The Loop

ASU's Rahm sets early NCAA pace with 61

__By Ryan Herrington

__[#image: /photos/55ad76afadd713143b4276d9]|||Rahm headshot.jpeg|||

__MILTON, GA.—__It didn't take long for the most anticipated storyline heading into this week's NCAA Championship to play itself out: a Pac-12 power doing something grand at Capital City Club's Crabapple Course.

Mind you, Arizona State's Jon Rahm might not have been who everyone expected to be talking about. Yet the 18-year-old from Barrika, Spain, the Pac-12's freshman of the year, earned the honor for a reason—two wins,five top-10s and a 71.60 season average—and showed there was more where that came from Tuesday morning Capital City Club's Crabapple Course with a nine-under 61 to open the championship.

"I was feeling it today," Rahm said of his 10-birdie, one-bogey performance, the lowest round by an ASU golfer in the school's 50 appearances at the NCAA Championship. "Today, my putting was probably the best I've ever putted in my life."

Indeed, the key to the round was Rahm's short game.

He holed four birdie putts from 30-plus feet as well as chipping in for birdie early in the round. He put an exclamation point on his play when he made a 10-foot birdie try on his final hole, topped with an energetic fist pump.

Prior to starting his round on the 10th tee, Rahm mentioned to ASU men's coach Tim Mickelson that he felt good with his putter. The comment was a surprise only in the fact that just five days earlier Rahm seemed to be struggling with his short game overall. Connecting with his coach back in Spain, Eduardo Celles, the duo looked at video of Rahm's stroke via an Internet app and made a few adjustments that obviously proved beneficial. When the morning wave had finished play, Rahm's score was four strokes better than the next best mark, a 65 posted by Oklahoma's Abraham Ancer.

Rahm's round also help lift the Sun Devil to the low team score of the morning—10-under 270, eight strokes clear of the Sooners. (The teams that had the best performances at NCAA Regionals were all scheduled to tee off in the afternoon.)

There was a moment on Rahm's back-nine where he admitted that he let the thought of a 59 slip into his head. Back-to-back birdies on the fourth and fifth holes (his 13th and 14th) got him to eight under. But a missed try on the sixth hole and a burned edge on the seventh caused him to settle for something a little less historic.

Still, the 61 was just one off the NCAA Championship's all-time score—a 60 from Duke's Michael Schachner in 2007—as well as one of the best NCAA Championship round in relation to par: 10 under by Schachner and Stanford's Notah Begay with a 62 at the 1992 NCAA.

The question now is whether he can back up the impressive play with another solid round, a challenge for PGA Tour veterans much less collegiate freshman. Yet earlier in the season, after shooting a career-best 64 at Pumpkin Ridge during the Pac-12 Preview, Rahm followed it up with a 65.

"He's not going to be afraid tomorrow," Mickelson said.

That Rahm wound up at Arizona State is a story in an of itself. The Spaniard wanted to play college golf, but had only gotten one scholarship offers that was contingent on him coming in the fall of 2013. Then last May, Mickelson had scholarship money free up so he inquired with Rahm about whether he might have interest in coming to the U.S. earlier.

"He added me on Facebook," Rahm said. "The next day my dad got an email saying they would offer me a scholarship to come here [in fall 2012]."

Mickelson was taking a risk he tries not to do: making an offer to a player he had not seen play a tournament in person. But the recommendations he had heard about Rahm convinced him it was worth the gamble. Similarly, Rahm reached out to two former Spanish players who attended Arizona State, Carlota Ciganda and Azahara Munoz, and trusted the place would be right for him despite not taking an official visit.

When Rahm arrived in Tempe in August, Mickelson, however, wasn't so sure he had made the right decision. "He was 17 years old, traveled all the way by himself," Mickelson recalled. "His English was very broken. My first thought was he's not going to make it."

After Rahm struggling in his early events, Mickelson made one suggestion to his charge. "The only slight adjustment we've tried to make at all is when he's got a very difficult shot lets make sure the percentages are worth it to go for the shot. And if they are, do it because I know [he] can pull off the shot. But if they're not lets make sure we're giving ourselves a chance at par or at worst bogey. Lets eliminate the big numbers."

Indeed, Rahm's confidence is something Mickelson is most impressed by, telling a story from the team's trip to the Pac-12 Preview at Pumpkin Ridge last fall. "He tells me the night before [the tournament], 'I think this course is easy," Mickelson said. "I said, 'Jon this is Pumpkin Ridge. They've hosted the U.S. Women's Open, the U.S. Amateur.' He says, 'Coach I think it's easy.'

"He goes out and shoots 77 the first round. I get a score card and say, '77 is easy for you, huh?' And he goes, 'Coach I feel good, just wait.' And he goes out and shoots 64, bogey free and the next day 65. That's when I knew he was really special."

It shouldn't be a shock that a Sun Devil would have success in the 2013 national championship. In 1983, ASU's Jim Carter was the NCAA individual champion; in 1993 ASU's Todd Demsey claimed the title and in 2003 freshman Alejandro Canizares earned medalist honors.

Rahm's reward for his impressive play? Getting to pick the movie that the Sun Devils will see this afternoon. His choice: "Fast and Furious 6" ... "I love those movies," Rahm said. "I have the other five on my laptop