SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (AP) — In many ways, Jon Rahm’s biggest steps forward in 2021, to say nothing of his setbacks, came off the golf course.
That adds a sense of perspective to anything that happens on it — even in the Ryder Cup, where the once-tempestuous Spaniard now attempts to take his place as a stabilizing force for Europe, a status that would naturally come with being the best player in his country, his continent and the world.
When the top-ranked Rahm steps onto Whistling Straits for his second career Ryder Cup appearance Friday, he’ll also step into shoes that have been filled by Seve Ballesteros, Sergio Garcia and other Spanish greats who instill the passion into this event.
He’ll step into the shoes of Rory McIlroy, who was the last European player to come to these matches as No. 1 in the world, back in 2014.
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Mostly, though, he’ll step into the shoes of Jon Rahm, a pair he feels increasingly comfortable with in the wake of a whirlwind year filled with life-changing triumphs and a few major setbacks, both inside the ropes and out.
“It just dawned on me that it’s only been 5 1/2 months since my son was born,” Rahm said, “and there’s been so many things that happened since then. It almost feels like it’s been a couple years’ worth of experiences in those five months.”
In that short time since Rahm’s son, Kepa, was born the weekend before the Masters:
— Rahm took a six-shot lead after the third round of the Memorial, only to be told while walking off the course that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and had to withdraw.
— Rahm responded by traveling to Torrey Pines and winning the U.S. Open for his first major title.
— Rahm tied for third at the British Open and began preparing for a trip to Tokyo and the Olympics, but he never made the flight after two negative preflight tests were followed by a third test that came back positive.
— Rahm tied with Kevin Na for the best score — 14-under par — of the 30 players at the Tour Championship earlier this month, but he officially finished second because of the FedEx playoff scoring system that gave Patrick Cantlay a four-shot edge over Rahm to start the week.
Rahm still pocketed $5 million for his second-place finish and wound up atop the world ranking.
He still won the Vardon Trophy, which goes to the player with the lowest scoring average for the year.
But he presumably came in second, behind Cantlay, in Player of the Year voting — a result he said motivates him, and that he figures might have been different had he been able to close out the win at the Memorial, which Cantlay ended up winning.
That setback — none of them, in fact — seem so galling to him considering the big picture: His family is healthy and he has a good life at his home in Arizona and a golf game that is firing on all cylinders.
“I think it’s very easy in life to focus on what could have been and what you didn’t have,” Rahm said. “But it’s good to just realize all the good things that happened and forget about those (other) moments.”
Rahm’s win over Tiger Woods in singles was the highlight of his Ryder Cup debut outside Paris three years ago. At that point, he was in the top 10 but known not as well for his game or its potential as for his seething temper. In one notable instance, he flew into a club-slamming, expletive-laden meltdown at the 2017 U.S. Open, not far from here at Erin Hills. In another, he was caught on a TV mic lashing out at his caddie after missing a shot at the 2019 Players Championship.
Debate ensued about when Rahm would rein in his temper to reach his full potential. Or whether he even needed to. The fiery temperament made him look like a natural successor in a line of Spanish diehards who have ignited the Ryder Cup over the years.
But that, so far, hasn’t been Rahm’s role on the European team that already has its share of riled-up veterans, including Ian Poulter, 45, and Garcia, 41. Rahm is 26.
“As a Spaniard, it’s nice to see how he’s evolved and how obviously he’s grown up and the way that his game has gotten better and better,” said Garcia, who is paired with Rahm in Friday’s opening foursomes match. “And you could see that he was kind of headed that way.”
None of this, of course, is to say that these next three days at Whistling Straits don’t mean anything to Spain’s next great player. No player — no Spanish player, especially — will walk away from golf without a thorough examination of his record as a Ryder Cup contributor.
Asked about the prospect of winning this week on foreign soil, Rahm said: “It would be a very nice end to what has been a wonderful year.”
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