 years as a midwife. Brother Eriz, six years Rahm’s senior, is always encouraging, forever supportive.

A keen athlete as a kid, Rahm loved football and still does. He is an avid Athletic Bilbao fan. By 14, though, golf had overtaken as his prime pursuit. Within a year, he was the Spanish Junior Boys champion.

Rahm’s regional prowess eventually found its way to Tim Mickelson, Phil’s younger brother who was coaching at Arizona State University. Offered a scholarship, Rahm moved Stateside, armed with only his considerable talent and very little English.

He ranks the transition to college as his greatest test. Arriving from a town of around 1,200 people, the building Rahm lived in on campus housed about 700. For the first month, he couldn’t communicate well, barely understanding anything in class. Although majoring in communications, it took Rahm a year to get jokes, and twice as long to tell them.

“That’s got to be the hardest challenge I’ve faced in life,” he says now, with merely the slightest hint of an accent.

Somewhat surprisingly, hip hop helped. Rahm memorised the words, rapping the rhymes to grasp better his pronunciation, to speak more fluently. He became obsessed with the breakneck sections of each song. Can he still spit?

“I can, I really can. But …” Rahm says, his voice trailing off. “I do love Eminem: he and Kendrick Lemar are the two that I stick to. I like songs from many different artists, but I don’t focus on their careers as much. I’ve been asked to do it, but I can’t do it without the foul language yet, I’m not that good. I just have it memorised.”

Harmony found off course, on it Rahm went platinum. He won 11 titles at ASU, second only to Phil Mickelson, becoming the first two-time winner of the Ben Hogan Award, presented to the country’s top collegiate golfer.

The assault on the summit has sustained. A former world No 1 amateur, this January Rahm moved to within a win of usurping Dustin Johnson at the head of the paid ranks. Sat 551th in the global standings when he turned pro, he had reached world No 2, in less than two years. Little wonder Rahm is tipped for greatness; many even expect him to confirm that this year.

Obvious objectives include landing a first major – last week, Rahm finished fourth at the Masters, his best result at that level – and representing Europe at the Ryder Cup, which is practically guaranteed. He is a lock for France later this year, when Europe attempt to reclaim the trophy they lost to the United States at Hazeltine 18 months ago.

The significance of participating in the biennial battle is not lost on Rahm, especially sitting now with a picture staring back of Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, from Kiawah Island in 1991. Not far from that, on the Rolex banner boasting some of golf’s more memorable moments, is an image of Rahm’s reaction to eagle on the final hole at Torrey Pines last year, when he sank a 65-footer to clinch his first pro tournament.

Spanish golfer Jon Rahm speaking in Dubai. Courtesy Rolex
Spanish golfer Jon Rahm speaking in Dubai. Courtesy Rolex

“Ryder Cup is up there for every golfer,” Rahm says. “It’s definitely something I want to do, especially for Spanish people just because of what those two represented. It’s something very important. If I could ever be part of a dual like that, that’d be amazing, hopefully.

“And with what Sergio [Garcia] represented and what he still does. Especially for me, seeing Sergio and Rafa [Cabrera Bello] getting it done last year. I want to be part of that. I want to be there. I love team golf, I love being in a team, I love representing my country, I did it for a long time and I had a lot of fun. So I really can’t wait. I’ve heard a lot of people say ‘I dream of playing in the Ryder Cup’. I dream of winning the Ryder Cup. It really is something in my mind.”

Asked what he would bring to contest, Rahm glances back at the picture of Torrey Pines and says: “I’m a rather explosive person, as you can see. I think I can bring that factor. And I do love match play. I’m never going to give up. I’m always going to think there’s a chance to win, especially in match play.

“Until the last shot is holed on the last hole, nothing’s lost. There’s always a chance. And that’s what I’d bring. I’ll always play my hardest on the golf course. If things go well I’m going to get that rowdiness out of me. It is something that just comes out.”

A replica Samuel Ryder trophy would sit well among the growing collection of professional spoils in his office back at his current home in Scottsdale. It is where Rahm and Kelley came to an agreement that he stores all his golf stuff, the titles and trinkets, the golf gloves and other souvenirs of this sickness, of this disease.

“There’s moments,” Rahm says, trying to pinpoint the personal highs brought about by his phenomenal introduction to the pro game. “When I bought and moved into my first house. As a 22 year old, it’s always going to be special.

“What I’ve done on the golf course has allowed me to have a house that’s much higher standards for a person my age. And to be able to afford it on my own, truly is something very special. Like I said many times, it’s not a point where I thought I was going to be in my life. Yeah, I’m a little ahead on the life game right now.”

Jon Rahm was speaking on behalf of Rolex, which has been the Official Timekeeper of the European Tour since 1997

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Read more from John McAuley:

Jon Rahm's Irish Open win just another endorsement of an incredible talent

US Masters takeaways: Fowler and Rahm lead fight to be next first-timer

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GOLF’S RAHMBO

- 5 wins in 22 months as pro
- Three wins in past 10 starts
- 45 pro starts worldwide: 5 wins, 17 top 5s
- Ranked 551th in world on debut, now No 4 (was No 2 earlier this year)
- 5th player in last 30 years to win 3 European Tour and 2 PGA Tour titles before age 24 (Woods, Garcia, McIlroy, Spieth)