EUGENE, Ore. – Jon Rahm came off the 18th green in the second round of the NCAA Championship having posted a 2-under 68 – the third-best round of the morning – but he wasn’t all that impressed with his score.
“I’m not going to say I’m disappointed,” Rahm said. “But I do have a little grouch inside me because I did make the turn in 4 under.”
When you’re the top player in college golf (Rahm ranks as Golfweek‘s No. 1), you’re expected to set high marks. Especially when you’ve produced what Rahm has of late.
The Arizona State senior has gone about putting an exclamation point on an already elite college career. In 2015, Rahm ended the year the World No. 1 ranked amateur, and he came into his final spring at Arizona State with eight college wins (tied for second in school history behind Phil Mickelson’s 16).
Then he added one last tear, as Rahm captured the ASU Thunderbird Invitational before sweeping the Pac-12 Championship and NCAA Albuquerque Regional. With those back-to-back wins, and tack on a second consecutive year receiving the Ben Hogan Award, the Spaniard entered the action at this week’s NCAA Championship, played at Eugene (Ore.) Country Club, as the hottest player in college golf.
But even for a player as touted and as consistent – top-10s in all 12 college starts in 2015-16 – as Rahm, one had to wonder, where did this recent run come from?
Apparently, the oldest enabler in the book: The putter.
Rahm holed four significant putts in a quick span on the front nine Saturday to score birdies and save pars in jumping out in 32 and reaching 3 under overall by that point. That’s more a continuation of the last two months.
After Rahm won the Thunderbird, he placed T-8 at the Western Intercollegiate on April 13. A solid result, and his 10th top-10 in 10 starts. But something was off.
“I was hitting what I thought were good putts, and I wasn’t making anything,” Rahm said.
Luckily, former teammate Ben Shur, who was out there that week at Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz, Calif., did notice something. The ex-Sun Devil felt something was wrong with Rahm’s posture, as the Spaniard appeared hunched over his putts.
“He told me to have straighter posture, and I said ‘I can’t, otherwise I won’t reach my putter,’ ” Rahm said. “So he said, ‘Get a longer one.’ ”
Rahm had been using a 35-inch flatstick since 2009 but began playing around with a belly putter that happened to be at Arizona State’s facilities. After a couple of strikes with the longer club, he already felt better about his posture and balance.
After all, he had grown a few inches since first implementing the 35-inch model seven years ago. So, Rahm ordered a 37-inch putter to test it out.
“Two days (after I first used it), in my first round I played, I made everything,” Rahm said. “A putt inside 10 feet, there was no chance it wasn’t going in.”
In fact, Rahm played his first three rounds with the 37-inch flatstick in, as he remembers, a cumulative 19 under. Over one of those 18-hole walks, he said he only needed 23 putts.
This experiment, which along with better posture moved Rahm’s eyes from above to over the ball, started a week before the Pac-12 Championship. Needless to say, Rahm was sold.
“I made everything,” Rahm said. “It felt like how I used to putt back in Spain.”
It carried over a week later, when Rahm compiled 26 birdies and an eagle over 72 holes in the Pac-12 Championship in that four-shot victory. Even at a difficult University of New Mexico Championship Course at the NCAA Albuquerque Regional, Rahm had 13 birdies and an eagle in three days in a 4-under performance that earned him a five-shot win.
And it’s carried over this week, too. Even if the putter still malfunctions from time to time.
Rahm, who moved up 21 spots Saturday into a tie for sixth at 1 under and whose team sits T-9 at 11 over, knocked his second shot on No. 10 to 10 feet and started to think about posting 63 or 64 on the day. Then he misread the putt and the ball lipped out on the right side.
Two holes later, he faced a mostly uphill 15-footer that he rammed six feet by the hole. He missed the comebacker and slapped himself on his side for the ugly three-putt bogey.
But the long bomber was true to form right after. How did he get past that three-jack so quickly?
“Hitting a really hard drive on the next tee,” Rahm said.
Smoked it. 330 yards down the chute.
Maybe his putting’s changed for the better. But the other parts of Rahm stay the same.