With the British Open slated to return to Northern Ireland for the first time in 68 years, it seems as good a time as any to reflect on the stellar — if improbable — current season of professional golf, and one of its breakout stars.
Brooks Koepka became the first golfer to hold back-to-back, concurrent major titles. Tiger Woods delivered one of the year’s greatest narratives when he won the Masters, his first major victory in nearly 4,000 days. Phil Mickelson turned to fasting to stop his own downturn.
Lost in the shuffle was Jon Rahm. The indefatigable Spaniard has yet to win a major but has won an awful lot everywhere else — and he’s done so at a very young age for this game, with no signs of slowing down. If success in professional golf is defined by consistent contention and not just winning majors, Rahm is doing things we haven’t seen since Woods.
To prepare for this week’s British Open, Rahm crossed the Atlantic Ocean and made a pit stop in western Ireland to gas up his self-esteem. Entering Sunday tied for ninth place, he turned Lahinch Golf Club into a putt-putt course during a final-round eight-under 62 to pick up his second Irish Open victory in three years. It took Rahm just 34 appearances on the European Tour to win four times, making him the fastest in more than 40 years to do so, according to The 15th Club. Which isn’t to say that Rahm’s success discriminates geographically. While learning English through Kendrick Lamar verses at Arizona State, Rahm set an all-time record by going 60 consecutive weeks as the top-ranked amateur. He was the first player born outside of North America to win the Ben Hogan Award, which is annually given to the top collegiate golfer, and later became the first two-time award winner.
That success has abided at the professional level.1 Despite a few recent exceptions, professional golf is usually a humbling endeavor for novices. Rahm, then, is a card-carrying outlier, advertising a résumé and world ranking that belies his age. In fewer than four full seasons as a pro, Rahm has eight wins, including three on the PGA Tour. Only Tiger Woods boasts a higher win rate over the first two seasons of his career.2
Rahm is in the midst of his finest season yet, trailing only McIlroy, Patrick Cantlay and Dustin Johnson in true strokes gained.3 He has finished in the top 10 nine times over 15 PGA Tour events, second only to McIlroy.
Hot-tempered and prone to taking midround bathroom breaks, Rahm has a Paul Bunyan-esque appearance that makes him look considerably older. By height, he’s sandwiched between Koepka and Dustin Johnson, with the physique of neither but skills comparable to both; like the two golfers, he’s strong off the tee and on the green, and is similarly adept at scrambling. It isn’t normal for a 24-year-old to devour fields on the two most competitive tours in the world. For instance, Phil Mickelson first cracked the top five in the world rankings in 1998 — six years after turning pro — and topped out at No. 2. Rahm has already equaled those heights, currently sitting at No. 8 in the world rankings.
Unlike sports featuring binary scoring systems, golf is an industry where winning first place outright is irregular. Even elite golfers seldom win more than a handful of tournaments in a given season, so perhaps a fairer measure of overall success is the rate at which a player puts himself in contention. Let’s take top-five finishes, for example, which Rahm has 20 of in 69 PGA Tour starts. That 29 percent clip trails only Woods (35 percent) through the same number of starts, according to Data Golf. To reach that total, top-tier players like Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose needed more than twice as many tournaments.
So how atypical is success on the PGA and European Tours prior to a player’s 25th birthday? And how well has Rahm played in his brief professional career? To answer both questions, I compared Rahm to his peers — the current top 10 players in the world — through the lens of true strokes gained, compiled by Data Golf. To best compare field strength, I limited my search to performance on the PGA and European tours.
|Player||Total Events||Wins||Top 5s||Average TSG|
Over 76 career starts, Rahm is averaging 1.88 true strokes gained, more than any player in the top 10 not named Tiger Woods. Between the two tours, Rahm has cracked the top five 27 times, more than four other current top-10 golfers4 combined prior to their respective 25th birthdays; among today’s elite, only Woods has notched more top-five finishes before turning 25. Rahm’s performance has carried over to majors, too, where he has three top-five finishes, including a tie for third at last month’s U.S. Open. But Rahm has yet to win a major, and this weekend at Royal Portrush will be his final chance before turning 25. Only four international players in the past 85 years have won one of golf’s marquee events before the milestone. It wouldn’t be all that surprising if he delivered: According to Vegas books, he has the fourth-best odds.
It’s fitting that Rahm’s first win on the PGA Tour, back in 2017, came in style: A 60-foot eagle putt from the fringe on the final hole at Torrey Pines. It was his 17th career start. The moment encapsulated Rahm — a young ball-striker delivering in a high-leverage moment on an unforgiving course that hadn’t crowned a first-time PGA champion in more than a quarter-century. That is perhaps the most instructive lesson of Rahm: He’s not like the rest, comfortable writing his own history on his own deadline.