There are a vast number of reasons to watch each player participating in this weekend’s U.S. Open. Rory McIlroy is fresh off a wedding, will be using a new putter, and makes great facial expressions when he is puzzled. Jordan Spieth has played Erin Hills before, in the 2011 U.S. Amateur Championship, and is one of a few pros with first-hand knowledge of the course. Those are valid reasons, and interesting players. But I will not be focused on Rory or Jordan or Instagram-maestro Lee Westwood for the next four days. No, I will be watching Jon Rahm, because win, lose, or cut, his rounds will never be dull.
Rahm graduated from Arizona State last May and, in a stroke of luck, situated himself into a long-term professional career by late June. The 22-year-old Basque Country native graduated on time despite changing his major and learning an entirely new language on the fly, and he’s using his degree — a B.A. in communications — in his current line of work. But when a great-uncle or extended family friend asks what he’s up to now that school has ended, his response is a bit different than most other post-grads. Rahm is the 10th-ranked golfer in the world, and the man who wasn’t yet a pro at last year’s U.S. Open is looking to win his first major this weekend at Erin Hills.
According to the course’s press kit, Erin Hills is a course “formed by colliding glaciers that left dramatic ridges, contours and vistas” but is relatively young in golfing terms. It’s been open since 2006, and only seven of the players in this year’s Open field have played the course in official competition. It has recently become known for its (controversial) severe fescue. It’s also long — the first course to be played at par-72 for the tournament since 1992, and the longest course in major championship history — and tactical, requiring planning and precision to avoid hazards. This is a course that plays to Rahm’s strengths.
Rahm ranks third this year behind Dustin Johnson and his fellow countryman Sergio García in strokes gained off the tee, and he’s within the top 15 on the tour in greens-in-regulation percentage and strokes gained approaching the green. Though his putting could stand to improve, he ranks third on tour in total strokes gained. He’s had one of the best starts of anyone on tour in 2017, winning the Farmers Open in late January and recording six other top-10 finishes in the four and a half months since. He tied for 27th at his first professional Masters in April, a respectable finish in a weekend that saw two days of wind and what one golfer called “borderline” unplayable conditions.
Though Rahm is coming off his first missed cut of the year at the Memorial, the weekend prior he shot a 66 in the opening and closing round of the Colonial, and finished the Dean & DeLuca Invitational tied for second.
During the Dean & DeLuca, Rahm’s control was on display (he finished each round at or under par), as was his self-awareness. “Really, on some golf courses … not knowing where things are sometimes, it’s a lot better,” Rahm said in a press conference before the tournament. He went on to reference his experience playing the Shell Houston Open for the first time in April, and discussions with his caddy, Adam Hayes, about the course. “I just told Adam, ‘Hey Adam, just tell me what to do. Don’t tell me where the hazards are, don’t tell me where the bad things are, just tell me where and what club.’”
That strategy worked at Shell, where Rahm finished tied for 10th, and at Colonial. This weekend, Rahm’s experience with inexperience and confidence in playing on unknown terrain could give him an edge in a space that will be unfamiliar to nearly every competitor on the course.
Jon Rahm’s Twitter account provides his nearly 31,000 followers a brief but thorough look into his world. His social media life is full of burger reviews, golf ads, and surprisingly positive feedback for Justin Bieber’s Spanish. (I’m doubting he saw the infamous “Dorito” tape.)
Rahm is a noted Kendrick Lamar fan, having learned English by listening to “Swimming Pools,” among other rap songs. (No word yet on whether Rahm has reached out to offer Lamar golf lessons.) The meanest Rahm gets on social media is when he has the nerve to correct Sir Nick Faldo on the spelling of his first name — “It’s Jon *grimace emoji* not John” — or when he tries to trash talk Dustin Johnson and just ends up sounding really excited to play with him again.
According to Tim Mickelson, the man who recruited Rahm to ASU and brother of five-time major winner Phil Mickelson, none of this is an act. “The best word for Jon is genuine,” Mickelson told Golf Digest’s Jaime Diaz in a profile last week. A college teammate in the same article referred to Rahm as “a big teddy bear.”
Rahm smiles constantly in interviews and always looks more excited to be on the course than anyone else. Even his quirky swing, one that lends him power though it comes from a short backswing with a slightly bowed wrist, is endearing if you’re not trying to emulate its results. Yet despite his teddy-bear traits, he’s one of the most intimidating golfers in the world.
“I don’t think a single player out here would argue he’s not one of the top five, top 10 players in the world,” Bill Haas told Diaz. “He’s hungry. He wants more. He wants a major. You can just see it in him. He’s got that thing about him that’s going to make him a big-time winner out here.”
Maybe it will take a few years for that drive to amount to a major victory, or maybe it will equate to one this weekend. Regardless, it will be fun to watch him fight for one at the U.S. Open.