LA JOLLA, Calif. — Jon Rahm sat in an isolation trailer, having been told 20 minutes earlier as he walked off the course at the Memorial two weeks ago that he’d have to withdraw because of a positive COVID-19 test, when his phone rang.
Rahm had finished the day with a 6-stroke lead. He was 18 holes from victory, until he wasn’t. It was a gut punch, not to mention a million-dollar loss.
Fellow golfer Padraig Harrington felt the need to call and told Rahm, in not so many words, that he could come out of this looking like a king or come out of it looking like a jerk.
For years, Rahm had been the jerk, best known as a generational talent who couldn’t control his temper. He’d throw clubs, scream at himself, throw more clubs. And for that reason he’d gained a less-than-stellar reputation.
Instead of lamenting the rules, throwing a tantrum or whatever he might have done in the past, Rahm accepted his fate. He told his wife, who was distraught, that something good would come out of it.
“I don’t know what,” he told her, “but something good is going to come.”
Sunday, the good came. Rahm survived a U.S. Open that chewed up and spit out the world’s best, winning by one stroke over Louis Oosthuizen to claim the first major of his career.
The 26-year-old Rahm stood on the driving range, hitting balls in case Oosthuizen matched him at 6-under, when his victory became official. When it did, his wife, Kelley, rushed in with their 10-week-old son in her arms, handed him to his father, who kissed him on his head.
“I believe becoming a dad was always going to help me because before, I could always have the excuse that getting mad helped me out, helped me win golf tournaments, but right now I’m a role model to my son,” he said. “Now I understand what I can do, and I know I can perform at my best without showing my frustration so much.”
That outward frustration, those close to him say, gives off a false impression of who he really is.
“He’s misunderstood,” said Tim Mickelson, Phil’s brother who recruited and coached Rahm at Arizona State. “He’s the most caring guy ever. … He’s one of the best friends you could ever ask for.”
“I care a lot about him,” said Phil Mickelson, who’d finished hours earlier but returned to the course to congratulate Rahm. “It’s a unique dynamic where we’re always wanting the best for each other instead of trying to beat each other down.”
“People mistake his passion for anger,” said his wife, Kelley. “They want to see the highs but not the lows.”
Sunday, the highs were unmistakable, highlighted by the 20-footer for birdie he rolled in on No. 18 to establish the clubhouse lead. He celebrated it with a powerful punch that was very much Tiger-esque.
Oosthuizen, who’d bogeyed No. 17 to fall two back, had a chance to tie with an eagle on 18, which is how Rahm ended up on the driving range, staring at a cellphone sitting atop his golf bag.
“Is he asleep?” Rahm asked Kelley, who was holding their son.
Moments later, when Oosthuizen’s third shot didn’t find the hole, Rahm got word — you are the U.S. Open champion, the first ever from Spain.
Four years ago, Rahm notched his first career tour victory at Torrey Pines. Three years ago, he got engaged at Torrey Pines. This year, he won his first major at Torrey Pines.
“I can say I’m extremely happy off the golf course, but this one might steal the show for a couple of days,” he said. “This one is very, very incredible, very hard to believe, that this story can round up and end up so good. It almost feels like it’s a movie that’s about to end and I’m going to wake up soon.
“With the setback I had a couple of weeks ago, to end up like this, it’s incredible. I do love Torrey Pines, and Torrey Pines loves me.”
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