From the archives: How Rahm turned into a star

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 30, 2017, 12:34 am

In this feature from 2015, Ryan Lavner chronicled how Jon Rahm helped Arizona State build something special after moving from Spain and learning a new language.


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.”

Not exactly.

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."

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Ciganda, S.Y. Kim share lead in Shanghai

By Associated PressOctober 20, 2018, 9:28 am

SHANGHAI - Carlota Ciganda of Spain shot a 5-under 67 Saturday to share the lead with Sei Young Kim after the third round of the LPGA Shanghai.

Ciganda carded her fifth birdie of the day on the par-4 18th to finish tied with overnight leader Kim at 11-under 205. Kim shot a 71 with four bogeys and five birdies.

Ciganda is attempting to win her third LPGA title and first since the 2016 season, when she won two tournaments in a one-month span. Kim is chasing her eighth career LPGA win and second title of the 2018 season.

''I want to win because I didn't win last year,'' Ciganda said. ''I love playing in Asia. It's good for long hitters, playing quite long, so I'm quite comfortable.''


Full-field scores from the Buick LPGA Shanghai


Angel Yin also birdied the final hole for a 68 and was a further stroke back with Brittany Altomare (69), Danielle Kang (71) and Ariya Jutanugarn (71).

Yin and Altomare have yet to break through for their first LPGA win. A win in Shanghai would make either player the ninth first-time winner of the 2018 season, which would tie 2016 for the third highest number of first-time winners in a season in LPGA history.

''I love competing,'' Yin said. ''That's why I'm playing, right? I'm excited to be in contention again going into Sunday.''

Local favorite Yu Liu was seventh after offsetting a lone bogey with four birdies for a 69.

Paula Creamer also shot a 69 and shared eighth at 8 under with Minjee Lee (70) and Bronte Law (71).

The tournament is the second of five being played in South Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan in the LPGA's annual Asian swing.

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Koepka's pursuers have no illusions about catching him

By Nick MentaOctober 20, 2018, 8:50 am

Ahead by four, wielding his driver like Thor's hammer, Brooks Koepka is 18 holes from his third victory in five months and his first ascent to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking.

The tournament isn't over. No one is handing him the trophy and updating the OWGR website just yet. But it will likely take some combination of a meltdown and low round from someone in the chase pack to prevent a Koepka coronation Sunday in South Korea.

Thirteen under for the week, the three-time major champion will start the final round four shots ahead of his playing partners, Ian Poulter and Scott Piercy, and five ahead of six more players at minus-8.

As is his nature, Poulter figures to be undaunted. The 42-year-old is fresh off a Sunday singles victory over Dustin Johnson at the Ryder Cup and in the midst of a career renaissance, having broken a five-year winless drought earlier this year. In one sense, it's Europe vs. the United States again, but this isn't match play, and Koepka, a guy who doesn't need a head start, has spotted himself a four-shot advantage.


Full-field scores from the CJ Cup

CJ Cup: Articles, photos and videos


"Tomorrow I'm going to need to make a few birdies. Obviously Brooks is in cruise control right now and obviously going to need a shoot a low one," Poulter conceded. "Do what I'm doing, just enjoy [it]. Obviously try and make as many birdies as I can and see how close we get."

Perez, in the group at 8 under par, isn't giving up, but like Poulter, he's aware of the reality of his situation.

"We're chasing Brooks, who of course obviously is playing phenomenally," he said. "A lot of the long hitters now when they get in contention, they hit that driver and they're really hard to catch. I'm not worried about it too much. It's going to be harder for me tomorrow than him, so I'm going to try and go out and just do my thing, hit some shots, hopefully hit some close and make some putts and we'll see. I don't expect him to come backwards, but hopefully I can try to go catch him."

Gary Woodland, also 8 under par, summed up the predicament best when he alluded to Koepka's perhaps advantageously aloof demeanor.

"You obviously want to get off to a good start and put pressure on him as soon as you can," he said. "You know, Brooks doesn't seem like he cares too much, and he's playing so good, so you're going to have to go out and post a number."

