Winners and losers: Rahm makes LIV debut as Tour calls off Pebble

Sports

There wasn’t just one 54-hole tournament in men’s professional golf this past weekend.

Spain’s Jon Rahm made his much-anticipated debut in the LIV Golf League. It was a mixed bag for the reigning Masters champion, who squandered a chance to compete in a playoff for the individual title with a couple of bad swings off the tee on his final two holes.

Rahm did captain his Legion XIII squad to a team championship at El Camaleón Golf Course at Mayakoba in Quintana Roo, Mexico.

One thing was clear: It’s going to take some time to get used to watching Rahm playing in shorts with loud music in the background.

Because of 60-mph winds and dangerous weather conditions on the Monterey Peninsula of California, Sunday’s final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on the PGA Tour was canceled. Weather conditions were expected to improve Monday, but with a shelter-in-place order still active, local resources were undoubtedly needed elsewhere.

As a result, reigning U.S. Open winner Wyndham Clark picked up his third PGA Tour victory.

Here’s a look at winners and losers from the weekend:

Winners

Joaquin Niemann

Niemann arrived at the golf course Sunday morning and was informed by LIV Golf League officials that his 4-shot lead had been reduced to two because of a penalty for an improper drop during the second round.

The Torque GC captain rebounded to post a 1-under 70 to finish 12 under, forcing a playoff with Fireballs GC captain Sergio Garcia. They played the 18th hole four times — the last two times in near darkness with a massive scoreboard lighting up the green — before Niemann made a 12-foot birdie putt from the fringe to pick up his first LIV Golf victory and a $4 million winner’s check.

On Friday, Niemann became the second LIV golfer in as many seasons to record a sub-60 score, making 10 birdies and a holed-out eagle to post a 12-under 59.

“The last putt, which it was super dark, I think it probably helped me just not being so picky on picking my spot and just looking at the hole, getting a feeling and just get it there,” Niemann said. “It was the best way to end it up. I wanted to make a putt on the last one to win.”

Niemann, 25, was considered one of the most talented players in the world when he joined LIV Golf after the 2022 Tour Championship. He struggled last season, finishing 26th in points in the 48-man league.

Niemann, from Chile, has found his form lately, putting together a nice stretch of golf since November. He finished fifth at the Australian PGA Championship, won the Australian Open, tied for fourth at the Hero Dubai Classic and then won again Sunday.

Niemann’s plight is the same as many LIV Golf League players: He’s eligible for only one of the four major championships this season, The Open at Royal Troon in Scotland in July. He could still qualify for the PGA Championship in May based on his position in the Official World Golf Ranking, but he actually fell from 66th to 74th after winning Sunday. Golfers don’t receive world-ranking points for their finishes in LIV Golf League events.

Niemann, the 2018 Latin American Amateur Championship winner, could also receive a special invitation from Augusta National Golf Club to compete in the Masters in April.

“I think I have a different mindset for this year,” Niemann said. “It kind of hurt me a little bit not being in the majors, and I think also helped me to get motivation to kind of earn my spot back into the majors, into the elite players. I think it helped me a little bit to get focused back, to start working harder, to start working with a purpose.”

Clark

The irony wasn’t lost that Clark picked up his third PGA Tour victory when the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am was called after 54 holes.

Clark was certainly a deserving winner after carding a Pebble Beach record 12-under 60 in Saturday’s third round for a 1-stroke lead over Ludvig Åberg.

“Everyone wants to win a tournament in 72 holes and sleep on a lead and perform on Sunday,” Clark said. “Coming down 16, 17, 18 at Pebble Beach [on Saturday] it felt like a Sunday … as I come to the green, I got a standing ovation and everyone was giving me the respect for having such a great round. When I shook hands and waved to the crowd, it really felt like I just won the tournament, so I don’t feel like I got cheated at all.”

During a virtual news conference with reporters Sunday night, Clark also confirmed what had long been speculated: He considered jumping to LIV Golf. The 30-year-old was targeted to join Rahm’s expansion team before turning the organization down.

“I ultimately declined going to LIV because I felt like I still have a lot of things left in the tank on the PGA Tour and I wanted to chase records,” Clark said. “My dream is to try to be one of the top players in the world, if not the top player. I just grew up always imagining winning PGA Tour events. So ultimately, I chose my legacy over LIV and that’s really what it came down to.”

Who would have guessed Clark’s legacy would include a 54-hole victory at Pebble Beach?

Legion XIII

Rahm’s new team didn’t come together until last week after the LIV Golf League was able to poach another top PGA Tour player, England’s Tyrrell Hatton, with a last-minute push.

In its LIV Golf League debut, Legion XIII defeated defending Mayakoba team champion Crushers GC by four shots with a team total of 24 under. Legion XIII had the low total on Sunday at 14 under, with Hatton leading the way with a 7-under 64, the best final round by any player.

“It was motivating to go out there and know that you’re playing for three other guys today,” Hatton said. “Fortunately for me, I got off to a nice start, and it was nice to actually see some putts go in compared to the previous round. Yeah, very happy with how I played, and the fact that we’ve won in our first week out together is great. Obviously looking forward to the rest of the year now.”

