Sunday, June 23

What Jon Rahm’s shocking move to LIV means for golf’s future

This is the moment it all becomes normal. When it’s no longer a spectacle, controversial, or even taboo. When it’s not about right or wrong or strong opinions or sticking it to the man. Jon Rahm’s move to LIV Golf is imminent, and it feels like the final confirmation that this is simply the way things are. This is what the golf world is going to be.

Because this is not somebody chasing a payday like Dustin Johnson or Brooks Koepka. And it’s not a pariah spurning the PGA Tour like Phil Mickelson.

This is a golf nerd. An obsessive. A 29-year-old golf history buff who rises at 6 a.m. before the kids are up to rewatch tournaments on YouTube, who pesters golfers during rounds to learn more about famous shots they’ve hit, who reveres his Spanish childhood idols like Seve Ballasteros and Jose Maria Olazabal. It’s the same person who shut down LIV rumors in Summer 2022 by saying he and his wife agreed LIV money wouldn’t change their lives at all. “I’ve always been very interested in history and legacy,” Rahm said, “and right now the PGA Tour has that.”

Right now. That, in retrospect, was the key choice of words.

The moment Jay Monahan and the PGA Tour went behind the players’ backs and made a deal with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (the financiers of LIV), it changed the calculus. Yes, in the short term, it ended the countless lawsuits and it put a temporary halt on LIV poaching players. But it also had two other unintended consequences. One, it led to players losing their trust in Monahan, which he’s unlikely to ever get back. But the less discussed outcome is what might have brought us to this moment: making a deal with PIF normalized it. And removing that taboo might have removed the PGA Tour’s best defense.

Let’s go back a bit. You might be thinking, “Aren’t the PGA Tour and PIF working toward a deal? Why is LIV still poaching players?” That’s a key question. The June 6 framework agreement set a deadline of Dec. 31 to pursue a deal in good faith. The detail that’s difficult to know from the outside is how good that faith is and if they’re at all close to a deal. As far back as October, The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn reported sources on both sides were doubtful of a deal happening. And it’s been no secret the PGA Tour has been talking with other investors as contingency plans if it loses the billions of dollars of Saudi funding (although some reports claim those investors could be in addition to PIF).

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So why snag Rahm? Why now? One could take it as LIV understanding a deal might not happen and it needs to continue to grow its product. That is the simplest reasoning, and landing the reigning Masters champ and No. 3 player in the world is by far the biggest attraction yet. One worth a reported $566 million, according to The Telegraph. LIV has landed some all-time greats like Mickelson and Johnson. And it’s landed some current stars like Koepka and Cameron Smith. But depending on your opinion, Rahm might be the actual best player in the world, and he’s right in his prime.


Jon Rahm, left, has joined Brooks Koepka as PGA Tour stars to join LIV. (Andrew Redington / Getty Images)

The other theory is that this is a bargaining chip. A massive, daunting bargaining chip. The PGA Tour has the leverage of courting other investors, already owning the huge TV deals and all the relationships with sponsors that LIV craves. LIV’s best leverage in negotiations might be taking superstars like Rahm, among others, and forcing the PGA Tour back to the table for substantial negotiations. Want your star back? Make a deal. Monahan and PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan are scheduled to meet this week for negotiations, and maybe in a month we’ll all look back on this as the dramatic move that brought golf together. Maybe, just maybe.

But being naive is how the PGA Tour got itself in such a troubled position in the first place, so for the sake of conversation let’s assume Rahm just left the PGA Tour and the war is back on indefinitely.

This one hits the tour in a far deeper, more troubling way. It’s somebody who famously once declared “my fealty to the PGA Tour” and supported Monahan just three months ago now taking stock of the situation and saying he thinks this is the better choice for his career. It’s so, so different. Because it’s no longer this taboo, polarizing choice that shocks the world. Rahm just thought it was the better move, and that means he won’t be the last.

Maybe his Masters win changed things. Rahm is such a legacy guy. And now Rahm has a lifetime exemption to the Masters. His 2021 U.S. Open win gets him into that major through 2031, and he has four more years of exemptions to the PGA Championship and Open Championship. So he’s still set for the next 16 majors, at least, and I’m sure he assumes things will change by 2027 to ensure LIV players get better OWGR standing.

It might have to. Because this might be the final straw in accepting we live in a world with two major golf leagues. If we were being truly honest with ourselves, the PGA Tour still owned the golf landscape through 2023. It had all the best young players and the top three or four in the world, and sure it was a bummer that Koepka, Johnson, Smith and so on weren’t around every week, but we still saw them at the majors and it never really felt like too much of an issue. Rahm (and whoever else now defects) moves us closer to two watered-down leagues. That is bad for everyone.

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I’d rather LIV be a good product. Eventually, I accepted defeat on my moral high ground and said I’d like to be able to watch Smith and Koepka, two golfers I greatly appreciate. As of now, LIV is a really poor product, from courses to presentation to the actual golf. Early reports of Rahm’s potential departure said Rahm wanted assurances LIV would alter its format. It’s unclear if that is at all on the table, but OWGR isn’t budging on not giving points to a league that plays an entire round less than the others. Maybe this all moves LIV toward being a better product.

But the mere fact we’re even discussing wanting LIV to be better, the reality that we are thinking about two leagues and accepting their coexistence just returns us to the real point. Joining LIV is no longer scandalous. It won’t get you canceled. It’s just one more drop in the slow drip of the new normal.

In August Rahm was asked the one change he’d most like to see on the PGA Tour. It wasn’t some big-picture issue, the kind that makes people leave. It wasn’t money, branding or format.

“I know this is going to sound very stupid,” Rahm said, “but as simple as having a freaking Port-a-Potty on every hole. I know it sounds crazy, but I can’t choose when I have to go to the bathroom.”

Rahm wasn’t trying to run away from the PGA Tour. He just was ready to go to LIV, and you can’t help but think it leaves all of golf stuck in it.

(Top photo: Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images)