Rahm leads the pack
Arizona State's Rahm in first place after first round of tourney
MILTON, Ga. -- When Jon Rahm set foot on American soil for the first time last August, Tim Mickelson, Rahm’s golf coach at Arizona State, was not initially impressed.
In fact, Mickelson admitted Tuesday that he did not expect Rahm, a native of Barrika, Spain, to last long in the United States.
“When he landed in Phoenix last August, he flew all the way by himself. His English was very broken,” Mickelson said. “And my first thought was, ‘This kid’s not going to make it. His English isn’t good enough. He’s 17, he doesn’t know what’s going on.'
“He’s certainly proved me wrong -- and that’s OK.”
Never was that more apparent than Tuesday when Rahm fired a career-low and 9-under-par 61 on the par-70, 7,319-yard Crabapple Course at the Capital City Club. That gave him the early individual lead in the NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championships, as he notched 10 birdies, including one on his final hole, to set a record for lowest opening round in the 75-year history of the event.
“On the 14th hole, I had a putt for birdie,” said Rahm, an 18-year-old freshman who registered only one bogey in his spectacular Tuesday round. “And I thought, ‘If I played the last holes good, I can really do a 60 or a 10-under. I had been thinking and been dreaming about that. Then I missed the putt, but I made the really good one on the last one for a 61. That’s the best round I’ve ever played.”
It is somewhat remarkable that Rahm is playing in the U.S. at all. Mickelson recruited Rahm at the last minute last spring, signing him to a scholarship without ever having seen Rahm play.
“I was playing really well [as a 17-year-old junior in Europe] before coming here, but I only had one [U.S. college scholarship] offer -- and they wanted me to come ... in the fall of 2013,” Rahm said. “I was ranked 14th in the world and kept waiting, thinking maybe I would get lucky and someone would call me. Then it was last May, a little bit late, and Mickelson got in touch with me on Facebook and I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ “
Mickelson happens to be the younger brother of Phil, one of the greatest and most well-known professional golfers in the world. Phil Mickelson is also a three-time NCAA individual champion from Arizona State, where Tim Mickelson played three seasons and was a member of the 1996 ASU national championship team before finishing at Oregon State. Soon enough, Rahm figured out who Mickelson was and what he wanted.
“The next day my Dad said he got an email from them and that they were offering me a scholarship,” Rahm said of ASU. “I thought that was great. ... There were a lot of Spanish players who had played there before – like Alejandro Canizares. I knew it would be a great place.
“They told me the weather was perfect. I didn’t have time to come on an official visit, so I really had to believe everything they told me. I did and it’s probably been one of the best years I’ve ever had in my life.”
Canizares, won individual medalist honors at the 2003 NCAA championship as a freshman with the Sun Devils. Now, a decade later, Rahm is attempting to follow in those lofty footsteps.
He has come a long, long way in a very short time -- and not just in terms of miles traveled to get to the ASU campus.
“My English was so bad when I first came,” Rahm said. “My first month, people would talk to me and I would space out for 10 seconds -- because I had to translate what they were saying from English to Spanish, then understand it and then translate what I wanted to say back from Spanish to English. It was really hard for me in class and with the coaches. I think it lasted for a month and a half or two, and then everything was great after that.”
Mickelson recalled how life wasn’t so great for Rahm on the course at first, either. He shot an opening-round 81 in his first collegiate tournament at Minnesota.
“He was definitely raw. His first two tournaments were not good,” Mickelson said. “The only slight adjustment we tried to make was that we told him, ‘Look, Jon, if you’ve got a very difficult shot, determine if the percentages are worth going for the shot. And if they are, do it because I know you can pull it off. But if they’re not, let’s make sure we’re giving ourselves a shot or par or at the worst, a bogey. Let’s eliminate the big numbers.’ ”
Arizona State’s third tournament was the Pac-12 Preview at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon, a layout considered fearsome by most golfers. The night before the tournament, after playing a practice round, Rahm cornered Mickelson and told him, “Hey, I think this course is easy.”
Mickelson was stunned.
“I said, ‘Jon, this is Pumpkin Ridge. They’ve hosted the U.S. Women’s Open, they’ve hosted the U.S. Men’s Amateur.’
“He goes out and shoots a 77 the first round," Mickelson said. "I looked at his scorecard and said, ‘Oh, so a 77 is easy for you, huh?’ And he said, ‘Coach, I feel good. You just wait.’ And he went out the next day and shot a bogey-free 64. Then a 65 the day after that. ... That’s when I said, ‘Wow. This guy is really special.’ ”
Not bad for a guy Mickelson never even saw play before offering him a scholarship.
“It’s rare,” Mickelson admitted. “I sort of have a policy and I think most other coaches all have the same policy where you don’t offer a scholarship to someone unless you’ve seen them play in person and have a chance to really assess their abilities as a player and their character.
“But I didn’t have that luxury. I had the chance to see him play in the summer, after he had accepted the scholarship. But I didn’t get to see him before that. So it’s definitely rare. It’s definitely one of those that worked out luckily for us.”
Playing the back nine first on Tuesday, Rahm went birdie-bogey-birdie-birdie right out of the gate on the first four holes. He also birdied Nos. 15, 17 and 18 on what was his front nine, then added four more birdies on his back, the front of the course, on hole Nos. 1, 4, 5 and 9.
“I did feel like it might be a special day when I got to the driving range [before the round],” Rahm said. “I was in a really good rhythm and hitting really good balls. So I was like, ‘Well, this could be it.’"