Monday Rap: Rahm Reigns, Tiger Returns And It Sure Feels Like The PGA Tour Has Way More Momentum Than LIV Golf
Jon Rahm had wandering eyes when he first got on tour.
“He’d always be trying things,” his longtime caddie, Adam Hayes, told me. “He’d be like, well, Seve did it this way. Tiger did it that way. It’s not necessarily that he would put things in to play, but he was just kind of looking around.”
“There’s less looking around now. He’s a man who has his life in order.”
Jon Rahm didn’t have his best on Sunday afternoon at the Genesis Invitational. Riviera punched him in the gut numerous times. He narrowly avoided a knockout blow at the 10th and looked downright woozy after a bogey at 12 and a foul-ball left at 13. Max Homa, spurred on by a highly partisan Southern California crowd willing their hometown hero on, had turned a three-shot 54-hole deficit into a one-shot lead. But Homa, too, had lost his ball left. It was then that the Golf Gods nudged the Spaniard forward once more. On Friday, his second shot into the par-5 17th ricocheted off a grandstand and came to rest inside four feet. On Saturday, he hit that same pull on 13 and somehow ended up with an unimpeded view of the green. On Sunday, it happened again. Rahm’s ball evaded the giant Sycamores guarding the left side and found a good-enough lie roughly 40 yards left of the fairway. Homa wasn’t so lucky—his tee shot struck a tree dead-on and only traveled 186 yards. He tried, unsuccessfully, to thread a fairway wood through the forest but duck-hooked it. Rahm then played perhaps the most important shot of the week, a 6-iron to the front of the green. Homa salvaged a bogey, but the momentum had flipped, and that’s all a guy playing like Rahm needs. He followed up that Houdini par with a birdie at 14 and, the clincher, an 8-iron to tap in-range at the delicate par-3 16th.
A fourth consecutive round in the 60s gave Rahm a two-shot victory over Homa, who saved par at the last to secure a solo-second finish that brings him into the top 10 of the world rankings for the first time.
“I’ve been obviously doing a lot of the things I needed to do properly every single day and that's the important thing, right? Just keeping that daily process as good as I have been. Obviously I've been extremely disciplined my whole career, but right now I'm seeing the dividends of a lot of the hard work over the years. So just keep doing the small things and keep enjoying it, having fun. Obviously when you're playing good it's really fun and when you're winning tournaments, extremely fun, but got to enjoy the tough moments as well. Try to take it all in and, like I said, keep doing the little things properly every day and hopefully keep putting myself in position to win.
He’s had a chance to win every tournament he’s played in 2023. The victory is Rahm’s third of the calendar year. He’s won two of the first three designated events of the season. He’s won five of his last nine starts. In those nine, he hasn’t finished worse than seventh. He is, without question, the finest golfer on the planet. But that’s been the case for a few months now. Only difference is, now it’s official. With the win, Rahm leapfrogged both Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler to become the world’s top-ranked player. Finally, the rankings accurately reflect the current state of affairs. Rahm feels downright inevitable at the moment—when Rory McIlroy saw his name at the top of the leaderboard on Thursday afternoon, he rolled his eyes.
“I go out today and I see Jon Rahm shoot 6 under and I'm like, again?!”
Again. Homa knew Rahm wasn’t going to fold on Sunday, just like every golfer knew Tiger Woods wouldn’t fold on Sunday. This is a man who’s been great at every level. There’s a famous anecdote about Rahm that’s made its way around tour circles: when TaylorMade signed him the day he turned pro, they felt they’d signed a top-five player in the world.
“He is a spectacular golfer,” Homa said Sunday. “I would say other than Tiger and I don't even know, he's the most consistent player I've seen. I've known him since college and he's been like this since then, No. 1 amateur in the world, No. 1 player in the world, all the accolades…he's probably Thanos. He has a lot of the stones in his toolbox. He's a tremendous golfer, he has zero weaknesses. He's been this dude for a long time. I think he's got the highest win percentage in the last X amount of years, he's got the highest top-10s by a mile. The guy's incredible.”
Praise doesn’t get much higher than this, from Tiger Woods: “Please understand and please respect how good this guy is.”
