PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club


Get to know Jon Rahm like you never have before

December 31, 2019

At just 25 years old, Jon Rahm is on a steady progression. He was the No. 1 amateur in the world in 2015, and after turning professional the next year, it took him only 61 weeks to crack the top five in the Official World Golf Ranking. (Only Tiger Woods, who did it in 33 weeks, accomplished the feat faster.) And it took Rahm less than two years to reach No. 2. He has won 10 times around the world, including three times on the PGA Tour and another six on the European Tour, amassing more than $25 million in career earnings. With three finishes among the top four in his eight most recent majors, the only question seems to be when he’ll win his first.

Rahm’s rise hasn’t been without blemishes—most notably a number of tantrums, including a series of meltdowns at the 2017 U.S. Open during which, among other misdeeds, he slammed and kicked his wedge and punched a sign on a tee box at Erin Hills. Yet, those who know Rahm best say his personality outside the ropes is nothing like that. He is affable—competitive but easygoing—and in his first Ryder Cup in 2018 outside Paris, he proved a smooth fit with teammates in the locker room.

When he rolls into an eclectic and artsy section of Phoenix on a sun-splashed morning in his shiny Arizona State-maroon Mercedes AMG G 63—essentially a $200,000 military box on wheels—Rahm still has the look of a college kid. There’s a softness to him. He’s polite, carries his clubs and is on time. In his eyes, there’s a glint of the intensity below the surface but also a thoughtfulness as he sits down to discuss getting married, getting control of his emotions, getting the best of Tiger Woods and more.

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Peter Yang

As we speak, you’re about to get married [one ceremony in Spain in December, and another in San Diego in February], to Kelley Cahill, whom you met while you were both at Arizona State. Do you remember the first date?

I had no money. I was living on a couple hundred bucks a month at most, so I had a budget. We used to go to this place called Zendejas because she loved their margaritas and we both loved food, and it wasn’t expensive. But we have some disagreement about this—we don’t know if that was our first official date, or if it was at a football game.

• • •

She was on the track and field team and threw the javelin at ASU. Have you ever tried throwing one?

Oh, God no. It’s such a weird motion. You have to rely on overhand strength, and as a golfer, that’s not something I have. She has a lot more overhand strength than I do. And I didn’t want to injure myself.

• • •

She introduced you to tennis, though. How’d that go?

I’ve actually always been into tennis but only watched it. But I did play a lot of sports with rackets and paddles growing up, like pelota [a Basque game that’s a cross between jai-alai and racketball]. But I never told her that. So she came away impressed … and maybe a little mad for a day or two. I had a pretty good forehand and decent backhand, and she taught me how to serve. She was someone who thought golfers aren’t athletes, so she assumed I couldn’t do anything else, really. But I had played so many sports when I was a kid before I decided to focus on golf.

• • •

What kind of pelota player were you?

I was good. I was in the back creating the strategy and dictating the pace. I always liked that, being in control. The guy in the front wins all the points, but it’s all set up by whoever is playing in the back.

• • •

You also were a goalkeeper in soccer, along with your older brother, and you did Kung fu. How’d you get into the latter?

My mom did tai chi with an instructor, and I was always hanging around before or after her lessons and was just drawn to it. I haven’t done it in a while, but I love it.

• • •

Any parallels to golf?

Respect to one another. When I was younger, I used to get in fights in class. I was very easy to pick on. That’s another reason my mom got me involved in it, to defend myself and to learn. Fighting is a last resort. Learning Kkung fu helped, and from that I learned all the aspects of martial arts. But mostly it’s about trying to be respectful to people, and that carries over to golf. I might get mad at myself, but I try to be respectful to my playing partners and gracious in victory or defeat. Every time someone beats me, I’ll try to say something kind to them, because that’s how it should be. If they beat me, they beat me.

• • •

You’ve been known to show your anger on the course. Does that spill over to other sports as well, or do you have fewer expectations when it’s not your profession?

I was always the same way in everything, no matter what sport it was. I have always, always hated to lose, and I love to win. So I’m very demanding, and with that the emotion just comes out of me. But a lot of it was immaturity, too. I’m becoming more aware of that and realizing sometimes that I look stupid acting that way. I’m not happy about it. I’m not proud of some of the tantrums I’ve thrown. At the same time, they were in the moment—I was so focused, and whatever I’m doing matters so much to me that I’d forget there were cameras on me and all the people watching. I consider myself mature for my age, but my golf game, in that way, hasn’t matured yet. I don’t like it, but we also can’t pretend we’re perfect. I don’t know why it comes out like that—the whining and being so petty.

• • •

Does it help to get mad sometimes?

