By Dan Reardon
There was a time when the path to the PGA Tour, while not easy, was direct. Up until 2013, players would enter a series of events (stages) in the fall, and, if they advanced, would play a six-round qualifier known as “Tour School.”
In 2013 the Tour closed that ramp and put in place a process that gave access only to players currently on the PGA Tour needing to re-qualify and top finishers on the Web.com Tour. What still exists, and is becoming more common, is the alternative Tiger passing lane. When Woods turned professional late in 1996, he decided to play in a number of fall events with the hopes of winning or earning enough money to skip Tour School altogether. He breezed with that formula, winning in Las Vegas and again at Disney.
Following this year’s Masters, U.S. Amateur Champion Bryson DeChambeau turned pro and is trying to use his finite number of sponsors exemptions to take the Tiger trip. This past week another premier amateur, world number one Jon Rahm, crossed over and is also hoping to play his way directly onto the Tour during the remaining schedule.
DeChambeau has played in eight PGA Tour events in 2016 (the maximum number of exemptions available), but his Heritage finish likely put him into Texas the following week. And he may still have a card to play.
Rahm has made only two Tour appearances, but his dance card is complicated by the remaining schedule. There are exactly six events available to the 21-year-old now that the Greenbrier has been cancelled. DeChambeau has a money edge on Rahm, but both players need at least one more big payday to punch their tickets.
Like DeChambeau, Rahm is both a talent and personality, a great fit for the PGA Tour. The Spanish-born Rahm has a golf bio that presages an exceptional professional career. He is a two-time Ben Hogan Award winner as the NCAA’s best golfer. At Arizona State he compiled an impressive 11 collegiate titles, second only to Phil Mickelson. He was ranked number one in the world for 60 straight weeks. In 2015 he came within three of getting into a playoff with Brooks Koepka at the Waste Management Open. And his last amateur appearance was a top 25 (T23) at the U.S. Open at Oakmont.
His player’s skill package includes plenty of length, an imagination in sync with his Spanish golf heritage and, according to his collegiate coach, Tim Mickelson, an exceptional putting talent. His swing is short and manufactured by today’s cookie-cutter standards, and it is that flare, that uniqueness, that may eventually set Rahm apart on Tour. You can see in his presence, with traces of Seve, Sergio and Angel.
Coming into Congressional, Rahm had been trying to prepare himself for golf as he has never experienced it — the pressure to succeed at the highest level. He told the Washington media it was a mental approach shaped through the start of 2016. “I would say five months ago, my expectations were really high, but coming into this moment, I worked with my mental coach to keep — we basically just narrow it down to enjoying it and learning as much as I could. I’ve been thinking like that for the last month and trying not to have high expectations.”
Planning met reality; he shot 64 the first day at Quicken for the first-round lead. “I was anticipating this moment,” he told the media “I’m working on it a long time that I kind of blacked out a little bit. I don’t remember a single swing I made all day or any putting stroke or anything. I just remember the ball flying or rolling.”
Rahm is animated on the course, never leaving a doubt as to what he is feeling. He smiles readily and occasionally pounds the club in frustration. He has let it be known that his ultimate goal is 19 majors and had the bravado to wear a red shirt on Sunday at Tiger’s tournament.
He is the matador to DeChambeau’s mad scientist. He lists Michael Jackson as the person he would most like to meet, and his fantasy foursome fills out with Rafael Nadal, Adam Sandler and Shakira.
There are players today so good you need to watch them. If Jon Rahm can achieve that skill level, he is a player you can’t help but watch.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.