The real Jon Rahm: Meet the best player in the world and Europe's ace in their Ryder Cup pack

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Jon Rahm celebrates a putt - GETTY IMAGES
Jon Rahm celebrates a putt - GETTY IMAGES

Only twice in the past 28 years have Europe rolled into a Ryder Cup with the world’s No 1 player in their armoury. On both occasions this distinction belonged to Rory McIlroy, on whose head the crown would lie uneasily. We sometimes forget, in recalling the miracle of Medinah, that a manic Sunday began with the planet’s top-ranked golfer missing his alarm call after mistaking Central Time for Eastern, only making his singles tee-off time thanks to a lift from a state trooper. The frantic pressures of this event can scramble the minds of even the finest talents, as Jon Rahm understands only too well. “It’s a lot to live up to,” said the US Open champion, still adjusting to his status as el hombre principal. “I’m not going to lie.”

Thankfully, Rahm has quite the pedigree for producing wondrous feats under strain. Distraught when a positive test for Covid-19 bundled him out of this year’s Memorial Tournament, where he had held a six-shot lead after 54 holes, he returned a fortnight later to win America’s national championship. His European team-mates will need him to summon that same defiant energy here in Wisconsin. It is not just that he stands atop the global standings, a stocky bruiser who can generate phenomenal power through the ball with barely a flick of his left wrist, but that he is expected, as the charismatic young Spaniard, to channel the spirit of Seve Ballesteros.

“This has been on my radar a long time,” reflected Rahm, who grew up in the Basque countryside around Barrika, just an hour from Ballesteros’ home village of Pedrena. “When you’re born in Spain, the Ryder Cup is something special. There’s the legacy of Seve and Jose Maria Olazabal, plus Sergio Garcia, the player who has brought the most points for Team Europe in history. We are called all these different words for ‘passionate’- there’s a lot of expectation.”

Jose Maria Olazabal (left) and Seve Ballesteros - GETTY IMAGES
Jose Maria Olazabal (left) and Seve Ballesteros - GETTY IMAGES

Intriguingly, Rahm does not overdo the emphasis on his Iberian inheritance. For all that he is respectful of the example set by Ballesteros and Olazabal, he draws equal inspiration from Colin Montgomerie’s remarkable haul of 20 wins and just nine losses across eight Ryder Cups. “Monty is one of those who is often overlooked,” he said. “He had a really good run, especially in singles. He had a great career, and even if he was maybe not the most vocal player like Seve, he was a tough guy to beat.”

Now 26, Rahm first encountered Montgomerie when he was a teenager, following his final round of the 2009 Volvo Masters at Valderrama and asking the Scot to sign his shirt. Twelve years on, he finds himself anointed as Europe’s alpha male, even if he is wary of suggesting that his ranking magnifies his sense of responsibility. At first, he looked amused when asked if he was prepared for the mantle of leadership. “What kind of a player would I be if I say no?” he laughed. “So yes, I’m ready for that. It’s a challenge I look forward to.”

But equally, he was at pains not to be portrayed as a new-model Seve. As a personality, Rahm is less outwardly emotional than Ballesteros, a man so inexhaustibly passionate about the Ryder Cup that he grabbed a 15-year-old Garcia out of the gallery at Oak Hill just to experience the atmosphere. “We have plenty of players in the team who are vocal enough, who have done this enough, so we will naturally gravitate towards them for guidance,” Rahm argued. “I’m not going to shout, ‘Hey, I’m a leader now’, because I don’t have that massive an ego.”

His flourishing as a Ryder Cup force has unfolded with dizzying speed. As a rookie in Paris three years ago, he lost his first two matches and was left out of the Saturday fourballs only to rebound in singles by beating Tiger Woods. “I went to the first tee just picturing that I had a match against myself,” Rahm explained. “It was the first time I was playing Tiger, one of my idols, so it was easy for me to become caught up in everything he was doing. Instead, I just concentrated on my feelings, on what I had to do at each moment.”

Jon Rahm celebrates beating Tiger Woods at the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris - AP
Jon Rahm celebrates beating Tiger Woods at the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris - AP

Despite Rahm’s sangfroid, he has endured his share of diabolical misfortune this season. He missed his chance of representing Spain at the Tokyo Olympics after recording a second positive Covid result in two months. He had led the Northern Trust in New Jersey for three rounds, only to be thrown off at the final hurdle by a hurricane. These agonies, he discovered, were assuaged only by the joys of fatherhood. “It just dawned on me that it has been only 5½ months since my son Kepa was born - I feel I have had a couple of years worth of experiences in that time,” he said. “But at least the happiness vastly outweighs the setbacks.”

Rahm has not disguised his chagrin at being pipped to the PGA Tour’s player of the year award by Patrick Cantlay. A Ryder Cup triumph here at Whistling Straits would, one senses, help temper his dismay at this lack of recognition on US soil. This course is his territory, a bombers’ shooting range where his natural power can rival anything that Bryson DeChambeau has to offer. If ever there was a moment for him to lead from the front, it is now.

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