By Kent Gray
Phil Mickelson has openly touted Jon Rahm for greatness, Johnny Miller too.
“He doesn’t have any weaknesses,” Lefty says of the 22-year-old Spaniard. “Every part of his game is a strength.” Given Rahm’s manager is Mickelson’s younger brother and now caddy Tim, you could dismiss those comments as hyperbole topped with lashings of nepotism.
But Miller clearly agrees with the Mickelson boys, the two-time major winning Hall of Famer turned TV analyst saying Rahm has future No.1 “written all over his head.”
Neither assessment seemed out of place Sunday as Rahm waltz to a record-setting six shot victory at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in County Londonderry.
The $1.16 million payday at Portstewart G.C. wasn’t without controversy after Rahm appeared to replace his ball incorrectly on the par 3 6th. An alteration to the Rules of Golf in the wake of last year’s Lexi Thompson/ANA Inspiration debacle means Rahm avoided a penalty that might have reduced his lead at the time from three strokes to two.
What isn’t open to interpretation was the way Rahm was playing at the time and how he continued to distance the field afterwards despite the incident hanging over him following a meeting with chief referee Andy McPhee on the 13th. Indeed, Rahm was involved in three separate rulings on the lucky 13th – the second involving a small ball swindling child and the third a run in with a spectator’s chair green side in what is surely some sort of pro golf record. But he gathered himself to salvage par before eagling the 14th to get to -25 and eventually seal his place in history as the fourth Spaniard after Ballesteros, Olazabal and Garcia to win one of the European Tour’s premier events.
Rahm started the final round tied for the lead at -17 with unheralded American Daniel Im. He ended it signing for a seven under 65 sparked by a brilliant par save from off the green on the 2nd and a holed 150-yard wedge for eagle on the 4th. His -24 264 aggregate surpassed Bernhard Banger’s -21 Irish Open record and was six shots clear of the fast-finishing Scot Richie Ramsay (65) who shared second place with Englishman Matthew Southgate (66). Im eventually settled for a 72 to finish in a tie for fourth alongside Justin Rose, Kiwi Ryan Fox and Scot David Drysdale who finished with seven straight birdies in a 63 to clinch one of three Open Championship starts along with Ramsay and Fox.
“I know the trophy is right next to me and my name is going to be there forever now, but it seems hard to believe that it’s happened,” said Rahm who is poised to climb back into the world’s top-10 again as a result.
“It’s kind of somewhat surreal. I just look at it and I see Nick Faldo, I see Jose Maria Olazabal, I see Nick Faldo again, I see Colin Montgomerie, Ian Woosnam, Seve. That’s a great list of great — and greatest European Tour players ever, and to have my name next to it, and the last one, Rory McIlroy, it’s so special.
“To actually play my best golf that I can remember till this day and shoot 24-under on this golf course and win it by six, man, that is not something I wouldn’t have believed I was capable of. I learned a lot about myself and what I’m capable of, and it’s a really, really special day.”
After his PGA Tour breakthrough at January’s Farmers Insurance Open, Rahm was always going to arrive at Royal Birkdale at short odds among a list of big bombing Open Championship favourites, contemporary behemoths who overpower courses with length off the tee and deftness on and around greens in every corner of the world. Indeed Rahm already merited mention in the same conversations as Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, the latter the im/perfect host of the Dubai Duty Free Open after missing the cut.
It’s hard to believe Rahm was playing collegiate golf in the US little more than a year ago given his meteoric rise in the paid ranks. Then again its hardly surprising when you consider he won 11 titles playing for Tim Mickelson’s Arizona State, second only to Lefty Mickelson’s record 16 individual titles for the Sun Devils. Among his amateur triumphs were individual honours at the 2014 Eisenhower Trophy and low amateur honours at the 2016 U.S. Open just before he turned professional. His total of 60 weeks is the most of any of the 30 players to ever ascend to the apex of the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
Phil Mickelson might say there are “no weaknesses” but Rahm is the owner of a fiery temperament which famously surfaced as he missed the cut at last month’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
He flung his driver in disgust at a couple of wayward drives Sunday and knows he must get a handle on his temper under the blowtorch. Then again, he was also “proud of how I stayed in the moment step by step, from the first shot pretty much towards till end” as he buried his links bogey, despite a sloppy one on the 72nd.
“I haven’t played my best golf on links golf courses [but] to play the way I did here, it proves to me I can perform properly on a links golf course. And that’s what I’ve got to take to The Open. I know now that I have what it takes.
“The Open Championship, it’s a little different deal just because a major championship will be set up probably harder than this week was. But nevertheless, I know I can read the putts right, and I know I can interpret the wind and I can hit the shots and I can manage myself around the golf course properly enough to have a chance to win The Open.
“Will that happen? I don’t know. But I’m going to try to enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed this week.”
If Rahm continues to play like this, it’s going to be a joy ride for us all.