Rahm Looks to Put Finishing Touch on Decorated Amateur Career

Jon Rahm plans to turn professional following his U.S. Open debut at Oakmont. (USGA/Michael Cohen)
Jon Rahm plans to turn professional following his U.S. Open debut at Oakmont. (USGA/Michael Cohen)

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OAKMONT, Pa. – At the end of their final U.S. Open practice round on Wednesday at Oakmont Country Club, three countrymen posed for pictures on the 18th green.

Rafa Cabrera Bello and Sergio Garcia, both inside the top 30 of the Official World Golf Ranking, joined fellow Spaniard Jon Rahm, No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™ (WAGR), for some photo ops.

This was the present meeting the future, and if he were a stock, Rahm would have a high buy rating.

Rahm’s four-year career at Arizona State University included consecutive Ben Hogan Awards (2015, 2016), 11 college victories, a tie for fifth in the PGA Tour’s Phoenix Waste Management Open, the shattering of Jack Nicklaus’ 54-year-old scoring mark in the 2014 World Amateur Team Championship, and the 2015 McCormack Medal, given annually to the No. 1 player in the WAGR. That final honor earned Rahm an exemption into the 2016 U.S. Open, where he will make his last start as an amateur.

Next week, he’ll make his first professional start in the Quicken Loans National at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. He also has three other sponsor’s exemptions lined up: the Barracuda Championship in Reno, Nev., the Barbasol Championship in Opelika, Ala., and the John Deere Classic, the week of the Olympics in Silvis, Ill. He will try to earn enough money to gain temporary PGA Tour status, which would give him unlimited starts the rest of the season with the hope of earning enough FedEx points to gain a Tour card for the 2016-17 season.

But nothing is likely to be as challenging as this week’s U.S. Open. Few courses can match Oakmont for degree of difficulty, and Rahm has used the practice rounds with some of the world’s best golfers to absorb as much knowledge as possible, especially on the greens. On Monday, he played nine holes with five-time major champion Phil Mickelson, the brother of his ASU coach, Tim Mickelson. The last two days, he has toured Oakmont with Bello and Garcia, whom he befriended while playing in last year’s Travelers Championship outside of Hartford, Conn.

“It’s just fun to see how good they are overall, especially Sergio,” said Rahm. “Whenever he hits it, it just looks different.  The things you can learn the most are on the greens. They have their caddies who are experienced and they know the pins and the breaks. It’s a great learning process.”

When Tim Mickelson recruited Rahm four years ago, he knew Rahm had great potential. But it wasn’t until Rahm opened with a 61 in the 2013 NCAA Championship at the Capital City Club in Georgia that Mickelson realized just how good his freshman was. By the end of his career, Rahm was No. 2 on the school’s career win list (five behind Phil Mickelson) and the only two-time recipient of the Hogan Award.

“I don’t know what his weakness is,” said Tim Mickelson. “I just don’t see one. I’ve coached a couple of good ones, but he’s got that extra gear. A lot of players are afraid or scared of the pressure. He is not.”

Added Garcia, who has won 20 events combined on the PGA Tour (11) and PGA European Tour (9): “Everyone knows how good a player he is. He looks like he’s swinging well, and he’s confident. It’s a tough challenge this week, but it would be nice for him to have a good start, if not this week, then starting next week as a professional. Hopefully he can settle down nicely and get some good momentum on his side so that eventually he can get his card and go from there.”

Rahm is part of a recent class of collegians that is not lacking in confidence. Jordan Spieth, who would have been part of the Class of 2015 had he not left the University of Texas in the middle of his sophomore year, already owns U.S. Open and Masters titles. Justin Thomas, Emiliano Grillo and Daniel Berger, also Class of 2015 players, have won PGA Tour events. Paul Dunne shared the 54-hole lead in last year’s Open Championship at St. Andrews, and Robby Shelton, who turned pro last week, tied for third in the 2015 Barbasol Championship. Rahm tied for fifth in last year’s Phoenix Waste Management Open not far from the ASU campus.

“A lot of people think the difference between the amateur level and the pros is amazingly huge,” said Rahm. “But it really isn’t. Top-five amateurs right now are playing well at PGA Tour events. I realized that myself. [The pros] are just a little better at every aspect. It’s just experience.”

If there’s one aspect that Rahm knows he must control, it’s his emotions. Known for being a fiery competitor, Rahm understands that he sometimes lets his feelings get too public.

“I’ve been working on mental patience a lot, which is not my strongest asset,” said Rahm. “You can describe me as an emotional competitor. I like using that fire to push me when things are not going right. I probably have to tone that down this week.”

This championship will be excellent preparation for next week’s pro debut at Congressional. The excitement is building at home, where some see Rahm as the next great Spanish superstar, a heritage that began with the late Hall of Famer Seve Ballesteros and was carried on by two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal, Miguel Angel Jimenez and now Garcia and Cabrera Bello. Rahm pays tribute to Spain’s greatest champion with the words “Seve” inscribed on one of his wedges and Seve’s nickname “Matador” on another.

“[The U.S. Open] is a perfect way to close out a good amateur career,” said Rahm, whose family is at Oakmont this week. “People are looking at me as the future of the sport [in Spain]. I don’t think about it. I want to be the best player I can be.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.