The Spaniard held his nerve when others crumbled during a thrilling back nine at the DP World Tour Championship, clinching his third win of a superb rookie season just one week removed from his 23rd birthday.
Tommy Fleetwood, 26, finished eight shots behind Rahm’s 19-under par but profited from overnight leader Justin Rose’s meltdown to be anointed Race to Dubai winner as the European Tour’s best performer this year.
Though the signs are positive for Europe ahead of next September’s Ryder Cup there is no shortage of young talent across the pond either, as Brooks Koepka (25), Jordan Spieth (24) and Justin Thomas (24) won three of the four majors this season.
There is little threat of a confident Rahm being overwhelmed as a member of the youth movement.
“I think it’s happening more and more, you see what happened last year on the PGA Tour with Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas who are 24 and between both of them they won 11 times which is something amazing,” said Rahm.
“I think it’s like the rise of the youngsters, it’s been a really fun year. We feed each other, seeing other people win we think ‘why can’t we?’
“In my case, I got it done in a year and I’m a really confident person so when I’m in this position I believe I can win.”
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) November 19, 2017
Of the frontrunners only Rahm posted a bogey-free round of five-under par at Earth course on Sunday. A birdie on the 16th separated him from a chasing pack including South Africans Dylan Frittelli and Dean Burmester, Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat and early finisher Shane Lowry.
The round spoke of the steely resolve that has helped him come so far since turning professional 18 months ago – and keep his bank manager happy with a further 1.2m euros.
But with Rahm set up life, he measures his currency in victories and is eager to be first past the finish post in next year’s Race to Dubai.
“I’m a really ambitious person, this is my first year though I know it’s going to be hard to top,” added the world No4, who already divides his time between the PGA and European tours.
“Hopefully I can keep playing like this and kick on again this year, maybe I can come out again and have a chance of winning the Race to Dubai.
“It’s tough to have played good all year and actually have no mathematical chance to win, so hopefully I can play better tournaments during the year and have a chance.
“To get it done the last week – I don’t know if it shows anybody else or not, but it does prove to myself that I belong to be here on the European Tour and on the PGA Tour.
“Hopefully it reinforces my position to be considered for the Ryder Cup next year.”
His compatriot Sergio Garcia made a stunning charge of his own on day four – stringing together four birdies in a row to start the round – but a bogey on the 18th snuffed out his chances.
The Masters champion, who alongside Fleetwood and Rose was the only other contender still in the Race to Dubai hunt at Jumeirah Golf Estates last week, insists he does not regret skipping the previous three tournaments.
“(My wife) Angela and I, we needed to do some things related to the baby, some check-ups and stuff that I wanted to be a part of,” said Garcia, whose round of 63 earned him a tie for fourth.
“I don’t regret it at all. “I don’t like to play too many tournaments in a row – we did what we thought was best.”
What an Amazing ending to Awesome year! Thank you to everyone who has been a part of it. Family, Friends, Fans, team, Sponsors, etc. Vamos! @adidasGolf @TaylorMadeGolf @isagenix @BighornGolfClub and ROLEX. pic.twitter.com/G41KxuDKgn
— Jon Rahm Rodriguez (@JonRahmpga) November 19, 2017
Tommy Fleetwood admits he’d have to run buying a property in the UAE past his fiancee Clare, but it might be something to consider as the Emirates has been a good omen for him after he ended the European Tour season here as Race to Dubai champion.
Fleetwood was also king of the capital in January when winning the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship – a result that sent him down a long and arduous path that finally ended in glory with Fleetwood feeling on top of the world at the Earth course at Jumeirah Golf Estates.
It was another anxious day though for the Englishman as a horror final round saw him finish +2 over par and tied for 21st place. Only a meltdown from compatriot Justin Rose on the back nine brought him back into contention as late drama unfolded.
Fleetwood, Clare and their new-born son were kept waiting for over 30 minutes as the final calculations were deduced before Fleetwood finally let out a smile, shared an embrace with his wife-to-be and kissed seven-week-old Franklin on the head. He’d sealed the Race to Dubai crown by one shot.
