Masters favorite Jon Rahm reflects on a year of firsts

Masters favorite Jon Rahm reflects on a year of firsts

ON A WEDNESDAY morning in February, the crowd around the 12th tee at TPC Scottsdale swelled. Jon Rahm was standing behind his ball, ready to hit to the long par 3, but a commotion in the background grabbed his attention.

At the edge of the tee box, one of Rahm’s playing partners in the WM Phoenix Open pro-am, NFL superstar Aaron Rodgers, was talking to a group of spectators. This was back when Rodgers’ status for the upcoming season — Will he play with the Packers? Will he play at all? — was the topic of the moment, and the galleries had been hounding Rodgers about his plans. Come to Denver! Come be a Bronco! Come on, Aaron, why don’t you just give it a shot? (Nice, but maybe just a little too on-the-nose.)

Rodgers handled it all with mostly good humor, often signing autographs on his way from the green to the tee, or while waiting to hit. But now, standing with a group of fans who said they’d come all the way from Oshkosh (and so would he please sign their shirts?), Rodgers hushed them and implored them to look at the man with the club in his hand.

“Come on, let’s be quiet,” Rodgers said, pointing at Rahm. “That’s the best player in the world right there.” The fans dutifully fell silent and, as Rahm stepped in, Rodgers couldn’t resist. “I mean, just look at that incredible back,” he whisper-yelled, gesturing at Rahm’s broad shoulders, as everyone — including Rahm — broke up laughing.

After a moment to collect himself, Rahm addressed the ball again. He shuffled his feet. He brought his club up barely to his neck, then spun his hips and his back — that incredible back — through impact in the beautifully brief and violent motion that is unmistakably his golf swing.

The ball soared high and true and, in that moment, Rodgers was a stand-in for just about everyone in golf over the past year, everyone who has been stopping and standing and staring at Rahm’s transformation from an on-the-rise star with an oddly abbreviated swing to a dominant force who may well be the most talented player in the world. The kind of player who enters this week’s Masters as the betting favorite.

The ball landed softly just beyond the pin. Rahm peeked back at Rodgers and his minions. Rodgers shook his head and smiled.

“Let’s clap for that,” Rodgers called out as he applauded. “That man right there is special.”

A FEW WEEKS later, when we met up in Orlando, Florida, Rahm told me that he often writes in a diary. The content of his entries ranges from memories to reflections to more random thoughts — occasionally in Spanish though mostly in English — and the only rule Rahm has for himself is that he must always write in longhand.

“It doesn’t count if I do it on the computer,” he said flatly. He waved his hands. “There’s something meditational about it, right? Where I’m doing it and it’s just me with my own thoughts and figuring it out. And if I do it on the computer, it’s not quite the same thing.”

Over the past 12 months, Rahm has had plenty of material, both blessings and battles. A year ago at this time, his first child, a son named Kepa, was born just days before the Masters. He won his first major championship at the U.S. Open in San Diego and spent his first extended period as the No. 1 player in the world. Tournament top-10s seemed to come like water from a tap, and Rahm enters this week in the top 5 on tour in strokes gained off the tee, from tee-to-green and total.

“I think Jon Rahm is the guy for the next 10 years,” veteran PGA Tour pro Pat Perez, who plays with Rahm often at their club in Arizona, said recently on a Golf Magazine podcast. “I don’t think anyone is going to beat Jon Rahm consistently for a decade.”

As powerful as his golf has been, though, it was also months before Rahm’s parents could actually meet their grandchild because, as happened for so many, COVID restrictions kept Rahm separated from his relatives in Spain. There were loved ones who died during the pandemic and the isolation he felt and the staggeringly public gut punch of what happened at the Memorial in early June, when Rahm blistered the course for a third-round 64 on Saturday to take a no-one’s-catching-me 6-shot lead … only to learn he would have to withdraw before Sunday’s final round because he had tested positive for COVID.

No trophy. No $1.7 million in prize money. No handshake with tournament host Jack Nicklaus. When officials approached him with the news, Rahm physically buckled and dropped down, his hands over his face. He looked crushed.

“It was almost like being in a movie,” Rahm’s caddie, Adam Hayes, said.

All of these moments found their way into Rahm’s head and, in some form, his diary. And the process of writing has been critical to Rahm’s work on better understanding his own anxieties and mental health. At a different point in his life, the raw emotion of losing out on a near-certain tour win because of a test result — Rahm didn’t even feel sick — might have sent him reeling. But in that moment, Rahm centered himself. Stayed composed. Held on to the mindset that writing, among other things, has helped him to maintain.

