There has long been a perceived problem with too many alpha males in golf’s most prominent circles. Rory McIlroy has admitted even he defers to Tiger Woods when adult discussion is required. McIlroy’s long-time position as the unofficial shop steward for the PGA Tour as LIV’s threat hovered meant others sought counsel from him.
Jon Rahm has never been the type to be backwards in coming forwards, which inevitably would probably grate as others in the locker room came across in a more statesmanlike way during golf’s never-ending civil war. Rahm has an ego. The way for him to usurp his peers – or even Woods, arguably the best player of all time – has always been plain: beat them.
Two major wins is half McIlroy’s tally. Woods claimed 15. Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth have outperformed Rahm on golf’s biggest stages. If Rahm has objected to the headlines generated by McIlroy and Woods in particular, this serves as the kind of grudge golfers can use to their own huge advantage within the ropes.
Instead, Rahm now resembles little more than a pawn in Saudi Arabia’s dubious dance on the fairways. His switch to LIV – which was confirmed by the Spaniard on Thursday, with accompanying photos posing with Greg Norman – comes at a time when the PGA Tour is seeking to close a deal with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, ostensibly by 31 December.
The necessity for that deal to happen, against the backdrop of alternatives, has only increased now LIV has demonstrated it can pinch another marquee player from the PGA Tour. The deal will be typically nonsensical in business terms, at anywhere from $300m (£240m) to $600m. It serves as a reminder to golf’s establishment that the Saudi investors are of no mind either to go away or be messed about. That Woods has spoken of “options” on the PGA Tour’s business table will have raised eyebrows in Riyadh.
It is fair to assume there cannot be many more exorbitant LIV deals left. Rahm struck while the commercial iron was red hot. His closeness to Phil Mickelson and, to a lesser extent, Sergio García always made this switch to LIV feasible. The rebel tour needs the kind of mainstream relevance it continues to struggle for in the UK and US, especially.
However, Rahm’s flip is tricky because of his previously stated position, more than once. He will be accused of gross hypocrisy. “I laugh when people rumour me with LIV,” the Spaniard told a podcast in his homeland a matter of months ago. “I never liked the format.”
Rahm had “officially declared” for the PGA Tour in early 2022. Later the same year, he stringently insisted money was irrelevant to him. “I play for the love of the game.” He has always seemed one of the sport’s great traditionalists, inspired by the legacy of Seve Ballesteros.
Indeed, money cannot matter to Rahm. His Masters triumph in April cemented his place in the upper echelon of golf’s top earners. He could have blundered through the rest of his career – an unlikely prospect – and still have tens if not hundreds of millions to fall back upon.
Rahm will inevitably claim this is about far more than dollar signs. People are entitled to change their mind. Like Cameron Smith, he has recent major success that guarantees various elements of future participation. On a Ryder Cup Europe player group chat hailing the reappointment of Luke Donald as captain, Rahm told his teammates he would be back in position at Bethpage in 2025. He must surely have confidence relating not only to his own continuing performance but that golf will have aligned to the extent that he will not be denied participation. Donald was hired as the captain because Henrik Stenson flipped to LIV, meaning it would be a tad awkward if Rahm is shoehorned back into the team.
In his defence, Rahm was scathing about the manner in which the PGA Tour completed a framework agreement with PIF in June. The 29-year-old said he had lost trust in the PGA Tour’s leadership due to the secret manner in which the deal was established. This is hardly isolated sentiment; it will be a shock if Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour’s commissioner, remains in position as the sport moves into a new era.
What on earth that looks like is unclear. McIlroy, Rahm and Woods – fitness permitting – will square off in the Masters in April. Around that, the Saudi investors continue to flex muscles and golf’s limited audience has eyeballs pulled in all directions. Rahm is the cause of nothing but his switch is instead symptomatic of a chaotic scene in the sport.
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