US Open 2021: 'Fairytale finish' – Jon Rahm invokes spirit of Seve Ballesteros to realise childhood dream
Jon Rahm became Spain's first US Open champion and fourth major winner with a display brimming with measured maturity in taming a back nine at Torrey Pines that left some of the world's finest golfers resembling weekend hackers. It is easy to forget that Rahm is only 26, but the new world number one has perhaps most poignantly learned how to control his temper since turning professional in 2016.
Jon Rahm speaks to the media after claiming his first major title.
If you want to see what Seve's ongoing legacy remains to golf, and the wider world, one only had to listen to Jon Rahm's comments in the aftermath of the swashbuckling Spanish player's rampaging yet gloriously mature and epically constructed victory at the 121st US Open around a tortuous Torrey Pines on Sunday.
Rahm – born in the Basque coastal town of Barrika in 1994, a year before Seve's 50th and final European Tour win at the 1995 Spanish Open – met Ballesteros and his Ryder Cup playing partner José María Olazábal, the two-times US Masters winner, at an awards ceremony when he was 12.
Seve Ballesteros celebrates winning the 1984 Open Championship at St Andrews.
Image credit: Eurosport
“I knew who Olazábal was,” said the popular Rahm, who usurped Dustin Johnson as world number one with his rousing triumph in San Diego. “I had no idea who Seve was and I shook Olazabal’s hand and I almost missed Seve.
"And my dad almost had a heart attack because I had the chance to shake Seve’s hand and I almost didn’t. I have that memory. I never got to meet him again, never got to speak to him again."
Flanked by wife Kelley, baby son Kepa, who was born in April, and his parents Edorta and Angela, Rahm's comments were heartfelt about becoming the fourth man in Spain's rich golf history alongside Ballesteros, Olazabal and Sergio Garcia to carry off a major crown.
This was definitely for Seve. We talk about the Masters, but I knew he tried a lot..he wanted to win this most of all.
While others were losing their heads in the gusts off the Pacific Ocean slicing up the South Course, Rahm was coming of age, a picture of perfect concentration as he entered his sat nav to glory by making birdie on nine and a procession of seven straight priceless pars between the 10th and 16th holes.
That set the scene for him to drain a couple of monumental birdie putts that defied logic and the history books as he reached six under having started off at two under among an array of salivating major glory hunters that included Louis Oosthuizen, Rory McIlroy,Brooks Koepka, Xander Schauffele, Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson and defending champion Bryson DeChambeau, who somehow contrived to suffer a form of sporting spontaneous human combustion in his Puma kicks on the back nine.
The astonishing golf theorist that is DeChambeau had careered to the summit at five under from 63 holes after going out in 33 only to come home in an ambulance with another 44 shots required to leave him at plus three and a sorry share of 26th place.
His bomb-and-gouge tactics that saw him almost lose his balance with a drive on the 13th tee looked as ridiculous and ill-befitting as Rahm was sublime with a well-honed draw off the tee providing key support for the win.
Jon Rahm of Spain celebrates with the trophy alongside his wife, Kelley, and son, Kepa, after winning the 121st US Open.
Indeed, only Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson had carried off the US Open by making birdies on the final two holes of America's national championship.
He was walking in the footsteps of legends, but none more so than Seve – who tragically lost his brave fight with a brain tumour at the age of 54 in May 2011 – after inspiring a continent of players to try their hand at golf largely due to his heroics in Europe's Ryder Cup revival of the 1980s and 1990s.
Ballesteros revelled in five majors – three Open Championships and two US Masters between 1979 and 1988 and a third place at the US Open in 1987 – but his contribution to the wider health of golf cannot be measured by trinkets, but by his positivity and willingness to entertain the public with a passion and gusto for life.
While some will argue Ballesteros would not have possessed the powers of endurance to play Rahm's patient percentage game on the back nine, the final two holes were pure Seve, pure theatre in producing the career-defining shots of the 72 holes that all major champions seem to enjoy, but most don't need to wait until the 72nd hole to unearth.
