2017 Masters: Jon Rahm out to prove he belongs
AUGUSTA, Ga. — Rap music might be the last thing you'd associate with Augusta National. Jon Rahm is proving there's a first time for everything.
The 22-year-old Spaniard oozes talent, which explains why he hit town as the most heralded Masters rookie since Rory McIlroy in 2009, and perhaps even Tiger Woods in 1997. Almost as impressive is how well Rahm handles interviews in English after only five years on this side of the Atlantic. He credits long hours listening to rappers Eminem and Kendrick Lamar.
"It was more, not necessarily to learn new words, but to be able to pronounce certain words and be able to talk faster, talk without pausing," Rahm said Monday. "Otherwise, right now I would probably still be in the first part of the interview trying to explain how I felt. ... It really helped me to keep up with some conversations."
Those language skills will come in handy this week, since Rahm is the subject of one of the more intriguing questions heading into the Masters. Namely, can golf's latest "next Nicklaus" pull together enough of the puzzle pieces to solve Augusta National in his first go-round?
More than a few of his elders, frankly, wouldn't be the least bit surprised.
Phil Mickelson, whose brother, Tim, coached Rahm during his college career at Arizona State, labeled the youngster a likely top-10 player even before he turned pro last summer. Turns out Lefty, a two-time Masters champion himself, wasn't far off.
Despite playing just 17 times on the PGA Tour since, Rahm already posted a win, two second-place finishes and nine top 10s, and has climbed to No. 12 in the world. Two weekends ago, he took top-ranked Dustin Johnson to the final hole of match play before losing 1-up at the World Golf Championships.
The loss stung, especially his uncharacteristically shaky start on the front nine of the final day. But he learned a lesson that could prove invaluable if Rahm finds himself contending in a pressure cooker like the Masters.
"I couldn't control my body, honestly. I don't know, it was like my body was independent from my mind. I was trying to focus and do my routine, but things just weren't happening," he recalled.
Rahm made a charge on the back nine, "and if I had been a little luckier on 17 and 18, maybe I would have had a chance to score in the match or go into a playoff.
"But the damage was already done," he added a moment later. "I tried my hardest. But I learned that, you know, if I'm having a good day, I can face the No. 1 player in the world."
No surprise there. Rahm has always been a quick study when it comes to golf, even as a youngster growing up in tiny Barrika, Spain. Most people in the town of 1,500 believed soccer was the only game worth following, but Rahm chose countrymen and Masters champions Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal instead as his guiding lights.
He arrived at Arizona State with little hype and less English, but mastered the skill to move the golf ball both ways and left as the team's unquestioned leader and the No. 1-ranked amateur in the country. After he filled out to 6-foot-2 and a solid 220 pounds, his confidence grew as he learned to harness his raw power. Once you've watched Rahm play, the last word you'd use to describe him is "cocky."
Asked whether he'd earned his place in the conversation about favorites this week, he broke into a broad smile and copped an attitude not unlike his favorite rappers.
"If I didn't think I could win it, I wouldn't be here," Rahm began.
He thought it over, then added a moment later: "That's up to you guys. I feel like if I say it does belong, it sounds a little bit arrogant. What I would say is certainly I do feel like I belong here, that I belong where I am right now."