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Jon Rahm joins LIV Golf, a major blow to the PGA Tour

Jon Rahm joins LIV Golf, a major blow to the PGA Tour

Jon Rahm, the world’s third-ranked player and the reigning Masters champion, will join LIV Golf next season, a move that robs the PGA Tour of one its biggest draws and promises to light a new fire under the rivalry between the competing golf circuits.

The news could have major ramifications for the relationship between the PGA Tour and the Saudi Public Investment Fund, which owns LIV Golf. The two parties reached a preliminary agreement to join forces six months ago but have yet to reach final terms. In their initial agreement, LIV Golf promised not to poach PGA Tour talent, but the two sides dropped that provision in July at the urging of the Justice Department, which raised concerns that non-solicitation language would stifle competition.

Rahm is the first tour player to join LIV Golf since the two sides dropped their litigation against each other in June and agreed to partner, and his signing could signal that the doors are open for other tour players to follow suit. Terms of Rahm’s deal were not immediately known, though some of LIV’s other marquee players signed contracts that guaranteed nine-figure paydays. Many of the original LIV players came under withering criticism for taking Saudi money, although that argument was diluted by the PGA Tour’s subsequent agreement.

“Every decision that we make in life there will be somebody who agrees and likes it and somebody who doesn’t, right?” Rahm told reporters in a conference call Thursday afternoon. “I made this decision because I believe it’s the best for me and my family.” Asked later whether money was the key driver of his decision, Rahm said: “It’s one of the reasons, yeah. I mean, I’m not going to sit here and lie to you. It’s definitely one of the reasons.”

Unlike some of the other big names LIV lured away from the tour, many of whom were later in their careers, Rahm is at the peak of his game. The 29-year old Spaniard won the Masters in April, finished second at the British Open in July and helped the European team capture the Ryder Cup in October. He won three other tour events last season, giving him 11 in his career. Rahm will become the 14th major winner to make the LIV leap, joining past major champions such as Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Cameron Smith and Brooks Koepka.

Though he pledged his loyalty to the PGA Tour on many occasions, Rahm long had been rumored as a LIV target. He was critical of the tour’s season-ending FedEx Cup championship format and, like many golfers, wasn’t pleased that tour officials negotiated with the Saudi PIF without the input of players.

Speaking at the U.S. Open in June, Rahm said “you want to have faith in management” but that “a lot of people feel a bit of betrayal.”

“It’s just not easy as a player that’s been involved, like many others, to wake up one day and see this bombshell,” he said then.

But he had also made clear that he would remain loyal to the tour and did not like LIV’s format. He’s said the 54-hole, no-cut competition “is not a golf tournament. … It’s that simple.”

“I want to play against the best in the world in a format that’s been going on for hundreds of years. That’s what I want to see,” Rahm said in June 2022. “Yeah, money is great, but when [his wife] Kelley and I … we started talking about it, and we’re like, ‘Will our lifestyle change if I got $400 million?’ No, it will not change one bit.

“Truth be told, I could retire right now with what I’ve made and live a very happy life and not play golf again,” he continued. “So I’ve never really played the game of golf for monetary reasons. I play for the love of the game, and I want to play against the best in the world. I’ve always been interested in history and legacy, and right now the PGA Tour has that.”

“My heart is with the PGA Tour,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”

On Thursday, Rahm said he was “forever grateful for the PGA Tour and the platform that they’ve allowed me to be on. I have nothing bad to say about them. … This is just more about me and what I believe is best for my career and my chance to maybe make a mark.” Asked later how his decision will impact the PGA Tour, Rahm said, “I really haven’t thought about it.”

Losing Rahm will be viewed by much of the golf world as the single biggest blow the PGA Tour’s roster of talent has suffered to date and threatens to impact the ongoing negotiations with the Saudis. Though the two sides agreed to drop the non-recruitment provision, there was a basic understanding that they would continue negotiating in good faith, according to people familiar with the talks.

“Our focus remains on the PGA Tour and unifying the game for our fans and players,” a PGA Tour spokesman said Thursday. “We can’t speak for decisions that any individual players might make, but … we are in position to make our players equity owners and further allow the Tour to invest in our members, invest in our fans and continue to lead men’s professional golf forward.”

Recent efforts by LIV officials to recruit other PGA Tour players has ruffled feathers among tour executives, but they still have been working toward a final agreement.

“I’m not sure specifically how it would impact those negotiations, but all in all, Jon Rahm is one of the biggest assets that we have on the PGA Tour,” golfer Jordan Spieth, a member of the tour’s policy board, said last week. “So it would be a really — really not very good for us in general because we want to play against the best players in the world and that’s what Jon is.”

PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan had planned to meet this week with Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of the Saudi PIF, to continue negotiations, but that meeting was pushed back. While the PGA Tour has also been in talks with other investors to help form a new entity that would oversee the tour’s commercial efforts, Monahan said last week he remained hopeful the tour would soon agree to final terms with the PIF. The two sides face a Dec. 31 deadline but could push that target back into next year.

“We’re having conversations with multiple parties,” Monahan said last week, speaking at the New York Times DealBook Summit. “The deadline for our conversations with PIF, as you know, is a firm target. I’ll be with Yasir next week. And we continue to advance our conversations. And I think it’s pretty well known that there’s a large number of other interested parties that we’re also pushing to think about.”

Rahm’s move is sure to cause waves among PGA Tour players, many of whom were upset that their loyalty to the tour hasn’t been properly recognized or rewarded. The tour is still discussing how it might welcome back LIV players and what kind of punishment or levies would be necessary.

“That’s part of the deal we’re working through is trying to find a path, whatever that looks like,” Tiger Woods, a member of the tour’s policy board, said last week. “There’s so many different scenarios.”

LIV already has 12 teams and 12 team captains. Rahm will captain his own squad, and his compensation package was expected to include equity in the new team, although details weren’t immediately available and Rahm declined to address the topic. If those plans are followed, though, it would mean that in addition to paying for the Spaniard’s services, LIV is also prepared to spend millions more to fill out a 13th roster, all players that will probably be handpicked by Rahm.

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