Arizona State’s Jon Rahm woke up at 6:25 a.m. Tuesday and didn’t think the day would be special.
But as he began to warm up at the practice range and green at the Capital City Club’s Crabapple Course, he got an inkling it could be a good day.
Rahm, a freshman with one practice round of experience at the Crabapple, shot a 9-under 61 to take the lead in the first round of the NCAA men’s golf championships. His 10 birdies and one bogey left him one shot off the NCAA championship record for score (60) and relation to par (10 under, done twice).
“I shot a 64 in the fall at Pumpkin Ridge,” he said. “I honestly never thought I could play better than that. I didn’t play as good, but today my putting was probably the best I’ve ever putted in my life.”
Rahm said he made several putts between 30-40 feet to put his Sun Devils team atop the leaderboard at 10 under heading into Wednesday’s second round. But don’t stick a Sun Devil pitchfork in the rest of the field. Host Georgia Tech is in second, four back at 6 under; SEC-champ Alabama is 5 under; and California, the favorite, is 3 under. Georgia is tied for 14th, with a team score of 6 over. The stroke-play portion of the tournament consists of two more rounds with the top eight teams (currently 1 under and better) advancing to match play, which starts Friday.
“For their first effort for all five of them I thought they played really well,” Tech coach Bruce Heppler said of his team. “I don’t think it’s as low as we could have shot, and I think everyone hit it really well. We will get some dinner and start making some putts in the morning.”
Everyone was chasing Rahm, though, who benefited from morning conditions that featured softer greens and less wind.
“Jon is an excellent player. He plays his best golf on really tough golf courses,” Arizona State coach Tim Mickelson said. “I wouldn’t say I saw it coming, but he told me this morning that his putting felt really good. So I’m not surprised.”
Rahm said he began to think about shooting a 59 as he lined up a 9-foot birdie putt on his 16th hole, a 191-yard par 3.
“I said if I play the last holes good I can get to 60, 10 under,” he said. “I’ve been dreaming of that.”
He missed that putt, but bounced back to drain a 10-foot birdie — complete with a double arm-pump — on the 523-yard par-4 No. 9, his last hole.
Rahm has come a long way, figuratively and literally, to reach the top of the leaderboard.
Rahm, a native of Barrika, Spain, said he had one offer to play college golf in the United States, and that school wanted him to wait a year before enrolling.
And then last year he received a Facebook friend request from Mickelson. He didn’t know who he was. The next day Rahm’s father received an email from the coaches.
Jon didn’t have time to visit the campus, but he knew the men’s and women’s team had a good history with Spanish players. He committed sight unseen.
“I had to trust them and I did,” he said. “It’s probably one of the best years I’ve ever had.”
Rahm has two wins this year at the Bill Cullum Invitational and at the Lamkin Grips SD Classic, which helped him win the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Award. His worst round this year was his first, an 81 at The Gopher Invitational. He finished the year with the team’s top scoring average, 71.6, which also is the best by a freshman in school history.
“He believes he can pull of any single shot out there,” Mickelson said. “If he knows he can pull it off, he’s going to try it. It gets him into trouble once out of every 10 times. But those other nine he’s pulling off shots that I can’t even see. Sort of like my brother (Phil), I guess.”
As for Rahm’s game, he felt like his short game, his strength Tuesday, was at its lowest point last week. But he worked with Mickelson and exchanged videos with his coach in Spain. He soon started to feel better about his chipping and putting.
“The last tournament I felt like I was hitting good putts, but they weren’t going in,” he said. “Today, I felt like I was hitting the ball the way I wanted. I felt, this could be my day.”
The Sun Devils practiced at Druid Hills and the Golf Club of Georgia in preparation for the championships. Rahm liked those courses and hoped the Crabapple layout would be similar.
“I asked if it (Crabapple) was the same type of course, it’s my type of course,” he said. “It’s perfect for me. Long course, long holes.”
Rahm said he won’t dwell too much on his career-best round. Mickelson planned to take the team Tuesday night to see the latest “Fast and Furious” movie — Rahm has the previous five on his laptop and said he has watched them a thousand times — to keep them relaxed.
“He obviously knows he played a great game,” Mickelson said. “He’s going to want to back it up again tomorrow with something low a 64, 65. Knowing him, his attitude will be I want to have won this tournament after 36 holes. If he can do that, we are going to be looking pretty good, too.”