LAS VEGAS – The conversation was painfully awkward.
In the fall of 2012, Arizona State coach Tim Mickelson picked up 17-year-old Jon Rahm from the Phoenix Airport, shuttled him to the ASU campus for the first time and immediately realized the massive learning curve ahead.
At best, Rahm’s English was choppy. Simple questions – What do you want for dinner? – required complex mental rerouting. For weeks, Rahm would listen to a question in English, translate it in his mind in Spanish, think about what he wanted to reply in Spanish, and then finally translate it back to English. The process could take 10, 20, sometimes even 30 seconds, all for Rahm to respond with a short answer that didn’t always make sense.
“I went to my assistant (Michael Beard) and said, ‘I don’t think this kid is going to make it,” Mickelson says now. “I thought he might be a kid that fails out after a semester or a year.”
Instead, Rahm has embraced the challenges of learning a third language, blossomed in his new environment and teamed with Germany’s Max Rottluff to form what is statistically the most potent 1-2 combination in the country. Their dynamic play this season has powered the Sun Devils to a No. 6 national ranking, and they headed into this week’s Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters riding their longest winning streak since the late-’90s.
And Rahm, now a 20-year-old junior, has become one of the most sought-after prospects in the country.
He is the No. 2-ranked amateur in the world.
He put on a record-breaking display at the 2014 World Amateur Team Championship.
He has won four college events in two-and-a-half years, including once this fall.
He posted the best finish by an amateur in a PGA Tour event since 2008.
He is an envy-inducing combination of power and imagination, crammed into a 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound frame. More than his physical attributes, though, Rahm is popular, fun-loving and gregarious. He’ll talk to anyone, about anything, for any amount of time. For this story he engaged in a lively 25-minute chat in front of the clubhouse at Southern Highlands.
He’s come a long ways since he first arrived in the Arizona desert.
RAHM WAS A HIGHLY ACCOMPLISHED junior player in Spain, but to Mickelson’s surprise he was lightly recruited by the Western schools. The University of San Francisco wanted Rahm first, but the program thought he was a year younger and didn’t have room in the scholarship budget. With seemingly no other options, he planned to study for a year in Madrid and then transfer the credits to San Francisco, but Mickelson became intrigued after looking at Rahm’s international results and receiving a tip from one of his contacts with the Spanish Golf Federation.
So, without having even met Rahm in person, Mickelson took a chance and extended him an offer that would keep Rahm from having to wait a year at home.
Upon arriving in Phoenix, Rahm essentially started from scratch. Because he didn’t take an official visit, he wandered aimlessly around the big campus. He didn’t know where his dorm was, where he could buy pillows and sheets, where the facilities were located.
After a few weeks, teammate Alberto Sanchez said, “I looked at Tim and said, ‘This kid isn’t going to make it. He doesn’t understand a word you’re saying.’”
During team workouts, Rahm couldn’t follow along with Mickelson’s instructions, but he nodded politely or asked the coach to repeat the command. All Rahm really knew was that the exercises hurt, bad.
“I was so lost,” he said.
Fortunately for Rahm, he had a Spanish-speaking teammate in Sanchez, so they communicated with each other but in the process alienated themselves from the rest of the team.
Tired of having to hurdle the language barrier, Mickelson told Rahm and Sanchez during a fall practice round that they’d have to do 10 burpees – the miserable calorie-burning exercise – for every Spanish word they uttered while around the rest of the team.
“It ended up bad for Alberto,” Rahm said with a grin, “because he was just trying to help me out.”
Yet it became a blessing for Rahm. Forced to learn English, he proved a quick study. He read books, watched TV and movies, listened to music. His vocabulary grew, and so did his confidence, to the point now that he’s the chattiest member of the team.
“Now,” Sanchez said, “it’s strange if we do speak Spanish.”
THE GOLF? OH, that was never an issue for Rahm.
He had a few rocky starts early, but the turning point came during the Pac-12 Preview at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon. After the practice round there, Rahm approached Mickelson and said, “Coach, I think this course is pretty easy.”
Mickelson laughed. Pumpkin Ridge has hosted a women’s major, a U.S. Amateur, an LPGA event. It is anything but easy.
Rahm blew up in the first round, so the coach gave him the classic Mickelson needle: “77 … that’s easy, huh?”
“I feel pretty good, just wait,” Rahm replied, and sure enough, the next two rounds he shot scores of 64 and 65 and lost by one. Two weeks later, he won his first tournament, becoming the first ASU freshman in nearly a decade to accomplish the feat.
That spring, he tacked on another title and shot a tournament-record 61 in the opening round of the NCAA Championship. (He eventually tied for second.) His scoring average (71.37) was the best by an ASU freshman since 1985.
Since then, he has added a pair of titles to his college résumé, including a W this fall, while dazzling teammates with awesome power and an imaginative short game.
Like many young Spaniards, he was inspired as a kid while watching clips of the late Seve Ballesteros. When he was 13, Rahm spotted Miguel Angel Jimenez on the range, pulled up a chair and watched for an hour and a half as the ageless wonder hit balls. But it wasn’t monotonous ball-beating. At one point, Jimenez aimed at a target just 60 yards away, turned the face of his 4-iron wide open and hit high, soft flop shots onto the green.
