SOUTHPORT, England — With golf entrenched for 660 years as among the most mysterious normal human pursuits, it’s odd but not so odd: One of the favorites for the 146th Open Championship here suspects he might not be one of the favorites but for a sole Thursday round at Congressional Country Club outside Washington almost 400 days ago.
“Had I not shot that 64,” Jon Rahm said Tuesday, “maybe I wouldn’t be standing where I am now.”
Where he is now is at $5,495,850 in career money at age 22, almost 400 days since getting to Bethesda and starting at $0. He’s ranked No. 7 in the world after starting 2017 at No. 137. He’s part of a Spanish surge with three players in the top 17 and two European Tour winners in a row at stops in Northern Ireland and Scotland. He’s famous enough that if he has a tantrum, as at the U.S. Open in Wisconsin last month, it’s a newsworthy tantrum rather than a mere anonymous tantrum, which would be so much sadder.
He began that long-ago Thursday on hole No. 10. He hit it over the water and onto the green. As Joon Lee reported in The Washington Post, Rahm’s caddie, his chum Ben Shur, wrote on his scorecard, “Jon will not have a bogey today.” He did not have a bogey that day, shot the 64, barged to the top of the leader board, finished third and won his first $400,200. That would be a smashing start for a player who arrived at Congressional in late June as an Arizona State whiz who’d just won the Pacific-12 Conference title in early May. It also help start a big bridge for a former No. 1 amateur well-known to golf intellectuals, for he had only six chances, six sponsors’ exemptions that went with his finish as the low amateur in the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, Pa.
“I remember everything about that day,” he said of the Thursday. “What I was thinking, to be honest, was I was trying to play the best golf I could, because that’s all the starts that I had for the year and to get my Tour card. I did not want to go to Q-school or Web.com finals. And I knew I had the game to do it.
“And then, you know, Congressional is not an easy course, but after playing Oakmont it seemed like it. [Oakmont] was such a tough test that the rough at Congressional seemed easier. Everything seemed easier. I went in confident and luckily I had a superb ball-striking day. Tee to green it was one of the best, if not the best week I ever had, and backed it with a putter shooting 64. I wasn’t aware of how good a score that was. . . . It was absolutely amazing. I could not have felt any better.”
What a thing is confidence. Only five events later, with a runner-up burst at the Canadian Open raking in $440,533.34, he had amassed $1,004,034.20, which would have placed him securely in the top 125 (at No. 103) judging by the 2015 money list, which snared the card. He won at Torrey Pines near San Diego in January with a closing 65. He won the Irish Open in Portstewart, Northern Ireland, two weeks ago, by six shots, with a closing 65. He’s apparently good.
He’s also from the middle of very good and very good.
Rahm hails from the town Barrika, which means he adds even further golfing light to a northern coast of Spain that has its share of clouds and fog. Move over 84 driving miles to the east to Hondarribia on the French border, and that’s the home town of Jose Maria Olazabal, the two-time Masters champion. Get back to Barrika and then go 65 driving miles further west, and you can reach Pedrena, where the main avenue is named for the late native son Severiano Ballesteros, winner of five majors and a few million hearts.
On Tuesday, a reporter told Rahm that for some, he conjured Ballesteros. All 6 feet 2 and 220 pounds of Rahm nearly melted into a puddle at his chair.
“My family didn’t get into golf pretty much up to the close 2000s and by then, you know, he was already on the downslope of his career,” Rahm said. “. . . I’ve seen every video on YouTube that you can of Seve. I’ve seen his video here in ’76, the one winning in ’79 about a million times, how he plays the back nine without hitting the fairway (and landing under a car once), and makes 4 under par, it’s absolutely unbelievable. To whoever compares me to him, I’m never going to be Seve. Seve was so unique, so special, to be honest, if we ever see someone like him again it is going to be someone very, very special. Because what he did was special for Spanish golf and Spanish community. He opened so many doors.
“And he is somewhat the reason why I play golf, because of that Ryder Cup in 1997. I’m pretty sure he had some influence in getting the Ryder Cup there, and being the [Europe team] captain and how he brought the game of golf to Spain and the Spanish community, and directly because of that my Dad and some friends tried golf and that’s how I started playing. So if by my own, let’s say, career, I can make just one kid whose future was not related to golf, play golf, I’ll be extremely happy.”
He spoke at length about his ranking (“a little bit of adjusting period”), his vivid, visible, missed-cut U.S. Open (“tried to control too much”), his mental coach since 2014 (“mainly worked in my life outside golf”). He mentioned that in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai for its closing championship, the standings go: 1. Tommy Fleetwood, England; 2. Sergio Garcia (the Masters champion), Spain; 3. Rahm, Spain; 4. Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Spain, the No. 17-ranked player who just won the Scottish Open on Sunday in a playoff after a 64 in the closing round. Garcia hails from the Mediterranean coast between Valencia and Barcelona, Cabrera-Bello from the Canary Islands, where the wind is a teacher.
Spain is all around.
Said Garcia: “You guys have probably seen my tweets and everything, that it’s so great not only to have that [Rahm and Cabrera-Bello winning], but [Garbine] Muguruza winning at Wimbledon, too. So Spanish sports, it’s at a good stage. It’s been up there for a while, and obviously Rafa [Nadal] winning Roland Garros.”
All that considered, it’s probably worthwhile, then, that a player who shot a 64 at Congressional only 13 months ago did feel the need to mention on Tuesday, almost as a reminder, “This is my fourth major I’ve ever played.”