Jon Rahm has been saying that he plays golf for history and for legacy, not for money. And now he’s playing for the Saudi-funded LIV Golf League in a shocking departure from the PGA Tour.
AP Golf Writer
A week of speculation on social media ended with Rahm in a jacket — not the green jacket he won at the Masters this year but a black letterman’s jacket with LIV Golf across the front — as he discussed reasons for bolting during an appearance on Fox News.
“I think the innovation and the vision of LIV Golf is what pushed me over to at least give it a chance and hear the pitch,” Rahm said in an interview with LIV broadcaster David Feherty. “Ultimately, it ended up being what I wanted to hear.”
Rahm wasn’t sharing details, but it’s a lot. Various reports put it in the neighborhood of $500 million, which includes equity in his new team. Consider the entire prize fund on the PGA Tour in 2023 was about $460 million.
This creates as many questions as answers, from who Rahm brings with him to how it affects the PGA Tour’s negotiations with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund on a commercial deal.
How Important Is This to LIV Golf?
Rahm is the Masters champion, currently No. 3 in the world and has 20 victories in his seven full years as a pro. He is the biggest catch for LIV since it began in 2022.
One of the knocks on LIV was that so many of its big names were in the twilights of their careers. Rahm is just coming into his prime, and seven of the last 14 major championship winners now are with LIV — Rahm, Brooks Koepka, Cameron Smith, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau.
LIV players have won at least one major every year since 2015. Rahm gives the roster a major boost, and with a new team, that creates openings for more players to defect.
Rahm, Koepka and Rory McIlroy were the first players to denounce the idea of a Saudi-funded rival league even before LIV Golf was established. Since then, Rahm has spoken about his loyalty to the PGA Tour, how money doesn’t motivate him and as recently as August, he said he “laughs” when he hears rumors about him going to LIV.
Look back to June 6, when the PGA Tour went from battling LIV Golf to a shocking announcement of its private deal to partner with the Public Investment Fund, the financial backers of LIV. Rahm said a week later, “I think the general feeling is that a lot of people feel a bit of betrayal from management.”
If the PGA Tour was willing to do business with the Saudis, it raises a natural question: Is there any problem with a PGA Tour star joining them?
“Obviously, the past two years there’s been a lot of evolving on the game of golf, things have changed a lot and so have I,” Rahm said.
Rahm is certain to lose fans over this, as have most marquee players who have gone to LIV. He said he has heard negativity before and it’s part of the business.
Wasn’t There an Agreement to Not Recruit Players?
There was, but not for long. The framework agreement had a non-solicitation clause in which all sides agreed not to poach players. Just over a month later, they rescinded that clause on a request from the Justice Department over antitrust concerns.
That didn’t seem to be a problem for the tour back then.
The tour said in July, “While we believe the language is lawful, we also consider it unnecessary in the spirit of cooperation and because all parties are negotiating in good faith.”
That no longer would seem to be the case.
What Does This Mean for the PGA Tour?
For starters, the PGA Tour has lost more market shares — in the case of Rahm, a big one.
It also can’t help the tour in its the race to reach a final agreement on the commercial deal with PIF and the European tour. PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan had said he would be meeting this week with Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the PIF governor. That meeting had already been pushed back to next week, and its status is uncertain.
The tour has said it was narrowing down the list of U.S.-based private equity firms that wanted in on the deal. If PIF saw that as the PGA Tour having leverage, now the Saudis have big leverage in being able to snag one of golf’s biggest stars.
One player who might benefit from this is Mackenzie Hughes. He finished 51st in the FedEx Cup. With Rahm not having PGA Tour membership next year, the tour is likely to remove him from the list, that would bump Hughes to No. 50 and make him eligible for the $20 million signature events in 2024. It also would move Carl Yuan to No. 125 to keep a full tour card.
What Does This Mean for Rahm?
He’s a lot richer. His career earnings on the PGA Tour were at $51.5 million and he’ll be getting somewhere around 10 times that much (the length of the LIV deal was not disclosed).
As Masters champion, he can play for life. He has a 10-year exemption to the U.S. Open as a champion (through 2031), and he has five-year exemptions to the PGA Championship and the British Open.
Still to be determined is the Ryder Cup. The European tour is in charge of its team, and no European from LIV was on the team this year that won in Rome. McIlroy said in a Sky Sports interview that Europe would need to change the rules to get Rahm on the team for 2025.
There’s also the possibility of Rahm keeping his European tour membership and paying fines for the tournaments he plays in LIV Golf. He can probably afford it.