With the trajectory he’s on, there’s little doubt that today’s up-and-comers will be talking to their caddies about how Rahm did it.
The PGA Tour sure seems to be winning the narrative battle against LIV Golf
In this ongoing existential battle for golf’s soul, narrative momentum is of utmost importance. Fan interest is the currency the PGA Tour and LIV Golf are fighting over. And for all the talk of LIV Golf’s endless piles of money, its Saudi backers are not in the business of spending money for the sake of it. They have maintained throughout this process that this business must make fiscal sense if it is to continue. As of right now, it’s a fiscal disaster—court documents that surfaced last week showed that LIV Golf took in essentially no revenue in its first year. So it’s not just that LIV didn’t make money; it took in no money.
There are reasons for this, of course. It’s hard to sell tickets to a brand new league, and all eight LIV events last year were shown free on YouTube. That won’t be the case this year. LIV has its TV deal with the CW. The public is now very aware of the product and they’ve had ample time to spend money to see the players. The level of fan interest in LIV will determine how many tickets are sold, how much the TV ads sell for and, crucially, whether LIV can ever sell its 12 four-man franchises. There’s little evidence to suggest LIV can approach a break-even point, let alone profitability, if it does not overtake the PGA Tour as the premier golf circuit in America. There hasn’t been enough fan interest in America to sustain two football leagues for any sustained period of time, and golf obviously has a much smaller pie to divvy up. All this to say: if we take LIV for its word—that this is a business, not a PR exercise or a fun little side project for a few golf-obsessed men—then LIV cannot continue unless it unseats the PGA Tour.
That proposition seems more unlikely than it has at any point since the first LIV event last June. The last two weeks really couldn’t have gone any better for the PGA Tour. The WM Phoenix Open was at center of the sporting universe with the Super Bowl also in town, and a down-the-stretch battle between Scottie Scheffler and upstart Nick Taylor—the type of got-hot-one-week longshot that LIV, by its very format, does not really allow for—proved highly compelling television. While official numbers aren’t available, Saturday’s round almost certainly drew more fans than any golf tournament in history. That tournament, with its festival-like atmosphere, has carved out an identity. If LIV Golf’s motto is Golf, But Louder, the WMPO could well counter with Golf, But Actually Much Louder.
The PGA Tour then headed west to Riviera, one of the finest golf courses in the world, for its second consecutive designated event. Tiger Woods’ last-minute decision to play supercharged the event; ESPN’s SportCenter led its show with his highlights multiple times throughout the week. His little tampon joke with Justin Thomas dominated the news cycle on Friday. His superb play on Saturday had fans daydreaming of him carving iron shots around Augusta National. Woods is the ultimate trump card in golf, and he’s firmly in the PGA Tour’s corner. Any event he plays in will immediately have 10 times the juice of any LIV Golf event. At Riviera, the tournament itself felt like a bit of an undercard until a big-boy Sunday battle between Jon Rahm and Max Homa, two of the five best players in the world at the moment. From Ponte Vedra’s perspective, the fortnight couldn’t have gone much better. And Riviera absolutely felt like an "elevated."
"I'm just so happy and thankful to all the guys who played,” Woods said Sunday. “This is a big event, this is a big deal of where our Tour's going. To have all the top players here playing like this, it means a lot to me as a player but also as a host to have all these players show up like this and play. I just wish I could play a little bit better, made it a little more interesting, but overall it was a fantastic week."
Especially for Rahm, who battled significant nerves on Saturday evening. The reason? Something LIV cannot offer: history, and legacy.
"I'm a human being after all," Rahm said, "and I'm aware of the magnitude of this moment and this golf course, right? I've never had three PGA Tourwins in a season and to do it this early on is incredible, and to do it at this golf course. Talk about the history of Riviera as a golf course, the history of Tiger Woods as a player, those two combined in this tournament, it's a pretty big deal. As a historian of the game, to be able to win a tournament hosted by Tiger and the one hosed by Jack as well, it's pretty incredible."