“You know, even Kelley,” he said, referring to his wife, “she would tell me a lot of times she could tell something was going on with me, and I could feel something was up — I just didn’t know what it was. And by writing, it’s something that kind of reorganizes my thoughts, makes all the feelings flow evenly. So the process of dealing with emotions got a lot better, a lot easier, just by writing it down.”

Some people use diaries for reminiscing, for reliving the joy (or pain) they experienced once their memories start to fade. For Rahm, though, the key is more in how the journal allows him to be present. To be mindful. The moments when he struggles with his anxieties the most, he has realized, come when he tries to project into the future. When he thinks about expectations or possibilities, about what might happen or could happen or should happen.

So with the journal, it is simple: He writes. He processes. He moves on. “When I write, it’s almost like it really sets in my brain,” he said. “I don’t ever go back and read it.”

NOW, IT SHOULD be said: The notion that a married 27-year-old who recently became a father would experience some personal growth and internal maturation is not especially unusual. These are the things that move many of us, that prompt and prod us to try to figure out how to be truly happy. These are the things that make us want more from ourselves.

In Rahm’s case, though, that growth comes juxtaposed against a lingering public narrative that seems, at best, superficial. Ever since Rahm arrived on the PGA Tour in 2016, there has been an uncomfortable (if not unreasonable) focus on his fits of emotion or frustration on the course. A club slam. An expletive (or three). A shout or arm-wave or eye roll.

He is hardly the only player to have fits on the course, but it sometimes feels as though his are seen differently — as defining or confirming of something, as opposed to the out-of-character rush of blood that other players are often afforded. And the commentary around Rahm — whether from broadcasters or pundits or even players — has often been similarly casual or littered with tropes, like not-so-coded references to Rahm’s “fiery” Spanish heritage or the “perspective” he’s only just discovered now that he has a child. The expectation, it seems, is that Rahm’s temper is just a given.

(As just one example: It hasn’t escaped those close to Rahm that when he is playing a round where TV cameras are following every swing, the cameraman behind Rahm will frequently linger so long after Rahm hits a poor shot — clearly instructed to stay there in case this is the blow-up moment everyone is so sure will come — that the cameraman can’t then get over to Rahm’s playing partner before that player is ready to hit.)

To be clear, Rahm doesn’t dispute that he’s had his share of petulant moments on the course. There are plenty of situations he wishes he’d handled differently. The lesser-told story, though, is the reason behind those emotions and Rahm’s work to better understand what they mean.

“Even though I say a lot of stupid stuff on the course, and I complain, it’s just a way of letting out nervous energy,” he told me, sitting up in his chair. He was as animated as I saw him. “When I’m saying, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe that putt broke that way,’ I probably fully know that I pushed it, OK? Just so you know.” He laughed. “I’m fully aware. I’m just deflecting.”

The follow-up was obvious: Deflecting what? And the answer, as it is for all of us, is complex but largely comes down to some combination of feelings related to constantly being judged, the inner machinations of ever-rising external expectations and a healthy dollop of pure competitiveness. (“I miss a shot, it matters to me,” he said. “I care.”)

He shrugged. “I think what people misunderstand is the level of vulnerability for professional athletes,” he said. “Some mistakes might be made, and then you’re going to be judged by those mistakes and then that’s piled onto the stress that person might have in their mind. … It’s not easy, right?

The journal, he said, has helped. So has mediation and a few other techniques that Rahm has worked on with his longtime mental coach, Joseba Del Carmen. Recently, he has talked about managing stress with Michael Phelps, the former Olympic swimmer and a friend who has more publicly confronted his own mental health concerns.

Many of those conversations, Rahm said, have centered around the changes one feels in terms of anxiety after becoming a parent. Rahm recalled for me a day when he was playing with Kepa and got a phone call with some bad news that made him a bit angry. After he hung up, he turned back to his baby and, within minutes, Kepa’s mood had changed. “I could see it going straight to him,” Rahm said. “All of a sudden, he’s crying and he doesn’t know why.”

That experience stunned Rahm, and he tried to unpack it with Phelps and others, tried to figure out what being a parent means to his own emotion. And here, too, the oft-repeated public narrative about Rahm seems to have largely glossed over what is his reality.

