Ricardo Relinque saw the raw talent. Tim Mickelson needed a player to fill out his roster on the Arizona State golf team. Jon Rahm was his man.
“With Jon, it seemed like the timing was perfect,” says Relinque, director of U.S. college placement and player development for the Spanish Golf Federation. “I called Tim up about a special kid, and he took a chance.”
Relinque had been following Rahm since his win in the 2010 Spanish Junior Boys. But it wasn’t the playing record that turned Mickelson on to Rahm; it was the Seve-like qualities that Relinque saw in the 17-year-old from the small town of Barrika (pop. 1,500) in the Basque region of Spain.
“His determination was very strong,” Relinque says of the now-22-year-old who won the Farmers Insurance Open two weeks ago in only his 12th start as a pro. “He doesn’t doubt himself.”
With just one scholarship remaining for the 2012-’13 season, “I got extremely lucky,” admits Mickelson, who went from being Rahm’s coach to his current manager. “Ricardo called telling me there was this kid living in Madrid that wants to take a gap year and then go to college in the United States. I Google-searched the name, saw the results and said, ‘Shoot, we’ve got the money for the fall,’ so I called Jon and said, ‘Love to have you. Come on now.’ He emails me back and says, ‘OK, I’m in.’ That was the extent of the recruiting process of Jon Rahm. It was the shortest, easiest one I’ve done.”
Rahm is the only player Mickelson ever offered a scholarship without seeing him in person, and the then-coach soon second-guessed himself. At 17, Rahm barely spoke English and had to learn to control his emotions. After Rahm lost his temper and broke a kickstand on his bag in his first college tournament, Mickelson had him run up and down the 56 steps of the upper bowl at Sun Devil Stadium as penance. “He always had the fire,” Mickelson said, “but he learned how to keep it in check.”
The combination of a new culture, moving to a campus with 33 times more people than his hometown, and the language barrier in the giant classrooms made for a rough first semester. The turning point came just in time at ASU’s third tournament, the Pac-12 Preview at Pumpkin Ridge. “I remember going to our assistant coach, Michael Peters, and saying, ‘This kid is not going to make it,’ ’’ Mickelson said. “ ‘He’s not going to make it in school, and he’s not playing well. Who are we going to replace him with next year?’ ”
But after an opening-round 77, Rahm told Mickelson, “Don’t worry, I feel good.” The last two rounds he shot 64-65 to finish second and save his scholarship. Two events later, Rahm won the first of 11 college tournaments, a career total that’s second in ASU history behind only the 16 from Phil Mickelson, Tim’s older brother.
Rahm would win the Jack Nicklaus Award and become the only two-time winner of the Ben Hogan Award for college golf’s top player, as well as take home the McCormack Medal given the top-ranked amateur golfer in the world. Last May, Rahm graduated on time with a bachelor’s degree in communications. In the moment, he called it his biggest accomplishment, but he was proudest of “the person I’ve become in those four years. … I was pretty immature when I got there. I learned English, and I developed to be a much better person who can take care of himself right now.”
A month later, Rahm was the low amateur with a T-23 finish at the U.S. Open. In his first event after turning pro, he finished third at the Quicken Loans National, and followed with a T-2 at the RBC Canadian Open that let him lock in his PGA Tour card for the 2016-’17 season. His victory at Torrey Pines was not a shock.
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Feb. 6, 2017 issue of Golf World.