It does, but it’s how you get it out. There’s nothing wrong with getting mad. Everyone gets mad. Tom Brady, one of the greatest athletes of this generation, gets mad on the field. Michael Jordan got mad. Tiger gets mad. Messi gets mad. Even in a normal job when you mess up, people get mad. But it’s how you project that, and that’s what I’ve had to work on. There’s a fine line between bottling your emotions and working through them.

• • •

Bio Kim recently got suspended for a year [by the Korea PGA] for flipping off a fan who snapped a picture during his backswing. Have you ever come close or wanted to do that?


• • •

Your mental coach, Joseba Del Carmen, is a former bomb-disposal expert. What have you been able to learn from him?

He’s a lot more than a bomb-disposal expert. He played college basketball in Spain, he’s a golf instructor. I don’t ask him any bomb-disposal stories, though—I’d rather not know. Most of what we work on is real-life stuff, things that are outside of golf, and then it translates over to my golf game. That’s the goal, anyway.

• • •

What’s the best piece of advice he has given you?

I used to think that golf is my life, that it’s who I am. He was the first person to make me realize that it’s not, and that golf and life are very similar. The happier I am in life, the better I’m going to play. But I’m much more interested in raising a family and being a good husband and father than I am in golf. Don’t get me wrong—I want to be the best golfer I can be. If I had a gun to my head and had to choose between having only one or the other, I wouldn’t pick golf. I hope people don’t take that as me thinking I’d quit, but I’d choose family every time.


J.D. Cuban

As we sit here, you’re fifth in the World Ranking, behind Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas. And you’re just ahead of Tiger Woods. What do they have in their games that you envy?

It’d be easy to pick a couple of things from Tiger. I would love to have his iron play. He is, by far, the best with his irons that I have ever seen. Brooks and Dustin, I’d love to have their length. I can hit it far, sure, but they’re on another level. And they both have a calmness to them. I don’t have that. [Laughs.] It’d be nice to have more of it.

• • •

What about your game do you think they would envy?

Maybe my accuracy off the tee. I think I know what Brooks would say, though: absolutely nothing. He has it all. Tiger would probably say he loves the fact that I don’t think too much about a shot. He’s told me that before, actually. Dustin and I are similar in that sense. Dustin has also told me before that he forgets about a shot once he hits it. I remember everything, but I don’t think about the shot once it’s gone. Most of the time.

• • •

So you consider yourself more of a feel player, or are you really into technique?

One hundred percent a feel player. But I’m a curious guy. I used to watch hours of YouTube clips of Seve Ballesteros. It would drive [Kelley] crazy. Now, I know about technique, but I’m not technical in my thought process. I have to feel it; I have to see the shot in my mind. But when I was growing up—and this happened many times—somebody would try to give me a lesson, and I would start thinking about technique and trying to replicate whatever movement they wanted me to make. I couldn’t do it. If I don’t feel it, I can’t hit the ball. It’s part of the reason I see my coach [Eduardo Celles] back in Spain only a few times a year. Even then, it’s usually just for a checkup.

• • •

You beat Tiger, 2 and 1, in singles in your first Ryder Cup, in 2018. What was that experience like?

Unlike any other. This is a long story, but I have to tell it. I watched him from the balcony of the clubhouse at East Lake when he got his 80th PGA Tour win [and first since 2013] at the Tour Championship that year. As a guy who grew up watching golf and watching him, it was emotional for me to be there and to witness that and just be part of it. Forever I’ll be able to say that I watched Tiger make a putt to win and restart his career again.

So then I go to my first Ryder Cup—I was jacked up. Then I’m the first match off on Friday morning, playing [four-ball] with Justin Rose. We’re playing against Brooks and Tony Finau. I played good the first nine holes, but then I completely tanked, and we lost, 1 down. The next morning, I played [four-ball] with Ian Poulter, and I played bad the first 12 holes then finished strong, but it was too late. We lost to Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, 2 and 1. I was supposed to play in all five matches, and I ended up playing in three. I probably shouldn’t have even played that second match. I was playing bad, not feeling my best, but the team is winning, so I’m happy. Then the singles pairings come out, and I’m playing Tiger.

To that point, he hadn’t scored any points but wasn’t playing terribly. He ran into Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood, and I think anybody in the world would have lost to them that week. But I know he wants to win a point badly.

In theory, it was a golf course that fits Tiger, with the emphasis on position and strategy. [Captain Thomas] Bjorn told me that I had to beat him at his own game. He said he’s not going to make mistakes; he’s going to capitalize on my mistakes. So I couldn’t give him a chance to do that. Well, all I’d done so far is make nothing but mistakes. So after talking to Fleetwood and talking to my mental coach for a half hour on the phone, I came out confident and tried to play like Tiger wasn’t even there. I didn’t even look at him almost the entire day. Somehow, that’s what I was able to do, and I played beautiful golf. Then my emotions finally came out when I missed a short putt on 16 and my lead was down to 1 up. I told myself I was winning the match. I hit the best drive I ever hit on 17, a great second shot to five feet and made the putt. Then everything I had inside of me that day came out.