"There is no secret in golf that a teacher can give you," Ballesteros once commented. "You have your own way, your own vision and your own feeling. If you practice constantly, that's the secret."
Faced with a bunker shot from a downhill lie on the 18th hole, Seve, like Arnold Palmer in his pomp, would probably have gone for the hole, opting to forget about the impending doom of the pond on the other side of the flag stick with just a slightly thinned effort.
Big Jon was clever in his quiet contemplation. He played out to the side, leaving himself with a greater distance for birdie, but completely negating the drink. It was a tactic that finalised his first major victory in the sport five years after turning professional as his nearest challenger Oosthuizen would later birdie the final hole to finish one behind the champion on five under.
“It felt like such a fairytale story that I knew it was going to have a happy ending," said Rahm.
"I could just tell, just going down the fairway after that first tee shot, that second shot, and that birdie, I knew there was something special in the air. I could just feel it. I just knew it.
It was like, man, this is my day; everything’s going to go right. I felt like that helped me become. I just knew that I could do it and believed it.
When Rahm holed a 25-foot putt on the 17th and followed it in with an 18 footer for birdie on the 18th, it was one of these moments when you immediately flashed back to St Andrews – the home of Old Tom Morris and the home of the ancient sport in Scotland – and Ballesteros' ageless victory march in 1984.
As Rahm punched the air amid some wild celebrations in a crowd set free from the shackles of coronavirus, only weeks after he himself tested positive for Covid, the image of Ballesteros in his pristine navy blue Slazenger pullover, nudging home from 15 feet and punching the air 37 years ago at the Old Course immediately occupied the mind.
For Rahm, it was a form of poetic justice after being told at the 19th hole on 5 June he had tested positive for Covid-19 leading the Memorial Tournament in Ohio by six shots after the third round in what was an utterly dispiriting experience that denied him certain victory.
“To all the people criticising the PGA Tour, they shouldn’t,” said Rahm.
“We are in a pandemic, and even though this virus has very different forms of attacking people, you never know what reaction you’re going to get. So (the) PGA Tour did what they had to do."
He was forced to withdraw and only emerged from self-isolation days before the US Open, but coronavirus could not halt his march this time as he celebrated his most famous success, curiously at the scene of his maiden PGA win at the Farmers Insurance Open in 2017.
"Mentally, I think you have to be in a good place to bounce back from something like that," said McIlroy of Rahm's Covid-19 test travails after a closing 73 saw him share seven spot on one under. "Obviously, he knew his game was there. He just had to go out and play the way he knows he can.
And he’s obviously had success here at this golf course. I don’t think there’s a golf course where he can’t have success on. He’s that good a player. He was a major champion in waiting. It was just a matter of time.
With so much competition at the summit of golf, it is difficult to believe we are suddenly on the cusp of the Jon Rahm era in golf, but this one was always in the tube after he finished inside the top 10 at the majors a remarkable seven times in the past three years. Where he goes from here is up to him.
McIlroy has realised the difficulty of the weekly dog fight for supremacy he is involved in after rampaging to four majors between 2011 and 2014 only to go seven years and counting without adding another one with blokes like the US PGA champion Phil Mickelson still involved in the narrative when the mood takes him. Only one guy needs to beat the field every week. Rahm wants to be that guy.
"There will never be a next Seve," said Rahm. "Stylistically no-one is going to be like him. I’d rather just be me, be Jon Rahm because that’s all I can be."
There's only one Jon Rahm. Like Ballesteros, he is an original of the species, a true force of nature. It was rammed home in suitable style at Torrey.
Jon Rahm celebrates with the US Open trophy.
Image credit: Eurosport
Spanish Armada: Spain's major champions
Seve Ballesteros: Open champion (1979, 1984, 1988) US Masters champion (1980, 1983)
José María Olazábal: US Masters champion (1994, 1999)