Conventional thought dictates Jon Rahm should feel the heavy burden of expectation in the coming days. But conventional thought ignores the formidable mindset of the man himself.
The triumph of Seve Ballesteros at St Andrews in the Open Championship of 1984 remains one of the major’s marquee moments. The beaming smile, the dance of delight and the panache with which the Claret Jug was claimed were all so typically Seve. Ballesteros won the Open three times but glory at the home of golf resonates even today.
Rahm would be entitled to roll his eyes when historical context – Spain, Seve, St Andrews – is raised before the upcoming 150th Open. Instead, and to his great credit, the 27-year-old Spaniard embraces the opportunity to emulate his nation’s greatest golfing export. Rahm has already won a US Open at the famed Torrey Pines.
“I dream about it,” says Rahm of an Open triumph. “I dream about it all the time. I see myself doing that, I think a lot of people do. It’s the fuel that keeps me going. I have been doing that since I was a kid; thinking of the putt to win, of the Green Jacket being put on my back, of the photographs holding the Claret Jug. I let myself believe. Why not? I have got to where I am at because I dream about it and I believe. There is no reason to stop now.
“To win an Open at St Andrews is one of the highest pinnacles you could ever achieve in sport. You play there once every five years, you might have four chances in your career if you get lucky. It’s up there with winning a gold medal.
“A very select group of people have done it. I know from hearing Tiger, Jack and Seve talk about it that it is different. It is one of the most iconic moments you could ever have as a golfer. I have heard about how special that walk down the 18th on Sunday is when you know you have the tournament won. That’s definitely something I want to feel.”
It would be silly to draw parallels between the impact of Ballesteros on his sport and Rahm’s achievements. Still, the latter has an on-course swagger, passion and style that makes him compulsive viewing. It is almost as if the man from the Basque country feels a duty to perform in something approaching the Seve model.
“He is a lot to live up to, right? Seve was one of a kind,” adds Rahm. “We will never see another Seve. His charisma and the way he played was loved by everyone, especially when it came to links golf. Hitting a driver without a plan then producing recovery shots from everywhere was not really the way to do it. He changed that perception. It will be hard for anybody to come close to what he meant for the game of golf.”
But come the business end of the Open, and should Rahm be leading, won’t all the references to his countryman start to grate? Not at all. “Wouldn’t that mean I am doing something right?” replies Rahm. “It would never apply more pressure than I place on myself. Nobody is going to say something I don’t already know. I have spoken about wanting to match Seve in so many different categories and to be able to win an Open at St Andrews would be huge. Nothing could be said that isn’t already on my mind.
“The golf gods gave me a US Open. Seve didn’t do that, no Spanish player had done it. With that said, I would like multiple majors. The Open is definitely on my mind.”
Rahm’s path into golf is intriguing. As a three-year-old, he and his family packed up a Volkswagen van and drove from Bilbao to the north of Scotland on a summer holiday. There was a stop at the golf museum in St Andrews but, at that point, it meant little to young Jon. He later took the lead from his father, Edorta, who did not lift a club until adulthood. Edorta and a group of friends were skiers, rock climbers and paragliders until the Ryder Cup landed in Valderrama in 1997. Two of that group watched the event in person and were hooked.
“When they got home, they told the others: ‘We have got to try this,’” Rahm explains. “My dad, my mum, my older brother all started and then me. That was my introduction. Directly, indirectly, however you want to say it, it was all because of the Ryder Cup. I believe the Ryder Cup is the best marketing tool the game will ever have. And it’s an event we play for free.”
Aha, money. Rahm begins this interview with a laugh and admission that if he “has to answer another LIV question …” as golf’s civil war between tours rumbles around his ears. Rahm has continually stated his full commitment to golf’s existing ecosystem as opposed to the approach of, for example, Sergio García. It is inferred rather than stated but Rahm seems to feel last month’s US Open, a resounding success at Brookline, and the upcoming Open provide opportunity to remember what should matter in elite sport as Saudi Arabia pours in millions.
“This is what we play for,” he says. “You go to a tournament and venues with so much history. You don’t need to do a thing to sell St Andrews. The US Open and the Open this year could be just what golf needed. When Ben Hogan or Bobby Jones came over to play the Open, it wasn’t about money. It probably cost them money. It was about the prestige of being able to call yourself the champion golfer of the year. There is no better place than St Andrews in that sense.”
Rahm is not at all indifferent towards García, whom he has undoubtedly surpassed as Spain’s pre-eminent player. “My aim was never to say to Sergio: ‘I’m here now, get out of the way,’” Rahm insists. “He has helped me. I think there has been a transition where Sergio has passed the baton on to me.”
Rahm’s face lights up when he is asked to ponder the vagaries of links golf. Irish Open wins, at Lahnich and Portstewart, point towards course specialism but it was not ever thus. Rahm cut a bemused figure at Royal Cinque Ports in 2009 as he prepared for the Boys’ Amateur Championship at nearby Royal St George’s.
“At home, everything was soft, everything was [hit] high,” Rahm says. “I was thinking: ‘What am I doing here?’ The ball was bouncing everywhere. My father warned me not to hit driver with water 360 yards away.
“You play your own game, that’s the beauty of it. With so many of the courses we play nowadays, you bomb it off the tee then hit wedge into the green. It’s all airborne. You miss a green? Lob wedge. On the 1st tee at St Andrews you have endless options, the 2nd is the same. I love that.”
Rahm would treasure nothing more than seeing his name etched into the Claret Jug. Such an outcome would owe everything to the nursing of a dream.