June 16, 2024

The obscene sums doled out by the Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund in its quest to lure the world’s top golfers to its LIV Golf tour reached a pinnacle when Jon Rahm joined the league this week.

Estimates on what Rahm was paid to jump from the PGA Tour range from $400 million to $600 million, with the Telegraph reporting the most precise number at $566 million, with $302 million paid upfront. Anything within that range would lift the defending Masters champion into a stratosphere of athletes attaining more than $500 million in career earnings, and he would be the youngest at age 29.

Should Rahm be paid anything close to $302 million upon signing in 2023, he would be the highest paid athlete in the world for the calendar year. By far.

Soccer players Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Kylian MBappé head the list compiled by Forbes with combined earnings on and off the field of $136 million, $130 million and $120 million, respectively. The list goes 50 deep and the NBA has the most players of any sport with 15.

Golfers, however, had the biggest increase from 2002, going from three to 12, largely as a result of LIV Golf’s upfront guarantees. The highest paid golfers besides Rahm this year are the faces of LIV: Dustin Johnson ($107 million) and Phil Mickelson ($106 million).

No wonder Rahm did an about-face from his oft-repeated public stance the last two years of extolling the virtues of the PGA Tour and ignoring overtures by LIV.

Yes, he’d expressed frustration in June when it was announced that the PGA Tour and PIF were going to combine, thereby apparently eliminating his opportunity to cash in on a PIF lump sum to switch sides. But he consistently aligned himself with fervent PGA Tour backers such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.

It’s safe to assume the ante was raised by PIF to a point that Rahm couldn’t resist. Why now? The deadline for the merger to finalize is Dec. 31, and PIF might have gained the upper hand in eleventh-hour negotiations by signing away Rahm. As it stood, the PGA Tour enjoyed leverage by openly courting investors besides PIF and owning TV deals and relationships with sponsors.

Even McIlroy declined to frown on Rahm’s decision, telling Sky Sports News, “Is it disappointing to me? Yes, but the landscape of golf changed on June 6 when the framework agreement was announced and I think because of that it made the jump from the PGA Tour to LIV a little easier for guys.

“They let the first guys really take the heat and then this framework agreement legitimized basically what LIV was trying to do, then I think it’s made it easier now if that’s really what you want to do.”

Rahm has $57-million career PGA Tour earnings, a figure that because of his youth undoubtedly would at least have doubled had he not moved to LIV. But it pales in comparison to the guaranteed riches dangled by the Saudis.

“Every decision we make in life there will be somebody who agrees and likes it and somebody who doesn’t, right?” Rahm said on a conference call Thursday. “I made this decision because I believe it’s the best for me and my family.”

Did dollar signs drive the decision?

“It’s one of the reasons, yeah,” he said. “I mean, I’m not going to sit here and lie to you. It’s definitely one of the reasons.”

His view has evolved from this comment in June 2022: “I want to play against the best in the world in a format that’s been going on for hundreds of years. . . . Truth be told, I could retire right now with what I’ve made and live a very happy life and not play golf again. So I’ve never really played the game of golf for monetary reasons.”

To this comment at the U.S. Open at the L.A. Country Club last June after the PGA Tour announced its planned merger with LIV: “You want to have faith in management … [but] 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.”

To his decision to live with LIV.

Rahm, who is third in golf’s world rankings behind Scottie Sheffler and McIlroy, instantly vaulted to the top of all athletes in terms of wealth. Whether a decision that is undeniably good for his bank account is also good for the game remains to be seen.

With the merger deadline looming and Rahm gone from the PGA Tour, McIlroy, for one, worries.

“To me, having all the best golfers under the one umbrella is the best way forward because I think that’s really what the public wants,” he said. “The majors are already so big, but my fear is that if we keep going down this path then all the best players are only going to get together four times a year. That means golf is only going to be relevant four times a year and that’s good for no one in the game.”

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