PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland (AP) — There’s something about playing golf on the island of Ireland that brings out the best in Jon Rahm.
The warmth and pride of the people, the community feel in the fishing villages, even — believe it or not — the weather, all remind him of his modest, coastal hometown of Barrika in Spain’s Basque Country region.
Perhaps that’s the reason why he has won the Irish Open twice in the past three years, roared on by huge galleries wherever he goes.
And maybe it’s what will turn this most fiery of golfers into a major champion this week at Royal Portrush.
“It’s the closest I’ll ever feel to playing at home,” Rahm said Wednesday, “without being at home.”
The first of his Irish Open victories came just down the road at Portstewart in 2017. He stayed in Portrush that week and recalls going to the Harbour Bistro, one of the liveliest places in town, on six of seven nights.
He shot a closing 65 to win the title — his first on the European Tour — by six shots in a record-breaking total score of 24-under par.
A little more than a year into his pro career at the time, Rahm couldn’t remember playing any better and it made him believe he could win the British Open one day.
He hasn’t done himself justice in his three appearances at golf’s oldest major, finishing 59th and 44th before missing the cut at Carnoustie last year, but a second Irish Open win at Lahinch two weeks ago made him feel good about his links game once again. He shot 62 to overturn a five-stroke deficit in the final round.
“If I ever have doubt, which I shouldn’t, I can always remind (myself) that I’ve been able to win twice here,” Rahm said. “That’s the reason why I can get it done.”
Both of those wins came in relatively mild, wind-free conditions, but it is likely to be different at Royal Portrush this week. It was rainy and blustery Wednesday — Rahm went to the first tee in the morning, spent a few minutes there, and walked inside again — and more of the same is forecast for this week as the event returns to Northern Ireland for the first time in 68 years.
Rahm expects to have to grind his way around the Dunluce Links, rely on a bit of luck, and keep mentally strong. That doesn’t come easy to a player whose temper has been known to get the better of him.
It might explain why he can lose interest at major championships if he’s not in contention. Take his results in the majors over the last two years: Two fourth-place finishes and two missed cuts in 2018, and two top 10s and a missed cut so far in 2019.
“I would like to find the middle ground,” Rahm said, “but truth be told, there’s not much difference between finishing 50th, 40th and 30th to me, unless you are contending for the tournament. Making the cut or not doesn’t make the difference.”
Rahm would be the first Spaniard to lift the claret jug since 1988, when the late Seve Ballesteros won the last of his three British Open titles. Rahm used to watch over and over footage of the charismatic Ballesteros winning his first Open, at Royal Lytham in 1979 when he memorably made a final-round birdie after hitting his tee shot into an overflow car park.
“I don’t think I have the talent to do what he did, to play the way he did,” Rahm said. “Although honestly, I don’t care how it looks, if it looks pretty or not, as long as I win the event. So, however you can get it done.”
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80