• • •

What has it been like to see Tiger come back from all the injuries to win multiple times, including last year’s Masters? Were you surprised?

I always said he would be able to do it as long as he was able to swing. I felt that he could win again at some point, even if he played five events a year, because he’s Tiger Woods. To be at TaylorMade photo shoots with him and pick his brain, it’s incredible. He’s a golf genius. That’s his strongest attribute. We don’t know if he’ll get to 18 majors someday, but he has only three more to go, so who knows. Some people say that Tiger is the greatest player but that Jack Nicklaus is the greatest champion. But if Tiger gets to 18 [to tie Nicklaus’ record], he’s the undisputed greatest of all time. Then you add in everything he’s done for golf, the amount of money we play for because of him. We should thank him every day. He’s the face of golf again.

• • •

What kind of player do you think you’ll be in your 40s?

Man, I have no idea. But I will not be the next Seve, I’ll be the next Jon. Maybe I’m closer to him in persona or emotion or whatever than other Spanish players have been, but he was unique, a one-of-a-kind talent and person. You can’t replicate that. To be as charismatic as he was and elevate the game the way he did would be amazing, but it’s not possible. Take Arnold Palmer, for example. There won’t be another Arnold Palmer. We’d need to wait a hundred, two hundred years for someone similar. Same with Seve.

• • •

You finished T-3 in the 2019 U.S. Open, fourth in the 2018 Masters and T-4 in the 2018 PGA. What’s the next step for you to take to win a major? Which one do you have the best chance of winning?

A lot of times, I’ve gone into majors somewhat tired. It’s a long year, so maybe I need to make some schedule changes. I know my game is strong enough to win one; it’s just a matter of getting it done. I’ve been close at Augusta a couple of times. I like the course, and it really fits my eye and my game. But as a European, the Open Championship is the pinnacle of golf. I’d love to win any of them, of course, but the Masters is probably the best chance.

• • •

How is your game more refined since your first victory on the PGA Tour, when you made a 60-foot eagle putt on the final hole at Torrey Pines in 2017?

I’m maybe slightly smarter. I’m aware of strategy a little more—when to lay up on par 5s, and when to go for it, because there have probably been some moments when I should have laid up but didn’t. That’s mainly because my wedge play has become progressively better the last five years. Hopefully I can tighten it up the way Dustin did. Once he did, then he broke through and won a major. But really, I feel like my whole iron game has improved. I’ll always be aggressive, but I’m more calculated now.

• • •

What’s a typical day of practice look like for you?

I’ll wake up, go to the gym, eat, go to the course, practice and play 18 holes. During the season, I won’t even practice most of the time. I’ll just warm up and go play. We’re already playing so much golf, I need a break or I’ll get burned out. Last season, I took two weeks off before the U.S. Open, partly because I went to a friend’s bachelor party, but I needed the break. I finished third, second and won in my next three starts. But I’m working on getting more structure around my practice.

• • •

There’s a bit of a misconception about how you learned to speak English. Clear it up for everyone?

I want to set the record straight that I did not learn how to speak English by listening to rap. I had taken some classes back in Spain, but I wasn’t comfortable with the language when I got to Arizona State, so I spoke Spanish a lot with my teammate Alberto Sanchez, who’s from Mexico. But my coach [Tim Mickelson, who later went on to become Rahm’s agent before moving on to caddie for brother Phil] said that for every word of Spanish that I spoke in front of the team that I had to do a burpee.

DP World Tour Championship Dubai - Day Four

Ross Kinnaird

How many burpees did you end up doing?

Not a single one.

• • •

Sure. [Laughter.] So where’d the rap music fit in?

I listened a lot to Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. I liked the music, and it did help with learning slang and how to say certain phrases. It’s like if you try to learn Spanish by taking classes, having a conversation is much different.

• • •

Who’s on your playlist?

I’m really into Logic—I love his song “Homicide.” Sometimes you’ll see me mumbling the words to it when I’m warming up on the range. D Smoke, who was the winner on Rhythm + Flow on Netflix, is another one. His song “Last Supper” is another favorite.

• • •

If you had to cook one Spanish meal to impress someone, what would you make?

I don’t cook. I love food, though. My favorite dish is called chuletón, which is basically a bone-in ribeye for two. It’s salted and slowly cooked on a wood-fire grill. It’s incredible. Give me that when I’m home, and I’m happy.

• • •

What's the best course you've never played?

There are too many. Pine Valley would be at the top of the list, though.

• • •

What would a business golf trip look live for you?

It wouldn’t involve golf. Do you go to work with your buddies on your day off?