While the PGA Tour hogged the spotlight, LIV Golf officials worked the phones. They had a few spots to fill in their 48-man league before its launch this week in Mexico. Two of their offseason signings, Mito Pereira and Sebastian Munoz, had already leaked. The final names emerged on Saturday: Thomas Pieters (world No. 34) Dean Burmester (No. 62), Brendan Steele (No. 122) and Danny Lee (No. 259). LIV entered its first offseason hoping to sign multiple top-20 players. There was also supposed to be a trade/free-agent market of sorts. Instead: six signings, none of whom are ranked better than Pereira at No. 46. That’s not to diminish these players; they are successful professional golfers, and snagging Pieters’ signature is another blow to the European Ryder Cup team. But they are far from the needle-movers LIV needed to sign to inject some life into their product.
This offseason, then, can’t be viewed as anything but a disappointment. The main draws to LIV from its first season—Cameron Smith, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and Phil Mickelson—are the main draws to LIV for its second season. What, then, will draw in more fans? The product itself must serve that role, and the product relies heavily on a team concept that fell mostly flat in its first year. Team Golf works under two conditions: People root for the teams, and the teams play directly against each other. It’s why the Ryder Cup works—you root for where you’re from, and each group has players from one team in one outfit, and players from the other in a different outfit, and they play against each other. Those things don’t happen in LIV events. They’re trying to build up the team identities with this new “12 TEAMS, YOU CHOOSE” campaign, but the promotional video that dropped was absolutely roasted all over the internet. Simply placing four individuals together does not a team make. But the biggest problem with the format, in this writer’s opinion, is that the team competition feels like little more than a sideshow to the individual portion. Players are wearing their normal logo’d-out outfits, and apart from the year-end finale, there wasn’t really any instances of one team playing against another. You just don’t get those electric visuals of guys hyping each other up or strategizing together.
LIV doesn’t seem to have altered its format at all after its first year. The PGA Tour, on the other hand, deserves credit for how willing they’ve been to alter some pretty fundamental components. One could absolutely argue that this should’ve happened far before LIV, and Mickelson surely feels vindicated now that the top players will face off for $20 million purses more than a dozen times this year. Whatever the motivation, these designated events do have some serious juice, and the tour continues to work with its players to make tweaks for 2024. The PGA Tour is finally, after decades of stagnation, evolving.
Perhaps the new TV deal with the CW will elevate the league. I’m highly skeptical. And after this last fortnight, it’s growing increasingly harder to see LIV overtaking the PGA Tour anytime soon.
In defense of Riviera's No. 10
PGA Tour pros lavished Riviera with praise all week. Apart from one hole, that is: the finicky par-4 10th, which Jack Nicklaus once described as the finest risk-reward hole in the world. Both the hole itself and the way pros played it have evolved significantly over the years.
First, the hole itself. The narrow-as-hell green has always sloped from front-right to back-left, but the slope off the bunkers has grown more severe. The green’s nearly impossible to hold if you’re not approaching it from the very left side of the fairway. Even then, you need a pretty perfectly struck wedge shot if you’re going to be putting for birdie.
“When I first came here, no one went for it,” Tiger Woods said. “Balata and persimmon doesn't go very far, so no went for it. We all laid up to the far left or to the right. And the second shot wasn't as hard because we played a spinnier ball.”
The combination of a steeper slope, a less-spinny ball, ever-increasing driving distance and a better understanding of statistics has turned the hole into a no-brainer: more than 95% of the field went for the green this week. It’s been trending that way for years. The turning point seemed to happen after the 2015 Northern Trust, which told a clear story. Just 51 percent of players went for the green on 10 that year, and those players were a combined 14 under par. The 49 percent who laid up combined to play the hole in 52 over par.
The thought process now on that hole is…well, there’s not much of it. Guys aim at two trees left of the green, hit it toward them, and hope for the best. Some ball end up in short grass just left of the green with an easy chip. Others kick into the rough and are stymied by trees. There’s absolutely an element of randomness involved now. And professional golfers, or at least some of them, aren’t huge fans of randomness.
“I think it’s the kikuyu,” McIlroy told No Laying Up’s Kevin Van Valkenburg, who wrote a less-than-flattering piece about the hole after spending Saturday watching guys tip-toe around 10. “They either need to re-grass 30 yards around up to the green so the ball runs, or you just have to keep those greens a touch softer than the rest. There’s no skill anymore. You’re not aiming it in the left bushes, but you know if it goes in the left bushes, it should be okay. It’s just not a good golf hole.”