The generally accepted line that has been repeated around golf is that becoming a father has reduced Rahm’s outbursts on the course because he now sees what’s really important — the “perspective” we so often hear about — and thus isn’t bothered by things as much while playing.

In truth, Rahm has learned that which all parents come to realize: that we are ciphers to our children and have to be hyperaware of the impact our moods intrinsically have on them.

Having Kepa (with another child on the way) hasn’t automatically made Rahm care less about what he does on the course because it’s suddenly less significant. Rather, it’s just made him more focused on finding other outlets for his negative emotions because he is determined, more than anything, to shield his child from them.

If that means they show up while he’s playing, he has decided, so be it.

“If you withhold it, it’s going to come out sometime,” he said. He sighed. “And it’s happened to me where it comes out on the golf course for no freaking reason.”

AT ONE POINT, I asked Rahm if he has ever thought about what advice he’d give to the younger version of himself, the version who was 22 and new on tour and much more prone to emotional swings that no one, Rahm included, really understood.

Rahm snorted.

“I have no idea — I probably wouldn’t have listened,” he said. “I went from being a college player to top 10 in the world in nine months (and) that is an ascension that I dreamed of, but I wasn’t mentally or emotionally ready for what that entailed.”

He stopped. Then he said, “I feel like with me, there was a before and after in my case.”

It would be easy to peg the turning point in that construct as when Rahm won his first major championship last year — he readily admits he felt incredible pressure to win one right up until the moment it finally happened — but Rahm knows that it really isn’t just any one thing. It is more layered than that, more nuanced. The U.S. Open. Kelley. Kepa. COVID. His family. Writing. Feeling. All of it has allowed what Hayes, the caddie, so eloquently described as the “costume life” that Rahm and all public personalities are required to create to more closely mirror the world in which he lives.

That is what Rahm wants. And the openness and comfort with himself and who he is has been on display more and more often.

A few weeks after winning at Torrey Pines last summer, a seemingly innocuous question at a news conference before the Open Championship led to Rahm talking publicly for the first time about how he was born with a club foot, which meant his right foot was inverted almost 90 degrees and upside down.

Doctors had to break his ankle and turn the foot, casting it over and over to keep it in place. The pain, both mental and physical, was intense. Rahm’s parents took him to the emergency room constantly so the cast could be changed as Rahm grew, and even now, Rahm’s right leg is nearly an inch shorter than his left. If he doesn’t wear specially made orthotics in his shoes, walking can be unbearable. “If I were to play barefoot,” he told me, “the amount of pain I would be in is mind-blowing. … I’ll just be completely crooked.”

In the news conference, Rahm explained that the condition was a big part of why his backswing is so much shorter than most players’ — “If I take it full to parallel, yeah, it might create more speed, but I have no stability. My ankle just can’t take it” — and that revelation led to a few days of interest and stories before most people went back to just watching The Open.

In Utah, though, Rahm’s words lingered. A 14-year-old boy from there named Phoenix Small, who had been born with two club feet but developed a love for golf, heard about Rahm’s comments. Phoenix’s hospital, Shriners Children’s, helped make a connection. Last fall, Rahm and Phoenix connected on a video call for a little while, and on that pro-am day back in February at TPC Scottsdale, two people who were born with club feet and have shorter-than-average golf swings finally met in person.

Rahm, who had been chatting and joking with Rodgers and the other amateurs in his group all morning, broke off as he approached the 15th green. Phoenix and his parents were there, and Rahm hugged Phoenix and led him through the tunnel up to the famous 16th hole, the stadium-style par 3.

There were plenty of memorable moments for Phoenix — “your first PGA Tour birdie!” Rahm told him after he made a short putt for Rahm on the 17th green — but the real connection came as they walked.

They talked about the treatments they had been through. About Phoenix’s love of music. About golf. About all the people who were watching them. “By the way we walk, you wouldn’t be able to tell, right?” Rahm said to me. He shook his head. “He’s the first person I ever talked to about what we were born with.”

Of all that Rahm has experienced over the past year, it was one of his most memorable moments, and before they went their separate ways, Rahm leaned in closer to Phoenix and shared with him a saying he had learned growing up in Spain.

Lo que mal empieza, bien acaba. It was an expression Rahm thought would have meaning to Phoenix because it had meaning to him. It still does.

Lo que mal empieza, bien acaba. “We might start the wrong way,” Rahm told Phoenix, “but we’ll finish the right way.”

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