PONTE VEDRA BEACH — A year ago, after Keith Sbarbaro finished a club fitting with then-Arizona State senior Jon Rahm and his coach, Tim Mickelson, Sbarbaro sat behind the wheel of his car ticking off the players he could think of who were better than Rahm. He did not get past the fingers on one hand.
Sbarbaro, vice president of tour operations for TaylorMade, called his friend Tripp Isenhour, a Golf Channel commentator. "I just met the sixth-best player in the world, and he's still an amateur," Sbarbaro said.
Rahm, 22, who turned professional in June after finishing as the low amateur at the U.S. Open, has made a meteoric rise to No. 12 in the world ranking. He notched his maiden victory in late January at the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego and remains on a tear, having finished in the top 10 in five of his past six starts.
"I may have sold Jon short when I said he was the sixth-best player in the world," said Sbarbaro, who eventually signed Rahm to an endorsement deal.
In his first appearance at the Players Championship this week, Rahm opened with a bogey-free 68 and backed it up with par 72 Friday after making birdie on his final hole for the second straight day. He trailed leaders Louis Oosthuizen and Kyle Stanley by five strokes heading into the weekend, within striking distance of a chance to surpass Adam Scott as the tournament's youngest champion.
Rahm arrived sight unseen at Arizona State five years ago, coming from Barrika, Spain, with a golf scholarship even though he could barely speak English. He had never been to the United States, and he was not sure if college golf was for him. He was not alone.
"Coach didn't think I was going to make it," he said of Mickelson, the younger brother of five-time major winner Phil. "He took a big chance on me, and it really worked out."
Rahm learned to speak fluent English by repeating the lyrics to rap songs by Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. Rahm's coach provided the necessary motivation, enforcing a stiff penalty of a burpee for every Spanish word Rahm uttered. What Rahm did not expect were struggles on the golf course.
"My first two tournaments were terrible," Rahm said. "I shot 81, and I couldn't remember the last time I'd shot in the 80s in competition. Next we played the Pac-12 Preview at Pumpkin Ridge, a really tough course. I said: 'Hey, Coach, I like this place. It's pretty easy.' He listed off all the big events it had hosted and said, 'You think it's easy?' I had no idea. I just knew I felt confident.
"I shot 77 in the first round. He looked at my scorecard and said, 'Easy golf course, huh?' I told him to relax. I shot 64, 65 the next two rounds and finished second by one. That's when I realized I was a better golfer than I thought I was."
Rahm's confidence has been rising steadily ever since. "That's the first thing you've got to have," he said. "If you don't believe in yourself, nobody's going to believe in you."
Rahm first showed signs of his promise when he tied for fifth at the 2015 Phoenix Open. Many observers expected Rahm to leave college early, but he had promised his parents that he would graduate. He became the first two-time winner of the Ben Hogan Award as the nation's top collegiate golfer.
Rahm impressed his coach so much that Mickelson resigned his position in July and became Rahm's manager, following in the footsteps of another former Arizona State coach, Steve Loy, who left to manage Phil Mickelson in 1992.
"I wouldn't have left coaching for just anybody," Tim Mickelson said. "I believe in the person Jon is both on and off the course."
Phil Mickelson has sung Rahm's praises as well, going so far as to say that in practice-round money games, he will play with Rahm only if they are partners.
"I think he's more than just a good young player. I think he's one of the top players in the world," Phil said. "I think there's an intangible that some guys have where they want to have the pressure putt, they want to be in that tough position, they want to have everything fall on their shoulders, and he has that."
At the Farmers Insurance Open, Rahm proved his mettle, shifting into what friends call "Rahm-bo mode" with a back-nine 30, including two eagles, to leapfrog the competition.
When Golf Channel analyst David Duval noted that Dustin Johnson had become the 20th player to reach the world No. 1 ranking, he reflected the prevailing opinion when he predicted that Rahm would be the next new player to do so. The Rahm admiration society seems to be gaining members by the week. At the suggestion of 1973 British Open champion Tom Weiskopf, World Golf Hall of Famer Ben Crenshaw walked nine holes with Rahm at the Masters and gushed about his talent.
"He's got a lot of fire and a soft touch," Crenshaw said.
England's Justin Rose, who played in Rahm's threesome for the first 36 holes at the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, envisions Rahm becoming a mainstay for Europe's Ryder Cup squad for years to come.
"He'll be a huge addition," Rose said. "He's got length, he's fearless, and he putts well."
Spain's Rafa Cabrera-Bello said, "I think Jon Rahm's going to be a superstar for many years to come."
Reminded that Rahm was a first-time competitor at TPC Sawgrass, Cabrera-Bello replied, "Try to explain that to him."