I could not disagree any stronger.
The premise behind the anti-10 argument suggests that all golf holes need to be fair. Good shots should be rewarded. Bad ones should be punished. On the whole, that’s obviously true. But variety is the spice of life, and the 10th hole adds an element of chaos that one million percent makes Riviera a more interesting, entertaining test for the best players in the world. It’s a treat to watch guys look so deeply uncomfortable on a 310-yard par 4. If they get out of position—often the result of one of those big, awful, horrifying bad bounces—they’re forced to accept that birdie isn’t in the cards and do something they almost never do: intentionally play away from the flag. It’s one of the only holes on tour that guys, every year, putt the ball off the green and/or go bunker-to-bunker.
I’d also push back on the good-shots-aren’t-rewarded argument. Max Homa, for example, birdied it all four days. On Sunday, he hit is tee shot exactly where he was looking. It finished in the perfect shot just short-left of the green, leaving a great angle for the chip. He hit that to seven feet and the made the putt. Rahm, on the other hand, overcooked his tee shot and found the left rough. He’d eventually need to make a six-footer for bogey. Good shot, rewarded. Bad shot, punished.
Do more good shots get bad breaks at 10 at Riviera? Sure. But it’s not like we’re throwing balls into a random number generator and seeing what happens. It’s a kooky hole, granted. But one kooky hole among 18 never hurt anyone. On the contrary, it helps. Considerably.
—If this piece feels light on Tiger Woods and/or Max Homa, it's because I wrote about them both extensively over the weekend. Here are my thoughts on a better-than-expected showing from Tiger Woods and the heart-on-his-sleeve performance from Max Homa.
—World No. 1 Lydia Ko got another W, winning the Armco Saudi Ladies International in Saudi Arabia and taking home the $750,000 first prize. Despite a fantastic 2022 Ko split with her caddie, Derek Kistler, and now has David Jones on the bag for the second time.
—Over on the 50+ circuit, 65-year-old Bernhard Langer fired a seven-under 65 to win the Chubb Classic for the fifth time and reach 45 wins on the PGA Tour Champions, equaling Hale Irwin’s all-time record.
"It's extremely special because we've been talking about it for so long it seems now,'' Langer told reporters. "When I first came out here, I thought, 'This is never going to happen’…For a German kid from a village of 800 people and starting as a caddie to do what I've done, it takes a lot of people to do that, not just one.”
Langer reached world No. 1 and won two Masters, and yet his longevity is now an equally big part of his legacy. To continue winning tournaments at 65 years old is downright astounding—the guy who finished second, Padraig Harrington, is 51 and still swings the club around 115 miles per hour. But Longer keeps himself in remarkable physical condition and remains a highly accurate ball striker. What a player.
—I loved running into Will Wilcox this week at Riviera. For those unfamiliar, Wilcox played a handful of years on the PGA Tour with a crippling drug addiction. Mark Baldwin of the Fire Pit Collective told his story in this excellent profile.
Wilcox wasn’t playing—he was caddying for longtime buddy Lanto Griffin, who actually used to caddie for Wilcox when he had his card and Griffin was grinding on the mini tours. I asked Wilcox how he’s enjoying his new gig.
“Oh, I love it man. I got a real job for a second, and the money was good, but have you ever tried having a real job? This is way, way better.”
—There are umpteen drawbacks to living your life in a mega fishbowl, but one of the benefits is the ability to brighten someone’s day rather easily. Case in point: Tiger Woods on Saturday at Riviera. His caddie, Joe LaCava, saw a girl behind the 17th green holding a pretty moving sign. He alerted Woods, who went over to check off that second item himself.
So, so good.
—It was Collin Morikawa’s turn to give a mid-round interview this week, and he did not disappoint. This kind of x’s and o’s analysis is the stuff of Golf Nerd Dreams, and this new initiative from CBS is freakin’ fantastic. You have to think NBC is noticing and, hopefully, planning some equally innovative stuff for their broadcasts.
—Stanford’s Rose Zhang won yet another college tournament, her eighth victory in 15 collegiate starts. That’s…hard to fathom. The craziest part: she’s still 19 years old.
Until next week,