It's not about the money: Jon Rahm criticizes emphasis on tournaments' paychecks

"We're not thinking if we miss a putt how much it's going to cost us money-wise," Rahm said. But everyone else is thinking exactly that.

Jon Rahm prefers to play events like this week's Tour Championship for the trophy, not the money. That's true even when the grand prize is a massive $18 million. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
Jon Rahm prefers to play events like this week's Tour Championship for the trophy, not the money. That's true even when the grand prize is a massive $18 million. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

ATLANTA — The last-place finisher at this year’s Tour Championship will earn more for four days’ work than the average American will earn in eight years. The winner will take home more than the average American could earn in multiple lifetimes.

The money in golf now has reached staggering, incomprehensible levels. It’s like trying to figure out the size of a blossoming firework in the sky; you know it’s big, but you can’t even imagine how big.

This weekend, as the challengers for the FedEx Cup come into focus, TV viewers will hear about the vast riches that await the winner — $18 million — as well as the stunning cost for finishing even one or two strokes back. To Jon Rahm, who is very much in the mix for that vast sum, the emphasis on money is exactly the wrong approach, both for golf as a sport and for the mindset of players trying to achieve greatness.

“It's one of my pet peeves when they make this tournament all about money,” Rahm said Friday, “because I think it takes away from it.”

The “they” in this case could be the media, or it could be the PGA Tour itself, which has continued to throw zeroes onto the end of its purses to maintain already-wealthy players’ attention. The tour is in the awkward position of maintaining the day-to-day operations of professional golf while having no direct association with the sport’s four crown jewels. Winning a major is a career achievement; winning the FedEx Cup playoffs doesn’t quite carry the same cachet.

Rahm implied as much when he discussed the value of victories versus paychecks. “When you win a green jacket, I can tell you right now that any major champion this year might not remember how much money they made,” he said. “And that's the beauty about this game and I think that's kind of how it should be.”

“Everyone makes it about the money. But I really don't care,” Collin Morikawa said. “I would play these tournaments because I want to play against the best guys in the world. I want to win. And whether you get a dollar out of it or 10 million dollars out of it, a win's a win … People don't understand how good it feels. That's what you dream of. That's what you desire to do. That's what you want to do. That's why you practice.”

The arrival of LIV Golf and its life-altering paychecks further tilted the balance of professional golf away from “victory for its own sake” and toward “show me the money.” LIV’s promise of no-cut tournaments with $4 million in prize money awaiting the winner lured away plenty of players. Some couched their decision to leave the PGA Tour as a protest of the Tour’s operations; others were more direct.

“I don’t care what anyone says,” LIV player Harold Varner III told the Washington Post earlier this year. “It’s about the damn money.”

No tournament on the PGA Tour — in fact, in all of golf — is more about the damn money than the Tour Championship. After that $18 million first prize, the purse drops off substantially. Finishing second in the FedEx Cup earns a paycheck of $6.5 million; finishing third, $5 million. They’re both staggering sums, but considering how tightly the field is bunched heading into the weekend, we could be looking at a situation where a single missed putt could be worth more than $10 million.

Rahm insists, though, that the what-ifs don’t enter into his mind: “We're not thinking, if we miss a putt, how much it's going to cost us money-wise. No chance. Like, none whatsoever. You're trying to finish as high as possible. You're trying to win a tournament.”

Both Rahm and Morikawa conceded that they’ve had the luxury of not having to worry about money at all. Rahm drew interest from sponsors before he won his first pro tournament, and Morikawa won so quickly in his career that he vaulted right past the kind of financial concerns that bedevil players further down the leaderboard … as well as, you know, most of the viewing audience.

Still, to Rahm, there’s a cost to the obsession with money. “If you want to be a great player,” he said, “you're going to have to go for the win instead of thinking about your bank account.”