PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico – If Jon Rahm was feeling any nerves in this new endeavor that saw him jolt the golf world and leave the PGA Tour for LIV Golf, he certainly didn’t let on Friday as he embarked on the journey.
On a warm, bright afternoon in Mexico with plenty of Spanish-speaking fans cheering the golfer on at the Mayakoba Resort, Rahm stepped onto the first tee and pounded his first drive into the fairway to begin his tenure in the controversial LIV Golf League.
He also hit the green and made a birdie. And hit his first nine greens. And got himself to 5 under par through seven holes.
“Yeah, I could feel the pressure, but it’s a good thing, right?’’ said Rahm, whose opening-round 66 at LIV Mayakoba is tied for fourth, seven strokes back of Joquin Niemann, who shot 59.
“It’s weird; you do get to pick a song (Monacco) for the first tee, and I thought maybe it was going to help. If anything, it gave it a little bit more — the heartbeat went a little bit up just from hearing a song you like,” Rahm said. “I’m like, I feel confident, but the added pressure that it’s one of my favorite songs, but it helped because I hit a great tee shot to start the day.
It was Rahm’s first competitive round of golf since November at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, where he shot a final-round 66 to tie for fifth – and when nobody honestly contemplated seriously that he’d be jumping to LIV Golf a matter of weeks later.
Rahm went quiet for a time, and nobody knew exactly what was going on, including some of those closest to him.
Eventually, Rahm announced in early December after a week of rumors and conjecture that he was joining LIV Golf, admitting that the huge money offered was a consideration and that he simply saw things a different way after saying for most of the year that he was content to play on the PGA Tour.
“I knew all I needed to know,’’ said Rahm’s caddie, Adam Hayes, of those weeks when it was unclear what might happen. “There were some conversations internally. I just said and told Jon from the time I went to work for him, if I said, ‘If you tell me you’re going to the Timbuktu Open, tell me when to be at the Timbuktu Open. I’ll be there.’
“I just put my trust in him and Jeff (Koski, Rahm’s agent) and their team and I said know you’ll make the best decision for you. At the end of the day, it’s Jon Rahm. If you’re working for Jon Rahm you’re going to be okay.”
Seeing that Rahm signed a deal with LIV Golf that is in excess of $200 million, that is undoubtedly true. Same for the $20 million individual purses at stake each week.
But Rahm seems to have other motives beyond that. He took on the captaincy of a new team called Legion XIII, with Koski as the general manager. (The LIV teams have staffs, including a non-player who runs the business side.) Rahm didn’t even know who his fourth player was going to be until Tyrrell Hatton signed on Monday. He barely knows Kieran Vincent, one of the players who made it into the League via a Promotions event. Caleb Surratt, 20, just left the University of Tennessee to join Rahm’s team.
And then there is the matter of Rahm’s own game. Armed with a five-year exemption into the majors after winning the Masters last year — he’s exempt into the Masters for life and will have through 2031 at the U.S. Open due to his 2021 U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines — he could take the chance on coming to LIV Golf and not have to worry about the ever-present Official World Golf Ranking debate.
LIV Golf is currently not accredited by the OWGR and thus its players do not earn points for competing in LIV events. Rahm, who is ranked third in the world, is likely to slip to around sixth prior to the Masters, where he will defend his title in April.
Not that he’s too concerned with that at the moment. Rahm admitted that it’s an unusual situation for him. He’d have normally played three events by now if he was still on the PGA Tour.
“I think it’s almost impossible to be 100 percent sure of how you’re going to play,’’ Rahm said. “But I’m always confident that I can perform. I think the tale for me was how I stroked the tee shots on 1 and 2. Those two were picture-perfect drives. To start like that was something that obviously gave me a lot of confidence for the rest of the day.’’
There is also an unspoken pressure for someone in Rahm’s position. He was paid a lot of money up front like numerous players who are part of the LIV Golf league. And in this situation, where LIV is fighting for relevancy with golf fans, it’s important that its stars step up.
DeChambeau and Cam Smith both won multiple tournaments last year but Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka — who won the PGA Championship — won just once each in LIV Golf. Talor Gooch, who had just a single PGA Tour victory, won three LIV events and emerged as the overall individual champion.
Given his stature in the game, Rahm would be expected to be amongst that list of top players, although how he started this week was always going to be a bit of an unknown.
“I don’t think anybody in the world is able to peak for 10 months,’’ Hayes said. “No athlete should be asked to peak for 10 months. I think that’s why you saw Brooks do well (last year). He contended in a major and won one. I think (LIV Golf) gives you time to be healthy and fresh.
“It’ll be interesting to see. Jon I think is as hungry as ever. I think this is going to be nothing but good for him. It checks all the boxes. He’ll have more time for his family and to work on his game at home. He’s always wanted to practice at home and not practice at tournaments. It’s the Tiger (Woods) method. Show up. Tiger did that for so long. It’ll allow him to work on his game and show up fresh.’’
For Rahm, it was a successful start, Niemann’s big advantage notwithstanding. Rahm made seven birdies and the only blips were bogeys on his last two holes.
“It’s still a good round of golf,’’ Rahm said. “(Niemann) played a historic round of golf. There’s a difference. You still need two more rounds. Obviously we’re going to have to approach 20-under par, and it’s doable (for the 54-hole event). I played a really good round today. If I cleaned up my finish a little bit, could have been a fantastic way to finish.
“Obviously I didn’t. If anything I’m thinking more about that, my finish, than what Joaco did. Again, I think if the wind doesn’t pick up, we’re going to have to approach a 20-under, which again is doable. The greens are in really good shape, and if you can put the ball in the fairway, you can give yourself chances.’’