At its heart, golf is a simple game. Not easy, but simple: Tee it up, swing away, and whoever reaches the pin in the fewest strokes wins. Everyone is equal standing on the first tee.
But simplicity and equality don’t fit in the worldview of professional golf. Power and profitability rule the sport at its highest levels, and if that means the game suffers … too bad, so sad.
Jon Rahm announced Thursday that he’s leaving the PGA Tour for LIV Golf, the Saudi-funded breakaway tour that’s now taking huge chunks out of the Tour’s hide. There will be gloating on the LIV side, wailing on the Tour side. LIV will view Rahm as a conquering hero; the Tour will brand him a money-hungry traitor.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. The truth is also this: A great day for Rahm and LIV Golf is a terrible day for golf fans.
Certainly, this is one of the most important days in Rahm’s life. He has signed a deal that will guarantee his great-great-grandchildren a comfortable existence. He has managed to protect himself at a time when the entire sport seems to be, if not crumbling, at the very least creaking on its foundations. He looked out for himself, and he made the judgment that throwing in with LIV was a better option than riding with the PGA Tour. That’s a warning sign glowing bright red in itself, one that surely has the Tour in a head-for-the-bomb-shelters panic.
At 29 and in the prime of his career, Rahm stands as one of the finest players in the world, a charismatic lumberjack whose eloquence and emotion make him a better ambassador for the game than a dozen of the anonymous, country-club-raised types that populate the PGA Tour. He’s the defending Masters champion, a U.S. Open champion and a Ryder Cup icon.
Rahm has no need to worry about LIV's inability to get Official World Golf Ranking points for its tournaments; he has a permanent exemption into the Masters, a 10-year exemption into the U.S. Open and five years for the PGA Championship and Open Championship. But every PGA Tour event he misses, from The Players to the FedEx Cup to an early-season tune-up, is that much worse off without his presence.
If all of golf's present talk of hundreds of millions of dollars, world ranking points, elevated events and breakaway tours makes your eyes start to glaze … well, that’s the heart of the problem. All the entities involved here are clinging so fiercely to their own fiefdoms and their own players — and spending ungodly amounts of money to do so — that the sport risks crumbling under the weight of its own greed and desperation.
Golf is rapidly transforming into tennis, in which the only events that break through into the national sporting consciousness are the four Grand Slams: Wimbledon and the U.S., Australian and French Opens. In the same vein, the majors — The Masters, the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship and the Open Championship — will be the only times golf fans can see the best in the game gathered together on the same course, the same leaderboard.
Golf’s current trajectory isn’t sustainable. The PGA Tour doesn’t have the financial resources to compete with the Saudi Public Investment Fund, and LIV Golf hasn’t yet shown that it can attract the interest of more than a tiny fraction of golf fans. The whole of golf is so much more than the sum of its fractured parts, and LIV and the PGA Tour are spinning in ever-tighter, ever-more-costly circles.
Maybe Rahm’s departure will spur a wave of new LIV signees who bolster the breakaway tour’s presence. Maybe this will inspire the Tour and LIV Golf to come together, execute their agreement and find a way to allow players to move back and forth between the tours, for the good of the game and its fans.
Or maybe it will all collapse into two bickering, sniping camps, each with its own array of social media shock troops and zealots, with nothing achieved but acrimony and nothing gained but billable hours. Golf is a niche sport as it is; subdividing it still further risks shattering the sport’s value entirely.
At its heart, golf is a simple game, one of the finest in the world. But if the best aren’t sharing the same course, there’s no true winner … and an entire sport full of losers.