What will Jon Rahm do for an encore? We've got a pretty good idea
Jon Rahm has seen the putt hundreds of times, he said, and the result is always the same. The ball turns one way, catches the ridge, changes direction, gathers speed, dives into the hole, the crowd erupts and Rahm wonders how he’ll ever top that.
“Kind of sad because I never make a putt of that length to win in my career again,” he said, “just knowing that my first win is going to be the highlight, period.”
He was kidding, but he also has a point. Encores are hard. Where does his career go from here? Last year, his first as a PGA Tour member, was less a foundation on which to build than a fully-evolved talent forgoing the learning curve.
Last January, Rahm, only 22, won the Farmers Insurance Open by holing the aforementioned putt, a 60-footer for eagle from the fringe behind the 18th green of the South Course at Torrey Pines. He went on to win twice on the European Tour and climbed from 137th in the World Ranking at the start of the year to fourth at the end of it.
“I exceeded them by miles,” he said of his expectations. “I accomplished things that wouldn’t even have been in my mind at the beginning of the year. They weren’t even close to being goals. Winning a tournament, having a chance to win the FedEx Cup, you can check those two. Top 10 in the world, not even in my mind at least until the next year. Top five in the world not in my mind until at least next year or two years from now, because I know how hard it is to get there.
“So being a European Tour member, being a European Tour winner, winning two times on the European Tour, you’re talking like two or three years down the road. I’ve been able to do it in just one. I think I took a very big first step in my professional career that will be really hard to follow.”
Where does his career go from here, we asked? There are only two directions and down already is conceding to up. In his first two starts in 2018, Rahm finished second in the Sentry Tournament of Champions to climb to third in the World Ranking. On Sunday he won the CareerBuilder Challenge in a playoff with Andrew Landry on the Stadium Course at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif., to move to No. 2 in the world. And on Thursday, he returns to the scene of his maiden PGA Tour victory, for the Farmers Insurance Open.
The euphoria of having holed a difficult putt to win the Farmers hasn’t waned in the intervening year. “When I won the tournament, everything settled down and we went to dinner and went back to the hotel about 10 [p.m.],” he said. “I probably saw that putt more than 50 times in a row. I could not sleep that night because I still had the adrenaline flowing. I’ve seen it so many times. It’s hard to believe that Hollywood, that Broadway-staged finish happened to me.”
Yet he did not take center stage until late Sunday afternoon. For two rounds, Tiger Woods dominated the news before missing the cut. Through 54 holes, Brandt Snedeker and Patrick Rodgers were tied for the lead, followed by Tony Finau and C.T. Pan a stroke back. Rahm was tied for fifth, along with seven others.
He was at that point a curiosity at best, able to ostensibly sneak into the lead while no one was looking, then holing an eagle putt to win by three.
He is more than a curiosity now, but Rahm was unfazed assuming the favorite role at the CareerBuilder Challenge, where he was the highest-ranked player. He played up to the ranking, closing with a bogey-free five-under-par 67, then holed a 12-foot birdie putt on the fourth playoff hole to win. He'll never be a stealth contender again, though another Woods’ comeback at the Farmers will monopolize the attention early at Torrey, allowing Rahm the advantage of beginning his defense in relative quiet.
“Having Tiger, coming after what he did at the Hero World Challenge, with the power that he displayed, and being eight-time champion here, I think a lot of people are going to think more about Tiger than me," Rahm said. "Actually everybody should think more about Tiger than me, because he’s a much bigger story than I’ll ever be.”
For good reason, of course, notably the major championship score, 14-0. The zero doesn’t bother Rahm so much as the fact that he failed to threaten to turn it into a one last year. He tied for 27th in the Masters, missed the cut in the U.S. Open and was T-44 and T-58 in the British Open and PGA Championship.
“I prefer not to share my goals,” he said, “but one thing I keep saying is I would like at least to maybe be in contention in a major championship just to know what it feels like and see if I have what it takes. You’re not going to win your first ones. It’s very hard to do. Not even Jordan. Not even Tiger. Just to be in contention.
“The main reason I realize why is the first three majors [last year] I played after something major had happened in my career. I was like the third favorite in Augusta. I never played it before. Expectations were way too high. I didn’t manage it very well. Fast forward to the U.S. Open. I’d gotten into the top 10 in the world and after numerous top-10s again expectations were way higher than they should be.
“Now we go to the British Open. I had just won in Ireland [the Irish Open] by six shots and everybody’s thinking I’m going to be a great links player. Expectations again were extremely high. What was expected of me and what I was thinking was not matching. It was really hard to handle, the pressure I put on myself, the pressure I felt. It was hard to handle and I didn’t play well. The PGA was the only one I didn’t feel anything like that. It was just a week I wasn’t playing good.”
Rahm has rendered those weeks of not playing well aberrations; he has put down roots in the top 10, to wit four straight to close the 2017 season and his season total of 11 last year was three more than No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson and only one fewer than tour co-leaders Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.
Hollywood or Broadway, he's earned his place alongside those players on the marquee . Given how his encore is unfolding, he seems intent not only on staying there but rearranging the order.