PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Pushed to the breaking point on the most stressful course in golf, Jon Rahm could have snapped at any point during the fraught final round of The Players. Isn’t that what the fans here wanted to see, golf’s most notorious hothead boiling over again?
Rahm could have exploded after making three bogeys in his first four holes Sunday.
He could have left in a fit of pique after rinsing his approach on No. 11.
He could have fumed after seeing his buried lie in the bunker on 16.
But not once did he rage, not even during a tense moment when he splashed his tee ball on the famed 17th. Wanting to see Rahm erupt, like he seemingly always does, an overserved fan shattered the silence: “Jon, you’re trash! You’re garbage!”
Rahm whirled around and stared at the crowd, more amused than angered. His caddie, Adam Hayes, pointed to the gallery and demanded justice. “Where’s the security at?” Hayes said. “Throw him out.”
His title chances lost a half hour earlier, Rahm didn’t curse, pout or engage. Marching toward the island green, he shrugged: “Huh. That was rough.”
Indeed, the maturation of Jon Rahm continued Sunday at TPC Sawgrass, where he turned a 54-hole lead into a closing 76 and a disappointing tie for 12th, five shots behind Rory McIlroy. With that missed opportunity, Rahm remains golf’s most tantalizing tease, a supreme talent who possesses all the physical tools but is still discovering, at age 24, how best to channel his competitive fire.
Three years into his pro career, Rahm has found that there are no quick fixes, only learning experiences, some more painful than others.
“It’s the last piece of the puzzle that I need to figure out,” he said.
History has shown that those who can’t control their emotions often struggle to control their golf ball. Tommy Bolt and Seve Ballesteros were famously volcanic. Tiger Woods has probably been fined more than any Tour player for his on-course conduct. But Rahm has always run hotter than most. During his junior career, the Spanish federation tried to set him up with sports psychologists, but none of them stuck. Once at Arizona State, Rahm decapitated his stand bag and was sentenced to running stairs at the Sun Devils’ football stadium. Over time, his attitude improved, but even with the occasional outbursts his teammates never sensed that he was spiraling out of control.
“I see him as a fiery player,” said Alberto Sanchez, who played with Rahm at ASU. “I didn’t see him as an immature, ticking time bomb. I didn’t see it that way. Not even remotely, to be honest with you.”
Rahm harnessed all of that energy into becoming the top-ranked amateur in the world, then experienced near-immediate success in the pros. He enjoyed a mostly charmed life until some of his tantrums were caught on camera, none more memorable than his meltdown at the 2017 U.S. Open, where he dropped F-bombs, kicked a club, tomahawked a wedge, hurled a ball and repeatedly punched a tee sign. That day, in the player parking lot, he shared his internal turmoil, comparing himself to a shaken Coca-Cola bottle that eventually overflows.
“I feel bad when I react sometimes,” he told me, “but it’s something I can’t control. Having an eye on you, I sometimes get mad, and then I feel bad for getting mad, and then it makes me feel worse. It’s a downward spiral, and I go into a negative place.”
The backlash was so swift and severe that he sought out the services of a new mental coach: former bomb-disposal expert Joseba del Carmen, which was fitting, since Rahm was tick-tick-ticking toward detonation.
For a while, Rahm remained in emotional limbo but describes 2018 as a “year of personal growth, rather than the golf game.”
“It’s been a work in progress of many years to get to this point,” he said. “This is what I call a midterm of hopefully a very good project.”
Rahm showed improved marks late in the year, summoning the resolve to overcome some poor early-week play and defeat Tiger Woods in singles at the Ryder Cup. Then he went on a tear, blowing away the field at Woods’ tournament in the Bahamas and rattling off five consecutive top-10s to start the new year. All that was left was to put his improved outlook on display during the stress-fest of a big event.
“I give myself credit for how far I’ve come,” he said, “even though I know how far I still have to go.”
Rahm was tested throughout a turbulent final day at TPC Sawgrass. After weathering a rocky start, Rahm headed to the back nine with a share of the lead, until he drove into a fairway bunker down the left side of No. 11. With 220 yards to the flag, Rahm thought he could play a high draw out of the sand, over and around a few tall pines, across the water and even more sand. His caddie wanted him to knock an 80-yard sand wedge down the fairway, setting up an easy third shot.
After a passionate discussion, Rahm overruled Hayes' veto – and then splashed his approach.
“I was so f------ sure the first time,” he growled, kicking the sand. But that was the extent of the dust-up.
Afterward, Rahm maintained that he made the right call and merely didn’t execute. “If you give me 10 balls, besides that one, I’ll hit the other nine on land,” he said. “Unfortunately, I got a little bit of doubt in me.”
And besides, Rahm said, that’s not the shot that cost him the tournament. It was errant tee balls on 12, 15 and 16 that left him out of position and unable to attack. By the time he found his ball buried in the greenside bunker on 16, he was already down by three and could only suppress a chuckle. The 4-over 76 was his worst score since October.
“At least I’m proud of the way I handled myself – the old Jon would have lost it,” he said, before looking inward. “Maybe I would have been more productive on the golf course, because getting mad has helped out before, but it was just basically a pretty picture for me, so I’m proud of myself for that.”
And he was proud of the restraint that he showed on the final two holes, knowing that his frustration was mounting and that he didn’t lose his cool, even when told – cruelly – that he was trash.
As Rahm ducked into the tunnel and headed toward the 18th tee, a sheriff approached and said that the offending fan had been tossed. Except another harasser soon emerged, hollering, “You’re out of the tournament,” hoping one last time to set him off.
Rahm heard the jeer, but looked unbothered.
It’s the kind of equanimity he’s been waiting to show.