Despite a victory from Rory McIlroy (one of golf’s biggest stars) in the Players Championship (one of golf’s biggest events), much of the discussion that carried over into Monday and Tuesday involved Jon Rahm. Rahm, who held the 54-hole lead at the Players, had a fascinating, caught-on-camera exchange with caddie Adam Hayes at the par-5 11th hole in the final round. Hayes attempted to talk his boss out of going for the green from a seemingly impossible spot in a fairway bunker, but ultimately lost the argument. Rahm’s attempt found the water, leading to a bogey, and he finished with a four-over 76, dropping him into a tie for 12th.
It was a delicate dance for Hayes, nicely broken down by veteran caddie Kip Henley here. Immediately after the shot, Rahm could be heard dropping an F-bomb, and he implied that a little doubt had crept into his head. This ordeal came less than 24 hours after Rahm had proclaimed to the media he was a “changed man” following a third-round 64 that gave him the solo lead. Easy thing to say, harder thing to put into practice.
At the following green, Rahm’s 21-foot birdie effort came up nine inches short of the cup, causing him to yell something along the lines of the putt being “so slow.” There were no profanities, but it was clear he was teetering on the edge. However, there was no club-slamming, no Sergio Garcia-bunker-raking and it did appear like he managed to keep it under control, by Rahm standards.
This was a very small step in the right direction for the 24-year-old from Spain. That’s not to say that being angry on the golf course is always a bad thing. Rahm even said that in the past it’s helped him, but when it goes to far, it can become detrimental to his game. This was on full display at the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, where Rahm missed the cut and drew plenty of criticism for his temper that week. That Rahm, according to Rahm, is the “old” Jon Rahm, and the new guy is working hard to use the anger in the right ways. He’s a passionate player, a very good trait to have, and that will never change.
Rahm spoke about this at length on Wednesday at his Valspar Championship press conference, and his quotes indicate he’s absolutely making strides in this whole process.
“No, I’ll never lose that, that is deep in my core, that’s never going away, I can tell you that much,” Rahm said of his fiery nature. “I’m still as competitive and things still hurt me, they still piss me off, they still get me mad, and that’s what I hope people can see is how much I’ve come along on that final round to not act like Jon would have acted before. It’s been a long way from the U.S. Open at 2017. And that final round [at the Players] was a very disappointing final round, but it helps. I mean, I don’t know what they showed on the broadcast, but when I missed my putt on 12 for birdie and I left it short, I got mad. I got mad, walked to the next tee, stayed mad but still under control. Hit a great shot, made birdie, tied for the lead.”
While he did fight to get back to the top of the leader board, McIlroy began to play lights out on the final few holes, forcing Rahm to get aggressive at the par-3 17th. He found the water and made a double bogey, ending his chances of winning the tournament. He was able to keep it together as it all happened, another good sign.
“It’s still a work in progress where you’re saying I don’t want to lose that, I want to keep that fire, that fire’s never going to be away, but I need to be able to use it to my advantage and still try to control and manage my other emotions and reactions better. It’s that simple.”
As Rahm points out, many of the greats have been able to figure out this tight-wire act. He wants to do the same.
“Some players are really good at it. Seve [Ballesteros] was extremely good at it, Tiger [Woods] is really good at it. Everybody feels the same anger that I do, everybody has that emotion, it’s just how you process it and how you show it. I’m still going to show emotion because I can’t be a robot. You’re going to look at my face and be able to tell if I’m happy or not, if I’m pissed off or tense, that’s just how it is, and I don’t want to lose that because that’s just how I am.
“But still be able to control what happens. And that’s the reason why I was in the lead at the Players and that’s the reason why we thought feeling with my best swing I still was able to tee off on the 15th hole with the lead or tied for the lead. Obviously Rory finished the way he did and I finished poorly, but I still held on for a long time. Maybe a couple months ago I would have just disappeared on the first four holes. I don’t think [the old Jon Rahm] would have been able to pull back like I did and still have a chance.”