NASSAU, Bahamas – Count Jon Rahm as a Tiger Woods fan, and not just a I’ll-only-watch-golf-if-Tiger-is-playing fan. We’re talking a I’m-thinking-of-naming-my-first-child-Eldrick kind of fan.
Growing up in Barrika, Spain, Rahm idolized the late Seve Ballesteros, but he studied Woods – the historic shots, the clutch putts, the parade of historic moments, the ability to transcend sports – and the 24-year-old couldn’t get enough.
When he met his now-fiancée Kelley Cahill, the poor woman’s indoctrination into the game was nightly YouTube viewings of Woods’ various championship exploits.
“She had no idea about golf, and I would just get the laptop and just make her watch all the highlights of Tiger,” Rahm explained on Sunday at the Hero World Challenge. “I've seen Tiger's final round at Pebble in 2000 about 150 times.”
In just two full years as a professional, Rahm has skyrocketed into prominence with a brand of play that is equal parts aggression and unrivaled ball-striking. On an idyllic Caribbean day, he crested an emotional peak that far outweighed the significance of what is essentially an all-star game with a commanding four-stroke victory at Woods’ personal member-member.
It was a seemingly scripted finish to what has been a magical few weeks for the Spaniard, who was 2-years-old when Woods turned pro. It was a run that began at September’s Ryder Cup under less-than-perfect conditions.
Playing in the Ryder Cup for the first time, Rahm struggled in team play, going 0-2-0 on what was otherwise a virtually unstoppable European team. On Saturday evening in Paris, Rahm could be found in the corner of the Continent’s team room, stewing over his poor performance.
“I was in the players' room, a little down, because we had a 10-6 lead, but I hadn't really contributed,” he said. “Kind of felt like I was letting the team down.”
When the schedule for Sunday’s singles matches was released, Rahm’s outlook didn’t immediately improve; he’d be heading out in the day’s fourth match to play Woods.
He sought the guidance of Tommy Fleetwood, who along with Francesco Molinari had beaten Woods three times in the team sessions, and that of European captain Thomas Bjorn. He spent 30 minutes on Sunday morning on the phone with his sports psychologist, coming up with a plan to play Woods, and was finally given his marching orders by Bjorn.
“Bjorn said it best. ‘Tiger just does not make mistakes. He's going to try to capitalize on your mistakes, and he's going to hole a ton of putts, so don't be surprised,’” Rahm said. “So I kind of went with the mindset of, 'I'm going to have to beat this guy at his own game.'”
Rahm won that match, beating Woods, 2 and 1, but it wasn’t easy.
With a putt on the 17th hole to close out the match, Rahm’s mind, which can be a tad busy at times, was racing. The enormity of the moment was impossible to ignore before his trance was broken by someone in the gallery – “Do it for Seve,” the fan yelled. Rahm made the putt and flashed the kind of emotion he’s become famous for in his short career.
There was no such display on Sunday at Albany, just a clinical dismantling of the field on his way to a final-round 65.
Although he’ll tell you the pressure on Day 4 at the Hero World Challenge was real until he birdied the 14th hole for a three-stroke swing with Tony Finau, who made a double bogey-6 on the hole, it really wasn’t that close thanks to the kind of ball-striking display that makes Rahm such a dominant force when all the pieces are aligned.
Rahm called his last three rounds at Albany the best ball-striking of his career, and his statistics (39 of 52 fairways hit and 52 of 72 greens in regulation) paint an impressive picture.
“There's not many times a year where you feel like I just step on it and I know I'm going to hit it solid,” he said. “It's a great feeling just because the confidence you get of just knowing that I'm going to be in the fairway, knowing that I'm going to hit it where I'm looking.”
The only place Rahm is looking now is straight ahead. In his first two seasons as a professional, he won six times, putting him just one behind Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas for players with the most official worldwide wins since the beginning of 2017.
But for Rahm, 2018 was much more than another successful year. It was something of a tipping point. Beyond his victories and top-10 finishes in two of the year’s four majors, he became a better person.
“I've grown a lot. I've matured a lot this year not as a golfer, [but] as a person, and I think it translates into the golf game,” Rahm said.
He also came face to face with his idol Woods and proved something to himself.