AUSTIN, Texas – Jon Rahm can be an imposing figure without a golf club in his hand.
Even when his audience is Jack Nicklaus.
Nine months ago, Rahm was dressed in a coat-and-tie to receive the Jack Nicklaus Award as the top college golfer. He stood tall, showing respect, and held his eye contact as Nicklaus talked to him about how to prepare for the U.S. Open at Oakmont.
That was Rahm’s last tournament as an amateur.
Facing the tougher side of the draw, he opened with a 76 at Oakmont and was 10 shots behind. There was little reason to pay close attention to him the rest of the way, though the young Spaniard showed just how much fight he has in his game. By the end of the week, Rahm was the only amateur to make the cut and tied for 23rd.
It’s hard not to watch him now.
“He’s special. He’s going to be good for the game,” Tom Kite said as he followed Rahm and Bill Haas in their semifinal match at the Dell Technologies Match Play.
Kite paused for a moment before adding with a smile, “Except at the Ryder Cup.”
That might be the ultimate measure of Rahm.
The Masters is in two weeks. Eight more majors are still to be played before the next Ryder Cup in France, and Rahm already is being looked upon as Europe’s greatest addition to the lineup since a curly-haired, 21-year-old from Northern Ireland named Rory McIlroy.
The latest example was Sunday at Match Play. Rahm was 4 down after six holes, 5 down after eight holes and 4 down after 12 holes. And he still took Dustin Johnson to the 18th hole before the 22-year-old rookie ran out of birdies.
It was the third consecutive victory for Johnson.
It was the third consecutive top 5 for Rahm.
“He’s hungry. He wants more. He wants a major,” Haas said before losing to Rahm, 3 and 2, in the semifinals. “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.”
Rahm’s record matches the early hype.
Five days after the U.S. Open, Rahm was tied for the 36-hole lead in his professional debut at the Quicken Loans National. He tied for fourth. A month later, he closed with a 67 at the Canadian Open and finished one shot behind Jhonattan Vegas (as did Dustin Johnson).
It took him four majors to lock up a PGA Tour card without ever having to go through any form of qualifying school.
And now consider his last two months.
He made two eagles over the last six holes at Torrey Pines, the last one a 60-footer from behind the 18th green, for his first PGA Tour victory. Two weeks later, he fought back from a 73 in the opening round to finish 67-67-68 and tie for fifth at Pebble Beach. And then at the Mexico Championship, Rahm quickly turned a four-shot deficit into a one-shot lead with an eagle and two birdies. A pair of three-putts at the end gave him a tie for fourth as Johnson won in his debut at No. 1 in the world.
Patrick Reed declared himself to be top 5 in the world when he won a World Golf Championship at Doral three years ago, and everyone snickered (Reed still hasn’t reached higher than No. 7). Phil Mickelson said Rahm was a top-10 player even before the 22-year-old rookie won a tournament, and Lefty looks like a prophet.
Mickelson has a vested interest, of course. His younger brother, Tim Mickelson, was Rahm’s coach at Arizona State and now is his manager. Lefty has played enough money games with Rahm that he wants the kid as his partner.
Rahm would have gone to No. 10 in the world if he had beaten Johnson in the championship match. Instead, he reached No. 14 in the world in just 19 tournaments, four of them when he was still an amateur.
“He’s been out on tour for seven months and his divisor is the same for a two-year divisor,” Mickelson said, referring to the world ranking formula. “If you divide it by the actual number of events he’s played, he’s in the top 10 in the world. He continues to validate that with some incredible play. He’s a real threat.”
Johnson can attest to that. When he was 4 up with six to play, Johnson did little wrong. He didn’t throw away any holes. He just watched Rahm blast a driver over the water and onto the 13th green, stuff a wedge to 4 feet for birdie, and then hit a daring shot through the trees and hole a 30-foot birdie putt.
Needing birdie on the 18th, Rahm hit a 382-yard tee shot that went over the green. He chipped short, putted long, made par and was runner-up.
“He’s going to be a good player for a long time,” Johnson said.
The Ryder Cup is still another year away. How much better by then?