HAVEN, Wisc. – Davis Love III still remembers the moment he knew Jon Rahm was born to take his rightful place among Spain’s great Ryder Cup players.
“We’re playing in Houston in April 2018, almost six months before the Ryder Cup at Golf National and I was paired with Jon on Saturday and he bombed me but I did well, I held on,” se recalls Love, the American captain in 2012 and 2016 who will resume his role as vice-captain of 2018 this year again. “We got off the green and he was very professional, he took his hat off, I took mine off and he shook my hand and said, ‘I’ll see you in Paris.’ I don’t even play! It was as if he was putting a finger in my chest. It might rub some guys the wrong way, but I thought it was great. It’s built for the Ryder Cup. He loves this scene. He is the present and future of leadership for his team. They’ll rally behind him, just like they’ve got Rory.
Rahm made his debut in the biennial competition later that year and appeared in three games, going 1-2 as a rookie with a singles victory over his childhood idol, Tiger Woods. Three years later, 26-year-old Rahm is the reigning US Open winner, world No.1 and is expected to play a bigger role in Team Europe’s quest to keep the Cup on foreign soil. When asked at his press conference if he was ready to be a leader, he laughed and said, “What kind of player would I be if I said no? Law. So yeah, yeah, I’m ready for this. It is a challenge that I look forward to.
Later he added additional context: “When you were born in Spain, the Ryder Cup was something special. There is a lot of legacy in this event between Seve and Ollie and the players have earned the most Ryder Cup points for Team Europe in history. It’s a lot to go through, I’m not going to lie. That’s a lot of expectation when you’re Spanish.
Those expectations turned out to be up to par in France in 2018. Rahm lost his first two matches and missed Saturday afternoon’s session. Graeme McDowell was European vice-captain then as he is now and one of the players he was assigned to was Rahm. It was his job to make sure Rahm was mentally in the right place for Sunday, noting, “At lunchtime on Saturday, Jon wasn’t a happy boy, and 24 hours later he beat Tiger in. simple and everything is forgotten. It’s the Ryder Cup. For Rahm, beating Tiger on that stage that day was a big turning point for him emotionally.
Team Europe player Jon Rahm (left) hits his tee shot in front of player Rory McIlroy (right) on the fifth hole during a practice session for the 43rd Ryder Cup golf competition at Whistling Straits . (Photo: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)
From that victory over Tiger, Rahm later explained how he approached the game and it will be interesting to see if he returns to the pits this week with the same philosophy.
“I went to the first tee just imagining I had a game against myself,” he said. “It was my first time playing Tiger, one of my idols admiring him, so it was too easy for me to get caught up in watching everything he did; as easy as it is to get caught up in Rory and what he’s doing, right? So just focus on myself, keep focusing on me and my emotions, what I’m feeling and what I have to do at all times.
Since that time, Rahm has taken his game to another level and he can be counted on to carry a heavier load. When asked how he plans to evolve into this more important role, he said, “We have a lot of players on the squad who are vocal enough who have done it enough to naturally move towards advice. I’m not going to actively go out there and just make myself, hey, I’m a leader now, because I don’t have such a huge ego. I’ll let the clubs and the ball do the talking and I’ll leave the speeches and the leadership to the guys who have been doing it for a long time.
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Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter represent that old guard who has been there as Europe has dominated the competition to the tune of nine wins in the last 12 matches. But to continue their momentum, Rahm will have to produce like the world No.1 player he has become.
“I feel like he’s grown a lot (since the last Ryder Cup),” McDowell said. “He’s very self-aware. He has that Spanish in him where he wears his heart on his sleeves. He could seem angry and a little irritable at times. He worked hard on himself. He created a lot of stability in his life by getting married and having a baby. He did a huge job on himself.
While McDowell sees 2018’s victory over Tiger as a defining moment in Rahm’s progression to world number 1, compatriot Sergio Garcia takes a slightly different approach.
“I think he was heading that way anyway. He’s just a great player. He’s got it all, ”Garcia said. “As a Spaniard, it’s nice to see how he’s developed and how much he’s grown and how his game has improved more and more.”
As Davis Love III discovered the hard way, Rahm was born for it, the heir, with Rory McIlroy, who will lead Team Europe for many years to come. This role now begins with his second appearance in the Cup.
“He went from rookie to ‘the man’ in the team room,” McDowell said, “and the best man we have.”