“It was beautiful to watch,” said Rahm, and so he’s incorporated some of that artistry into his own practice routine. Watch him for a half hour and he’ll work through his entire bag by hitting shots high and low, with a curve both ways. On the chipping green, he’ll practice by using every club but driver. That way when it comes time for him to use a 60-degree wedge during a tournament round, it seems like no big deal.
“He’s one player that I look up to and it’s like, you know, the guy is just better (than me),” Sanchez said. “The guy is gonna make it. He’s gonna be on Tour. He’s gonna be successful. He’s gonna contend for majors. He’s gonna win major championships.”
How do you know?
“Because he knows it,” Sanchez said. “Therefore we all know it.”
HEY, YOU PROBABLY KNOW it now too, if you caught any of the Phoenix Open coverage. Rahm was the burly kid wearing the No. 42 ASU jersey with “Rahmbo” emblazoned on the back.
Playing on a sponsor exemption, he finished in a tie for fifth that week, the best finish by an amateur in a Tour event since 2008. If he were a professional, he would have earned just shy of $250,000.
No doubt he was surprised by the high finish – especially coming off a winter break in Spain during which he played little golf, with his home course frozen and under 3 feet of snow – but he returned to campus brimming with confidence.
“It made me realize how good I am,” he said. “Probably 10 times better than I thought.”
Mickelson believes Rahm will be a European Ryder Cupper by the age of 30, and that’s probably too conservative. When Rahm lets loose on the driver he’s ridiculously long – 330-plus, which is how he’s led all of college golf in par-5 scoring and eagles made over past three seasons – but he also possesses a deft touch around the greens.
“Jon doesn’t just want to be the best college player,” Mickelson said. “He wants to be the best player in the world.”
Except this year, Rahm is challenged just to be the best player on his own team.
Rottluff, a junior from Germany, has emerged in a big way for the Sun Devils, winning twice and never finishing outside the top 20. His scoring average is 68.86 – only three one-hundredths of a stroke behind Rahm – but he’s flown largely under the radar because of his teammate’s, well, outsized personality.
“I’m not really bothered by it,” Rottluff said. “I feel like if I play well consistently, I’ll get the recognition I deserve.
”Rahm and Rottluff are Nos. 9 and 12, respectively, in Golfstat’s individual rankings. No other team has a pair of players in the top 20. It’s a similar dynamic to what we saw last year with Stanford, when star Patrick Rodgers won Player of the Year honors but was pushed all season by senior Cameron Wilson.
Though their scores may be similar, Rottluff has a vastly different approach to the game. Whereas Rahm is fiery and unpredictable, Rottluff is prepared and meticulous. Teammates call him “The Machine.”
“You’ll never find a guy who makes fewer mental mistakes,” Mickelson said.
While Rahm was garnering national headlines at TPC Scottsdale, Rottluff assumed the team’s No. 1 position for the Arizona Intercollegiate, held the same week. Knowing he needed to fill the sizable void, Rottluff won by four and also kick-started a run of three consecutive team titles.
“You know that at least one of them is going to play really well every week,” Mickelson said. “That’s comforting.”
With the emergence of sophomore Nicolo Galleti, who recently snapped a streak of 11 consecutive under-par rounds, and Sanchez, a talented but raw player who qualified for the 2012 U.S. Open, ASU is riding its longest winning streak since 1999.
When Mickelson first took over the program in 2011, the roster was so bare that the Sun Devils failed to qualify for the NCAA Championship for only the second time since 1983. Now, thanks largely to Rahm and Rottluff, he has piloted the team to a No. 6 national ranking.
Though Mickelson would prefer to nab all of the best in-state talent, it’s not realistic in the current college golf landscape. That’s why each summer he travels to the European Boys Team Championship to check in on the top international talent. That influence is reflected on this year’s roster, with players from Sweden, Norway, Spain and Germany.
Even Mickelson’s famous brother got into the recruiting spirit. When Phil served as the team’s interim assistant coach during the winter break, he solidified a commitment from top Australian prospect Ryan Ruffels. Overseas, ASU now enjoys a brand-awareness advantage.
Rahm and Rottluff have the potential to be two of ASU’s all-time greats, so it’s revealing that they have already filed the necessary paperwork to return next year for their senior seasons.
Rottluff says it’s because he wants to honor the commitment he made to the school.
Rahm says his parents long ago instilled in him the importance of earning a degree, because there are no guarantees in pro golf. Besides, with such a dramatic life change ahead, he needs a solid 18 months to sign with an agent, line up sponsors, secure invites, find a place to live and an instructor to trust.
“There’s nothing really to lose,” he said of staying in school. “Knowing how much I’ve learned and grown over these past two years, I know next year I’m only going to be even more mature and gain more experience.”
Then he smiled, realizing how far he has come over the past two-and-a-half years.
“I’m only going to get smarter, too.”