Can Rahm go one better than Ballesteros?

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Rahm won the Irish Open by six shots – but there was controversy when he appeared to replace his ball in a different spot on the sixth green and received no penalty

Jon Rahm is taking a well deserved week off to replenish energy supplies before attempting to go one better than his great compatriot Seve Ballesteros at a Birkdale Open.

As the golf season enters its most exciting phase, 22-year-old Rahm is centre of attention having bludgeoned his way into the world’s top 10 in his first year as a professional.

The young Spaniard also confirmed his potential as a genuine threat at The Open by establishing genuine links credentials in a commanding triumph at last week’s Irish Open.

When the world’s best arrive at Royal Birkdale at the end of this week they will find a much stronger test of golf than what was offered at Portstewart.

There is nothing unusual about that, but by finishing 24 under par on the spectacular County Londonderry layout, Rahm emphatically showed he is very much at home on seaside turf.

Seve Ballesteros finished joint runner-up with Jack Nicklaus at 1976 Open Championship at Birkdale, finishing six shots behind Johnny Miller

Back in the scorching summer of 1976, the late Ballesteros broke through by finishing runner-up to Johnny Miller at Birkdale. This was the moment the then-19-year-old announced himself to the sporting world.

This flamboyant golfing matador led The Open for three rounds before being overhauled by a strong American champion. But it was one of those rare championships remembered for the guy who came second.

Ballesteros’ imaginative chip, bumped through the parched Birkdale fescue, to conclude the second Open of his career is still fondly remembered.

Three years later, Ballesteros lifted the first of five major titles with his glorious win at Royal Lytham and was already established as Spain’s original golfing superstar.

He was followed by Jose Maria Olazabal and reigning Masters champion Sergio Garcia – and to that list we should also feel comfortable adding the name of the powerful, tempestuous, charismatic Rahm.

Indeed, Ballesteros, Olazabal and Garcia are also Irish Open winners, so it is fitting that the newest Spanish sensation gained his first European Tour title at this tournament.

Of course, it offers no guarantees for next week at the Southport venue which will stage the game’s oldest championship – and Birkdale is a classic links that rarely fails to identify champions of the highest calibre.

Padraig Harrington won The Open the last time it was hosted at Royal Birkdale in 2008, with a four-shot victory over Ian Poulter

Miller was a great champion and the list of winners on arguably the finest links in England also includes Peter Thomson (twice), Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer and Padraig Harrington.

The Irishman was in the middle of a remarkable run of major domination in 2008, the last time Birkdale hosted The Open.

Rahm does not need the sort of close call Ballesteros had back in 1976 to establish his major credentials. With two wins in his first full year on tour and his astonishing rise to number eight in the world rankings that job has already been done.

However, it will be intriguing to see how he fares on a more demanding course under the pressure of expectation generated by his success at the Irish Open, which he won by six shots after escaping a penalty in the last round.

His temperament remains suspect, as was shown in rounds of 76 and 73 when he missed the cut at the recent US Open at Erin Hills. He also unravelled in the penal surroundings of Sawgrass during May’s Players Championship.

If a course gets on top of him, Rahm can struggle to fight his way out of trouble. Birkdale is a very fair golfing test but if the coastal winds blow and the elements close in, the young Spaniard could easily be rattled.

Nevertheless, right now he looks at home among the favourites for the next men’s major. Rory McIlroy, by contrast, is somewhat lower in that pecking order.

While Rahm puts his feet up this week, the Northern Irishman – who has slipped down to number four in the world – has to make the most of his Scottish Open appearance at Dundonald.

That does not mean he has to win on the Ayrshire course, but the 28-year-old has to find a convincing touch on the greens and a source of confidence to take down the road to Birkdale.

Three years ago, McIlroy embarked on a similar schedule and missed the cut at the Irish Open, just as he did last week. Then he went to the Scottish Open and finished a reasonably encouraging 14th.

The following week he went to the north-west of England and surged to a convincing Open triumph at Royal Liverpool.

He will want history to repeat itself. It is time for McIlroy to fire because this is the height of the golfing season.

Open 2014: Rory McIlroy holes winning putt

For the sport in general, it is a shame that this period is overshadowed by tennis with Wimbledon moving back a week in the calendar. Events at Dondonald will struggle for widespread exposure as the Grand Slam tournament in London heads towards its climax.

The same can be said of this week’s Women’s US Open at Trump Bedminster in New Jersey.

But it will still be quite a week for UK challengers such as Bronte Law, Meghan MacLaren, Stephanie Meadow, Georgia Hall, Florentyna Parker and Becky Morgan.

And among the more established British stars, it is time for Charley Hull to start showing her best form in the biggest events.

Indeed, Hull faces a similar challenge to the one facing McIlroy at the moment and it is abundantly clear – whether it is the men’s or women’s game – there is no shortage of exciting young talent at the top of the sport.

Rahm is the latest and most pertinent example.

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