Jon Rahm’s LIV defection is the ultimate Saudi power play in pivotal PGA Tour talks

The worst kept secret in golf is finally out. Jon Rahm has turned his back on the PGA Tour and joined LIV Golf, signing a contract thought to be worth as much as £450m with the Saudi league. Fervid rumours had been allowed to grow and spread for weeks, unanswered by Rahm or his camp, and the silence was deafening, so it was no great surprise when LIV finally announced its biggest coup yet, a signing bigger even than poaching Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka or Cameron Smith.

It is an aggressive move, and a seismic moment for the game. Rahm is the first European giant to go. He is the reigning Masters champion and among the four best players in the world. He was the Saudis’ top realistic target, given how vigorously Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy had denigrated LIV and ruled themselves out of a move.

It is a giant blow to the PGA Tour, not only because Rahm’s exit weakens the quality and attraction of its prize events, but because of what it symbolises: an almighty power play ahead of pivotal peace talks between PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and the governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment fund, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, to shape the future of golf.

Many onlookers inferred from their bombshell unification announcement in June that there would no longer be this aggressive hunting of PGA stars, that LIV might even be shut down, with the PIF instead agreeing to throw its weight behind golf’s traditional tours. But what is clear from the Saudis’ luxury signing of Rahm is that they intend to keep their rebel tour alive and kicking, at least for now.

You can see why Rahm might think that taking an eye-watering paycheque to play for the Crushers or Fireballs for a year or two is worth the pain of walking away from some prestigious PGA events and any knock-on damage to his reputation, having previously declared his loyalty to the PGA Tour. Given Monahan’s stated goal to unify the game, Rahm might even be welcomed back in time to be eligible for the next Ryder Cup, in New York in 2025.

Rahm said he wasn’t moving for the money, and pointed out that he didn’t need the money, but he also hinted that it was, really, about the money.

“Things have changed a lot in the game of golf over the past two years and I’ve seen the growth of LIV Golf and the innovation,” he told Fox News. “That’s why I’m here today. This decision was made for many reasons and what I thought was best for me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great deal.

“I’ve been very happy but there is a lot of things that LIV Golf has to offer that were very enticing. It was a great offer. The money is great, obviously it’s wonderful. What I said before is true: I do not play golf for the money. I play golf for the love of the game and for the love of golf. But, as a husband, as a father and as a family man I have a duty to my family to give them the best opportunities and the most amount of resources possible and that is where that comes in.”

Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Bryson De Chambeau are three of LIV’s biggest stars (Getty Images)
Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Bryson De Chambeau are three of LIV’s biggest stars (Getty Images)

Even those supposedly in the know don’t know what will happen next. Tiger Woods is at the heart of negotiations between the PGA Tour, the DP Tour and PIF, and had said he’d be surprised if Rahm was jumping ship. Jordan Spieth, who recently joined Woods on the PGA Tour’s policy board following Rory McIlroy’s resignation, had said Rahm’s exit “would really not be very good for us”.

“Rahm is one of the biggest assets that we have on the PGA Tour,” Spieth said. “I know there’s been some guys that have talked to him. I know he’s maybe weighing some decisions … I could speak probably on behalf of 200-plus PGA Tour players in saying that we really hope that he’s continuing with us.”

But he is not, and the Saudi onslaught on sport continues unabated. The country has made numerous statements made over the past few years, from securing a race on the F1 calendar to signing Cristiano Ronaldo to its ambitious football project. Rahm is another bold win: an elite athlete at the very top of his game, lured away from a fragile PGA Tour.

As Ernie Els said this week: “I don’t know exactly what the PIF stands for now and what their goal is here with golf. I know they have a s***load of money, but something has to give now.”

Ahead of the deadline for a decision on 31 December, there is still no clarity on how the merger will work in practice. One of the many sticking points is how to reintegrate LIV rebels into the PGA Tour after they either resigned or were barred following their defection, and Rahm is now one of them. It is a delicate time, and his move to switch sides only strengthens the Saudi hand.

“Everything is now at a time crunch,” Woods said of the talks. “It’s 24 hours a day just trying to figure it out. Part of the deal we’re working on [is] trying to find a pathway [for LIV rebels], whatever that looks like. There’s so many different scenarios and a lot of sleepless hours trying to figure that out and what it looks like.”