Martin Dempster: Passionate outburst shows Jon Rahm’s growing maturity

Jon Rahm, playing his practice round in Dubai, says his mental strength is 'a work in progress'. Picture: Getty.
Jon Rahm, playing his practice round in Dubai, says his mental strength is 'a work in progress'. Picture: Getty.
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It was one of the best exchanges I can recall reporting on golf because it stemmed from passion and actually left me feeling that my questions were personal rather than posed from a professional standpoint.

If truth be told, I actually stumbled into Jon Rahm’s press conference at Wentworth in the build-up to the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in September, deciding to take a pew only after walking into the media centre to see the Spaniard sitting in the interview room.

One of the best bits of my job is getting the chance to listen to genuine world stars talk about their careers, looking back as well as forward, and what Rahm had to say that day really was fascinating, especially as it was delivered exactly the way you would expect from someone who is a heart-on-the sleeve individual.

“Well, I can’t complain, can I?” he replied to me asking him to assess his efforts to date, having turned professional in the summer of 2016 and taken only 61 weeks to break into the top five in the world rankings, with only Tiger Woods, who did it in 33 weeks, having achieved that milestone faster.

Rahm, recently turned 25, has already racked up nine professional victories – five on the European Tour, including three Rolex Series events, three on the PGA Tour, plus last year’s Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. “I’ve played really, really good golf and a lot of what I’ve done has been a lot faster than I thought I was going to,” he added.

His meteoric rise has come with the occasional controversy, notably in the summer of 2017 when he twice came under scrutiny over rules incidents, first in the Irish Open at Portstewart, then in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, though, on both occasions, he escaped punishment. He has also had a few tantrums along the way, though, in fairness, he now seems to be showing a bit more maturity on the golf course.

“Yes,” he replied to me asking if that was the case. “You have to understand, I turned pro right out of college. How many of the people in this room will have the maturity level at the age of – I was 21 at the time – to handle being one of the top ten in the world and the attention that comes with it?

“It’s hard. I definitely wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t have mentally the strength or the maturity to handle that. So I did do some things that I’m not proud of, and it’s a work in progress. I’m a very passionate person, extremely competitive, but I don’t have to tell you that, right?

“When I’m playing good, it’s good, and it’s really entertaining to watch. When it’s going bad, it’s gotten the best of me a few times and it’s something that I always work on. Even three years ago, I was held to a certain standard I should have met but I didn’t, and thanks to those mistakes I’m here where I am now and hopefully I can get better.”

“That’s a mature answer,” I said in reply, at which point I really did start to think Rahm thought I was being personal, which I liked because it brought out that passion in him. “What do you want me to say?” he went on. “It’s difficult to understand, right? I’m right out of college and I’m like, ‘oh, let’s see if I can finish my card (but) oh, I finish the year fifth in the world’. This is hard to believe in that sense. I was held to the expectations of what one of the top ten or 5 players in the world should be, as it should have been.

“I guess mentally I didn’t see myself as such a role model that quickly. It takes time to adjust, but slowly I’m trying to be better and be a better player, and a better person on the golf course, because off the golf course, I’m a very different person in that sense.”

Rahm isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and probably never will be. He has a point, though, about how we probably expect too much from talented young sports people too early and fair play to him for managing to be one of the most consistent performers at the top level over the past few seasons at the same time as trying to change as a person.

After a six-week break since winning the Spanish Open, Rahm returns to action this week and don’t be surprised if he ends the season in style by winning the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai for a second time – this year’s event at Jumeirah Golf Estates boasts the biggest first prize in golf of £3 million – to be crowned European No 1.