Caleb Surratt

Surratt is supposed to be finishing up his second season at the University of Tennessee. Instead, he carded a 4-under 67 on Sunday to help Legion XIII claim the team title in his professional debut.

Surratt had a four-putt triple bogey on the par-3 17th hole, then posted five consecutive birdies down the stretch.

“It was definitely a good finish,” Surratt said. “It’s tough because there’s a lot of unknowns going into the week and there’s a lot of doubts, and there’s some stuff running through my mind. But it’s just cool to come out here and compete with truly a lot of the best players in the world.”

Surratt, the 2023 SEC freshman of the year, tied for 13th in the individual competition with a 54-hole total of 5 under. He collected $330,000.

“I feel like I’m learning the same stuff that used to work still works,” Surratt said. “It’s just golf. I’m just happy to be here, and I’m excited for the rest of the year.”

Losers

Rahm

Overall, it was a successful debut for Rahm in the LIV Golf League. Along with the team victory, he tied for third in the individual competition, two strokes behind Niemann and Garcia, and collected another $1.25 million to go on top of his guaranteed contract, reportedly worth more than $300 million.

But it was strange to watch Rahm, one of the fiercest competitors in the world, go from blowing a chance to make the playoff over the final two holes to celebrating a team victory by spraying champagne with his teammates on stage.

Rahm was tied for the lead with two holes left, but pulled his drive into trouble on the 17th hole and then into a fairway bunker on the 18th.

“It feels great,” Rahm said. “It’s very nice in a day in which in any normal tournament I probably would have been upset at my finish to actually have something to celebrate, and that is one of the big reasons why I decided to transition, to share the stage with those three guys, to share the golf course with all the other teams and compete for something else is what it’s all about. It means a lot.”

Rory McIlroy

Niemann wasn’t the only golfer who was penalized for a rules violation this past weekend. McIlroy was docked two strokes in the opening round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am for taking an improper drop on the par-5 seventh hole at Spyglass Hill Golf Club.

McIlroy’s ball was buried in deep grass under a pine tree. He took back-on-the-line relief, which allowed him to go as far back as he wanted on the same line. But McIlroy then followed an old rule in the Rules of Golf, which allowed him to take one club-length of relief to the right of the line. The rule was changed in January 2023, so McIlroy was penalized.

That wasn’t the only controversy surrounding McIlroy at Pebble Beach. After PGA Tour policy board member Jordan Spieth suggested to reporters that the tour might no longer need an investment from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) after it closed a potential $3 billion deal with Strategic Sports Group, McIlroy reportedly removed himself from a group text involving top tour players.

McIlroy believes the PGA Tour has to accept a similar investment from the PIF in order to reunite the sport.

“My thing was, if I’m the original [potential] investor that thought that they were going to get this deal done back in July, and I’m hearing a board member say that, you know, we don’t really need them, now, how are they going to think about that, what are they going to feel about that?” McIlroy told Sports Illustrated.

“They are still sitting out there with hundreds of billions of dollars, if not trillions, that they’re going to pour it into sport. And I know what Jordan was saying, I absolutely know what he was saying and what he was trying to say. But if I were PIF and I was hearing that coming from here, the day after doing this SSG deal, it wouldn’t have made me too happy, I guess?”

McIlroy told Sports Illustrated that he removed himself from the group text to detach himself from the “fray.” Over the past few months, McIlroy’s opinions about LIV Golf have changed more than the winds at the par-3 seventh hole at Pebble Beach.

He tied for 66th at 2 under.

PGA Tour

Through no fault of its own, the PGA Tour missed a golden opportunity to put fans’ attention back on the golf course this weekend. On the Sunday before the Super Bowl, an exciting finish at one of the most iconic golf courses in the world might have brought back fans who have become disenchanted with the fractured sport.

Instead, the final round of the second of eight signature events this season was canceled due to inclement weather. It was the first 54-hole event on the PGA Tour since the 2016 Zurich Classic of New Orleans.

Many golf fans undoubtedly watched the final round of the LIV Golf League instead, if they could find coverage on The CW.

The good news for the PGA Tour: It’s headed to the WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale this week, one of the most exciting events on the schedule, even if it’s not a signature event this year.

The circuits will go head-to-head again this coming weekend, with the LIV Golf League heading to Las Vegas, the site of Super Bowl LVIII.

Iron Heads GC

LIV Golf League officials elected to add a 13th team after signing Rahm. One has to wonder if they didn’t consider replacing Iron Heads GC, given its performance over the past two seasons.

Iron Heads GC, which consists of captain Kevin Na, Scott Vincent, Danny Lee and newcomer Jinichiro Kozuma, finished 13th in the Mayakoba event, 30 strokes behind Legion XIII. With all four scores counting toward the team total in the final round this year, Iron Heads GC was a combined 6 over on Sunday.

Last season, Iron Heads GC finished last in the season-long team standings, with one top-five finish in 13 events.

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