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Pay-to-play golf for Rahm and Hatton goes to heart of Ryder Cup’s LIV dilemma | Ewan Murray

It is golf’s equivalent of blasphemy to suggest that anybody should be paid to play in a Ryder Cup. As the theory rumbled around the US camp during their defeat against Europe in Rome last year, the tutting and tittering was audible.

The biennial clash became a play thing for the corporate classes long ago. It generates tens of millions for the European Tour Group and the PGA of America. But pay participants? The mere discussion is viewed as offensive. It is about the pride, the passion, the novelty of team golf at elite level. Most of these lads wouldn’t you-know-what on each other were they on fire from week to week, but the Ryder Cup forges bonds. Or so we are told.

Weirdly, it seems absolutely fine to pay to play in the Ryder Cup. If matters play out the way the European side seem to want them to, that’s precisely what Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton will have to do if they want to tee off at Bethpage next September. “Ryder Cup entry? £500,000 please chaps.” The number is plucked from the sky; the concept most certainly is not.

Long story short: Rahm and Hatton switched to LIV Golf for the 2024 season, which immediately raised questions over their Ryder Cup eligibility. “No problem,” declared Guy Kinnings, the European Tour Group’s recently installed chief executive. “The reality is, under the current rules, if a player is European, a member of the DP World Tour and abides by the rules – if you don’t get a release there are sanctions and you take those penalties – there is no reason why players who have taken LIV membership could not qualify or be available for selection,” Kinnings said.

The “release” is what Rahm, Hatton and other DP World Tour members request as permission to play in LIV events. These are declined, meaning fines and suspensions are applied each time the golfers tee up on the Saudi Arabian-backed tour. This is quite the money spinner for the European Tour Group.

Martin Kaymer celebrates winning his match to retain the Ryder Cup for Europe in the ‘miracle of Medinah’ in 2012.

Rumblings around the LIV campfire are that Rahm and Hatton are not particularly amused by this business – which it is, literally – of paying their way to Bethpage or, to be precise, have someone pay this ransom demand on their behalf. It is not particularly aligned with the holy ethics that are supposed to underpin the Ryder Cup. It is, however, strange that neither player – who are not typically backwards in coming forwards – has articulated their disquiet. LIV has the money – the organisation has already dished out millions in fines – but anybody in the shoes of Rahm or Hatton must surely believe it can be put to better use. Crucially, the Ryder Cup needs them more than vice versa.

For its part, the European Tour Group finds itself in a bit of a bind over this. It successfully argued at a Sports Resolutions hearing that sanctions handed down to LIV players – these initially included Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson and Sergio García – were legitimate. That quartet, Ryder Cup icons in European context, resigned from the tour as an alternative to running up a lengthy charge sheet. In doing so, they removed their names from the Ryder Cup equation. The Tour will argue, with credence, that it cannot very well treat Rahm and Hatton differently from Westwood et al. Indeed doing so would almost certainly make it subject to legal challenge.

Kinnings is a former Ryder Cup director and is blessed with the best knowledge in the modern game of how golf connects with the commercial world. He knows perfectly well that a Ryder Cup without Rahm in particular would massively diminish the product. Fans turning up in New York won’t care that Rahm spends the rest of his time playing to the backdrop of Shakira music. There is a fine line to be navigated here.

Last week, it was announced that Paul McGinley has joined Ryder Cup Europe as a strategic adviser in the lead up to 2025. This is unquestionably a smart move. The Miracle of Medinah of 2012 has that name for a reason and is the only win by a European team on American soil since 2004. The Europeans were trounced on their last two visits across the pond. Luke Donald has to find a way for Europe to cure travel sickness. McGinley will be a huge asset.

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Europe can take solace from the fact that the US pursuit of Tiger Woods as Bethpage captain lurched towards embarrassment long ago. If Woods belatedly takes the role and continues to be as hopelessly vague as he has been when discussing the possibility, Donald should be rubbing his hands. If Woods passes, the US captain will be a clear second choice.

Rahm and Hatton have other matters on their mind as the US Open rolls into Pinehurst over the coming days. Amazingly, Rahm has not won since the Masters of 2023. The Spaniard withdrew from the weekend’s LIV stop in Houston because of a foot problem. Hatton has recorded one major top 10 since 2019. Both need individual improvement before team golf becomes a prime consideration.

Nonetheless, this has the hallmarks of an elephant in the Ryder Cup room. It is the issue hiding in plain sight. The issuing of cheques worth hundreds of thousands simply to don European colours should make the event’s custodians feel distinctly uneasy. The ball sits firmly in the court of Hatton and Rahm.

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