In many ways, Jon Rahm’s official defection from the PGA Tour to Saudi-backed LIV Golf feels like the beginning of the end.
Rahm is the biggest get so far for LIV, a golfing headliner in his prime, an individual player famous enough, good enough, and perhaps even influential enough to move the needle unlike those before him, to change the calculus for fellow formerly avowed PGA loyalists and thus change golf as we know it.
Or maybe this is just the end of the beginning, the final nail in the idea this was ever going to be a battle over moral outrage and Saudi sportswashing and a simple tale of new opportunities and mind-numbing money. Rahm’s long-rumored move closes this first chapter of performative acrimony.
Now we find out what the endgame for golf really is, whether the Fenway Sports Group-led Strategic Sports Group can help rescue the PGA from itself, infusing the current Tour with the same level of cash and cache that the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) has done for LIV. Sunday’s announcement by the PGA Tour Policy Board that they’d chosen the large consortium that includes the Fenway Group and owners of other franchises in all five major US sports is just the latest reminder of how unmoored golf is right now, from players on the ground all the way to the highest levels.
In every direction, there is disarray, caused not just by warring factions and rival tours. The game is imperiled by fan disinterest, player dissatisfaction, and leadership dysfunction.
PGA commissioner Jay Monahan and LIV moneyman Yasir Al-Rumayyan face a year-end deadline to fill in the framework of their June 6 agreement to bring Rumayyan’s bulging PIF bankroll into the PGA coffers, but with LIV already breaking an initial promise not to poach more players (an element removed from the original agreement on the urging of the Department of Justice), it remains to be seen if the Rahm signing was a bargaining ploy to move negotiations closer to conclusion or something more sinister, a reminder that the only thing worse than LIV as an ally is LIV as an enemy.
The PGA’s capitulation of their moral high ground took that initial argument off the table and is the reason why debate over whether Rahm should have gone to LIV feels moot. Those of us disappointed in his about-face are entitled to our personal levels of disgust or sadness just the same as those who applaud or understand his decision as impossible-to-ignore life-changing money are entitled to theirs.
Either way, Rahm’s announcement last week that he was signing with the breakaway league for somewhere north of $300 million was a seismic jolt, thrusting what had been a relatively dormant conversation back into the spotlight. Wounds that may have appeared to be healing were opened once again, with Rahm, the man who not long ago derided LIV for everything from its format to its level of competition, the man who vowed fealty to the PGA for everything from its tradition to its legacy, doing the damage.
His U-turn is tough to take, with press conference insistences he is suddenly so eager to grow the game particularly galling in their hypocrisy, and ongoing rumors that Tony Finau and Tyrrell Hatton are going to join his team also unpalatable given Rahm’s previous disdain for the team-play format.
Yet reserving the latest outrage only for Rahm excuses the poor leadership of the PGA. Caught in a reactive pose for so long, focused instead on rolling back distance on the golf ball or alienating sponsors by catering to the financial demands of the highest tier of golfers, Monahan and his crew have so much to answer for.
Worst of all, of course, was the stunning June 6 announcement they were going into business with LIV. Doing so without having involved player opinion or input at all, it was a move so reactive and desperate it led staunch Tour supporter Rory McIlroy to leave his position on the player council, more than enough evidence to show how much the PGA lost the trust of its players.
It’s hard to believe how poorly all of this reflects on the PGA, how wrong they were to ignore the complaints of players like LIV provocateur Phil Mickelson over the years, never listening to legitimate desires for transparency about profits from something as simple as a player’s own image and likeness.
Mickelson did everything wrong in his public posturing, from condoning the human rights atrocities of the Saudi government as nothing more than the price of doing business to a disingenuous belief that LIV’s three-day, 54-hole, no-cut, shotgun-start format is comparable to the PGA’s traditional, and far superior, competitive format. But on the need for change, he was not wrong.
But on we go, with both entities still fighting for the same eyeballs, a battle the PGA wins easily on American soil and televisions — and relatively handily across the globe, as well — but one LIV is obviously willing to keep on waging with its endless pile of cash.
As usual, fans are the ultimate losers. We’ll still tune in for the majors — at least for now, that is the only time all of the best players will be in one place. Rahm’s exit was made so much smoother by his current status in the game, reigning Masters champ with a guaranteed spot in that field for life, US Open winner with entry into the other three majors for at least the next five years. The same is true to varying extents for Mickelson, Cameron Smith, Brooks Koepka, and Dustin Johnson.
But that too will fade, especially if LIV does not get the world ranking points it desperately craves (but as of yet, can’t buy). And who knows what becomes of the Ryder Cup.
Really, who knows what becomes of golf.