By Doug Ferguson/AP golf writer
The 23-year-old Rahm returned home in December with the best of both worlds — a degree in communications from Arizona State, and three victories worldwide in his 18 months as a pro that have taken him to No. 3 in the world, the highest-ranked European.
Rahm recalled one conversation with his father that allowed him to look back on the path he took with no regrets.
"So many parents make the mistake that kids are more than what they really are, and they give them too much confidence," Rahm said. "My dad was always a few steps away from that. He always thought, 'Get a degree, just in case.' He said: 'Go to the States. Stay there one year. If you hate it, the worst thing happening is you learn English, which is going to be good for you either way.'
"I promised him I would get my degree."
Rahm has done so much in such a small amount of time. He needed only four PGA Tour starts as a pro to earn his card. It took him only 12 starts to earn his first victory, holing that 50-foot eagle putt from the back of the 18th green at Torrey Pines. He blew away a solid field at the Irish Open. He won the European Tour finale in Dubai. And with a runner-up finish last week at Kapalua, he became the fourth-youngest player to reach No. 3 in the world since the ranking began in 1986.
Of all his achievements, one that doesn't get enough attention is that college degree.
His first trip to America was a flight to Phoenix to check into his dorm. He spoke no English. He was so oblivious to college that he didn't even realize he had to buy his own sheets for his dorm room. On his first day of class, he brought a pencil and a notebook. Everyone else had laptops.
And he graduated in four years, never tempted to turn pro despite winning the individual medal at the World Amateur Team Championship, and the following year tying for fifth at the Phoenix Open when he was a junior.
It was that performance that Rahm said convinced his father this golf thing might work out OK.
Staying all four years in college is not as common as it once was. Only three players from the top 20 in the world earned their degrees — Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama and Matt Kuchar. Matsuyama finished his final year as a pro. He skipped Bay Hill in 2014 to return to Japan for the graduation ceremony.
Rahm's achievement is notable for the time — four years — and the language barrier.
"How I got a 3.6 GPA my first semester, now that is a challenge. I don't know how I did it," he said. "I couldn't communicate for the first month. The second month was a little better. For the better part of the first year in college, I didn't understand a single joke. For the better part of the second year, I couldn't make a joke. Until my junior year, any funny part in me was nonexistent."
He remembers that first class at school — Macro Economics — in an amphitheater with some 360 students. His biggest class in Spain was 30. There were big screens and speakers. The teacher used a microphone. Rahm thought he was in the wrong place.
"I thought I might have been at some conference," he said.
His coach forced him to learn English when Rahm was speaking his native language too much with teammate Alberto Sanchez. He had to do a burpee, a full-body exercise used in strength training, for every Spanish word he used. Rahm turned to rap to help speed along the recovery — consider Eminem and Kendrick Lamar to be adjuncts at Arizona State.
College isn't for everyone, or at least not for very long. Jordan Spieth was 19 when he left after three semesters at Texas, and that's worked out pretty well for him. Ditto for Justin Thomas and his two years at Alabama.
Years ago after he three-putted at Bay Hill, he was muttering about his putting when someone jokingly mentioned that if golf didn't work out for him, he didn't have a college degree to lean on because he left Stanford after two years. Woods suggested he could always go to night school. Asked if he would major in economics, Woods smiled and said, "Economics is why I left in the first place."
Rahm had every reason to turn pro early and it never crossed his mind. He was learning. He was having fun. He had a promise to fulfill to his parents.
"First of all, there's probably a lot of (corporate) brands out there that value a college degree. It's only going to help you out," he said. "Second of all, it's never a bad option to educate yourself. Third, college is way too much fun to leave early.
"It's the last time you have no worries in life," he said, pausing before he added most appropriately, "Not that I can complain right now."