North coast favourite Jon Rahm harbours hopes that 'home' comforts can fuel bid for Open glory
Jon Rahm frequently describes Ireland as his 'hogar lejos del hogar'.
His home away from home.
While he hasn't used those exact words, he may as well have, because this is a man who has fallen in love with Ireland like no other golfer has that hasn't hailed from these shores themselves.
It's a love affair that began with an unforgettable Irish Open victory at Portstewart back in 2017, followed by a near improbable run at defending his title at Ballyliffin last year, culminating in him winning a second Irish Open at Lahinch earlier this month.
Some golfers do feel a connection with places. Rory McIlroy makes no secret of his love for Quail Hollow as the site of his first PGA Tour victory. Whether picking up a Green Jacket or dumping two balls in the water at the 12th, Jordan Spieth adores Augusta.
But for Rahm, his love of Ireland is not one of golf. It is one of belonging in a place he never thought he'd find it.
He's beloved in his native Spain, obviously. His stardom is ever growing in the USA, where he was a collegiate star. But to forge a passionate following in a country he had no previous ties to takes some doing, and that's the key.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
In 2017, he went beyond just competing at Portstewart, he embraced his new surroundings. He stayed in the middle of Portrush and found a favoured haunt in the Harbour Bistro, both for its warm setting and delicious offerings.
"We were staying in Kerr Street, so we were in walking distance, and it was good," explains the World No.8, speaking exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph.
"Out of seven nights, we went for six nights to the Harbour Bistro, one night we went to Bushmills.
"I met the owner and became good friends with him so we got the same table and it was easy. I happened to play good in that event, so it was easier to shower and then walk down there."
Sure, winning makes everything a lot sweeter, including your perception of the location, the people and the experience. But at the same time, that's never a guarantee.
What Rahm has found in Ireland has transcended that. Once his title defence had come to an end at Ballyliffin last year, he could have turned his back on the Irish Open and decided that was that. Instead, he was back at Lahinch this year with a renewed desire to make it two from two.
Off the course he's struck a chord too, in a good way. In the clubhouse at Portstewart Golf Club there is a proudly framed letter from Rahm to his hosts that winning week thanking them for his kind hospitality and a wonderful tournament.
An unnecessary touch of class, not to be forgotten.
So when it comes to this week, how will he approach it? With the same mindset as that Irish Open win two years ago or with a more guarded thought process given the additional magnitude of a Major?
He's been back to his favourite eatery in the meantime, his usual table was reserved on Sunday night and he gladly took up the offer. Whether he'll be back or not is another question.
- Morelli's must wait as in-demand Francesco Molinari gears up for Open defence at Royal Portrush
- The Open tee-times: Rory McIlroy to play with US Open champion at Royal Portrush while Tiger Woods joins Reed
- 'That's hard': Tiger Woods and PGA Tour stars give first impressions of infamous Calamity and Royal Portrush ahead of The Open
- From Portrush crowds to Tiger Woods: 10 things to look out for at The Open
"I don't know, it's busy, it's hard to get in places and we're not in walking distance so I don't know," he admits.
"I think we'll make a stop at Bushmills some time this week, it depends how busy everything is - obviously it's a little bit harder to get into places.
"We'll probably be in (the Harbour Bistro) again at some point."
Rest assured, however, Rahm is settled here. After winning at Lahinch, the 24-year-old Spaniard immediately came north with girlfriend Kelly and fellow countryman Rafa Cabrera Bello for a practice round on the Dunluce links.
He hasn't left since, he's felt no need to. The people here have taken to him just as much as he's taken to them and, as a consequence, he will have one of the largest followings at Royal Portrush this week.
One of the reasons why was highlighted very well just before he took the time to speak to me following his practice round.
Despite having just completed 18 holes, Rahm spent a long time signing autographs for kids by the 18th green, not content until the ever-growing line had finally dissipated and he was able to walk away without leaving anyone disappointed.
Come Sunday, he could easily be walking off that green with something more than just a sharpie in his hands, and there would be few who would begrudge him that as well, that's for sure.
An imperious links player and just as comfortable driving along that coast road than any of McIlroy, McDowell or Clarke, he's dialled in and ready to go.
Rahm cracks a smile when asked if there's anything he hasn't done yet in Northern Ireland that he'd maybe like to do before he leaves on Monday - knowing that I'm not talking about the golf.
"Win an Open Championship," he replies before flashing a wide grin.
Where better to do it than his hogar lejos del hogar.
Belfast Telegraph Digital