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Koepka has his chance 'to earn' his way to No. 1

By Nick MentaOctober 20, 2018, 8:09 am

There won't need to be any wonky math involved. He won't have to settle for finally reaching the the top via some kind of mathematical reset while he's sitting at home on the couch (or more likely working out in the gym).

No, Brooks Koepka on Sunday in South Korea will have a chance to ascend to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking the way every player would most want to - with a victory.

On the strength of a bogey-free round of 5-under 67 Saturday, Koepka will enter the final round of the CJ Cup four clear of Ian Poulter and Scott Piercy, with six more players five behind.

The tournament is Koepka's to lose, and so too is the No. 1 ranking. So long as Justin Thomas doesn't somehow defend his title from 12 shots back, Koepka can supplant Dustin Johnson atop the rankings with a win or a solo second-place finish.


Full-field scores from the CJ Cup

CJ Cup: Articles, photos and videos


"It was something I wanted to do. I always wanted to become World No. 1 in a week that I was playing," Koepka said Saturday. "I thought like I could really earn it and not have a week off where it just so happens that you bump up. No, it would be very special, and to do it here would be nice and hopefully get to world No. 1 and cap it off with a win, I don't think there would be much better."

It would be a fitting end to this breakthrough year for Koepka, who successfully defended his U.S. Open title and then added his third major victory at the PGA Championship en route to claiming the PGA Tour's Player of the Year Award. Oddly enough, considering his status a three-time major winner and an impending No. 1, this would be Koepka's fifth Tour victory but only his second in a non-major; his only regular Tour win to date was his first, at the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open.

"My confidence has always been pretty high," Koepka said. "Anytime you can win three majors you're going to be feeling pretty good about yourself. To do what I've done over the last two years has been special, but I'm looking to build on that."

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Koepka ahead by four, with No. 1 ranking in his grasp

By Nick MentaOctober 20, 2018, 5:48 am

Following a closing birdie and a third-round 67 at Nine Bridges, Brooks Koepka will take a four-shot lead over Ian Poulter and Scott Piercy into final round of the CJ Cup. Here's how Koepka separated himself from the field in South Korea.

Leaderboard: Koepka (-13), Piercy (-9), Poulter (-9), Rafa Cabrera Bello (-8), Cameron Smith (-8), Jaime Lovemark (-8), Pat Perez (-8), Gary Woodland (-8), Chez Reavie (-8)

What it means: Koepka is in search of his fifth PGA Tour victory and – believe it or not – only his second non-major. The three-time major champion’s only other win came all the way back in February 2015, at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. One off the lead to start the day, Koepka opened with eight straight pars and birdied Nos. 9 and 10 to take the outright lead at 10 under par. He added three more circles at 14, 17 and 18 to close out a bogey-free round of 5 under and go ahead by ahead by four. He'll be chased on Sunday by Piercy, a four-time PGA Tour winner who won the Zurich Classic earlier this year alongside Billy Horschel, and by Poulter, who ended a five-year worldwide winless drought back in April and is coming off a 2-2 performance at the Ryder Cup, with a Sunday singles victory over current world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. Speaking of which, unless Justin Thomas finds a way to win this tournament from 12 back, Koepka will for the first time ascend to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking with a win or a solo second-place finish.

Round of the day: After contending last week at the CIMB, Shubankhar Sharma rebounded from opening rounds of 74 and 75 with a nine-birdie, 8-under 64 to move up 45 spots into a tie for 26th through 54 holes.

Best of the rest: Four players – Rafa Cabrera Bello, Ted Potter Jr., Jason Day and Brendan Steele – shot 7-under 65 Saturday. Day played his first four holes in 2 over and his final 14 in 9 under.

Biggest disappointment: The only previous winner of this event, world No. 4 Justin Thomas entered the week with a chance to take back the No. 1 ranking with a successful title defense. But rounds of 73-70-72 have him 1 under for the week. Thomas played his back nine in 1 over Saturday with six pars, a birdie, a quadruple bogey and a closing eagle.

Shot of the day: Koepka flying his tee shot 330 yards to the front edge of the green at the par-4 14th and going on to two-putt for birdie.