PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Call it what you want. Fire. Competitiveness. Passion. Pasión. Whatever your preferred word is, Jon Rahm oozes it. It’s part of what makes him the player he is—currently the No. 2 ranked golfer in the world—but it can also teeter toward detrimental, if not harnessed properly.
Perhaps the best example of the potential negative impact came in the final round of the Players Championship a year ago, when Rahm was squarely in contention on Sunday at TPC Sawgrass. He hit his tee shot into the left fairway bunker on the par-5 11th and a big ol’ tree stood between his TaylorMade and the green. Rahm’s caddie, Adam Hayes, suggested he lay up safely right, short of the water hazard that guards the front of the green, to a flat lie. With that option, he could use his world-class wedge play to set up a birdie chance. Par at worst, one would think.
Rahm, however, wasn’t buying it. He didn’t think the layup was much easier than going for it, given the lie in the bunker, and he was worried that if he hit his layup too far, it would leave a tough angle to the pin. So he pulled a long-iron and tried to play a rope-hook, around the tree, with a left-to-right wind, all while Hayes shook his head in disapproval.
The moment was captured live by the TV cameras, as was the ultimate result. Rahm caught the ball a bit heavy. It found the drink. And he let Hayes have it before the ball even plopped into the water.
“So “f***ing sure the first time,” he said, before the microphone technician realized that what was coming next also wasn’t fit for a family broadcast.
Rahm wound up making a bogey 6 on the hole, en route to shooting 76 that day and plummeting from the 54-hole lead to a T-12 finish. The exchange prompted many a pundit to suggest that Rahm needs to harness the anger if he’s to maximize his potential as a golfer—which, to be clear, is moving up that one spot to World No. 1 and winning multiple majors. Rahm knows this, knows how great he can be, how great he’s on the cusp of being, and how properly managing his internal fire is a prerequisite to getting there.
“I’ve been working on it really, really hard since 2014, and it’s a process,” Rahm said ahead of this week’s Players Championship, where he has a chance to overtake Rory McIlroy for the No. 1 spot in the World Rankings with a victory.
“I think it was 2018 that wasn’t my best golf year, but when it comes to personal growth, it was huge for me,” Rahm said. “It’s stuff I don’t want to talk about in the public and let everybody know what I’m dealing with, but it was huge. And it keeps on going.
“Me and Kelly are married now. We had our second wedding ceremony in the U.S. just over a week ago, and in that sense, in my personal life, things couldn't be better. With this being a work in progress, what people don’t see is the reason why I’m so happy now and one of the reasons why I’m so consistent and playing better, maybe one of the reasons why the bad weeks aren’t so bad. It’s very easy to translate what happens in real life onto the golf course, just because whatever happens outside is so much more important.
“Slowly, I'm just maturing. I'm 25 years old and I was 22 and just out of college. Things just happen.”
Now, that’s not to say Rahm wants to eliminate his intensity. He knows he’ll never be as stoic as Rickie Fowler or as smiley as Matt Kuchar. But he doesn’t want to be, because there have been times where getting angry has helped his game. It happened at the Irish Open last year. He played two so-so rounds to start (67-71), told Hayes that he was running hot, then closed with 64-62 to win by two.
While certainly not recommended for the weekend hacker, the notion of channeling irritation into something of a motivational tool is not unprecedented. Put another way: It’s possible. One player in particular stands out as a model for Rahm, a guy who has had some success in the delicate art of anger management.
“I’m not the only one. A lot of people do it,” Rahm said.
“I think Tiger did it.”