Having just beaten his rival to the title, the Southport native revealed he hopes he can emulate the sort of career enjoyed by Rose – who was a year older (27) than Fleetwood when he won the European Tour Order of Merit 10 years ago.
“That would be a nice career,” said 26-year-old Fleetwood reflecting on Rose’s trophy haul that includes the 2013 US Open and an Olympic Games gold medal.
“I have nothing but respect for him and what he’s done in his career. He’s got one of the best careers going and he’s got a hell of a mantelpiece, I’m sure.
“I would have preferred it to have been easier, but at the same time, it’s been absolutely brilliant going head-to-head and a bit of a dogfight with, in my eyes, one of the greatest players in recent times.”
After getting himself back into contention following a dreadful opening round of 73 with two 65s, Fleetwood again struggled to get any momentum going on Saturday, posting a 74 as Rose enjoyed a scintillating front nine, making the turn at 32. But three bogeys on the back nine saw him slip and left the door open for Fleetwood.
Despite a loss that reduced him to tears, Fleetwood said he and Rose shared a “nice moment” in the booth as they handed over their scorecards.
“He was really nice. He just said congratulations,” said Fleetwood.
“It was such a hard thing to do. It was a tough scenario. I didn’t really feel like I could take any credit for what I had just achieved.
“We are good friends and it’s just the nature of the game; somebody wins, somebody loses, and it was just a difficult situation.
“He was so good. He just said ‘Well deserved. You deserved it all year’.”
It’s been a dramatic turnaround for Fleetwood, who admitted on Saturday his game was “absolutely nowhere” 18 months ago after he had attempted to change his swing.
At the 2016 BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, Fleetwood was at his lowest ebb, admitting he had wanted to pull out of the tournament as he feared not being able to get the ball off the tee.
But he recovered and he says he now uses that low as a benchmark to remind himself how far he’s come.
“I was embarrassed how I was hitting it. In all honesty I was scared of what I was going to do,” said Fleetwood.
“Wentworth has always been the benchmark that I’ve looked at. I genuinely turned up the morning and wanted to pull out because I didn’t think I could get it off the first tee.
“That was my lowest moment. However long it’s been, 18 months, 17 months down the line, I’ve won a Race to Dubai.
“I can’t give the people around me enough credit. I know I am out there hitting the shots but there’s a lot of work goes into it that people don’t see. I’m just grateful for everyone around me.”
One of those people has been his dad Peter, who was in Dubai to see his son achieve his career highlight.
Fleetwood Junior has credited his family and people off the course with helping him turn it around in the last 18 months, although his dad says he’s done very little.
“We text each other every night, ‘what did I do wrong, what did I do here’, but apart from that I’ve done nothing, I haven’t been here all week,” said Fleetwood Snr.
“Everything’s changed for him. 18 months ago he basically couldn’t hit a golf ball, couldn’t hit a fairway. He went back to his coach (Alan Thompson) who he should never have left, got (his friend) Ian Finnis on the bag for him, he’s happy in his life off the course and it’s gone from there really. It’s not one particular thing, his life’s just more relaxed, better.
“He’s just down to earth. He likes a laugh, he’s a good lad, everyone likes him and he’s really popular. Next thing will be the world’s top 10 and then we’ll see how far he can go.”
Rose looked set for a remarkable third win in succession to seal a second Race to Dubai title when he led by a shot with seven holes to play, only to bogey three of the next five.
That left the Olympic champion needing to eagle the last to overhaul Fleetwood, but his long-range attempt slid past the hole as Fleetwood looked on alongside his fiancee Clare and their seven-week-old son.
Rose had to settle for a tie for fourth on 17 under par, two shots behind European Tour rookie of the year Rahm, who secured his second victory of the season thanks to a closing 67.
The 23-year-old, who only turned professional in June last year, finished a shot ahead of Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Ireland’s Shane Lowry, whose 63 equalled the lowest round of the week.
Masters champion Sergio Garcia and the South Africa duo of Dean Burmester and Dylan Frittelli were alongside Rose, with Fleetwood in a tie for 21st after a final round of 74.
He’s done it.
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) November 19, 2017