The PGA Tour and DP World Tours announced a shock merger with the LIV Golf Series, run by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund. All sides are immediately dropping all lawsuits involving LIV Golf. The governor of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, joins the PGA Tour board of directors and leads the new business venture as chairman, though the PGA Tour will have a majority stake.
What does it mean for golf?
It ends the bitter feud between the two tours over the past year, which led to expulsions from the main tours of defectors to LIV Golf, an antitrust lawsuit, and a deep fracture in the game. In terms of unifying golf under one umbrella, it is a positive move, but the loyal tour players will ask questions of the PGA Tour about why they were asked to refuse large Saudi contracts, to only see the PGA Tour accept large investment from the Saudi government regardless. And it means that Saudi Arabian investment in the sport has been legitimised and given a major seat at the biggest table of golf, which will raise concerns about the “sportwashing” of their human rights abuses.
What does the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund gain from the merger?
The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, a wealth fund controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is among the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world with total estimated assets of €580 billion. In sport, they most notably own Newcastle United Football Club in the Premier League, and established the LIV Golf tour last year. According to the press release, PIF will make a capital investment into a new “for-profit entity” with the PGA and DP World Tours.
PIF will be the exclusive investor and reserves the exclusive right to further invest in the new entity, and a right of first refusal on any capital that may be invested. Al-Rumayyan will join the PGA Tour Policy Board and also be chairman of the board of directors of the new commercial entity, with PGA Tour’s Jay Monahan as CEO.
The PIF have gained legimitacy with Monahan, who previously linked the Saudi funding to September 11th attacks in New York, but has now referred to them as “world-class investing” and has applauded Al-Rumayyan for his “vision”. Both parties have avoided transparency that the antitrust lawsuit may have exposed in their dealings. Monahan said the deal was “ultimately to take the competitor off of the board, to have them exist as a partner, not an owner”.
What will happen to the LIV Golf tour?
The future of the tour and its current team format is uncertain. When asked about the LIV model, Monahan said he couldn’t “see the scenario” of it continuing in its current form concurrently to the PGA Tour. Several aspects of the LIV Golf format are at odds with the regular PGA Tour schedule, such as the 54-hole format, the shotgun start, and the team prizes. The PGA Tour schedule was already packed and was looking to be condensed to include more of an off-season and a focus on “designated” events. A concession may be made to include a certain number of designated LIV-style team events within the PGA Tour framework, and PIF are likely to want a tour event in Saudi Arabia in the future.
In the PGA Tour press release, Monahan said there was a “good-faith effort” to look at team golf but it has not been explained how the LIV Golf teams would continue. For the PGA Tour defectors, there will be a “fair and objective” process for players who want to reapply for membership.
How has Rory McIlroy reacted?
Rory McIlroy has backed the new entity. “When I try to remove myself from the situation and I look at the bigger picture and I look at 10 years down the line, I think ultimately this is going to be good for the game of professional golf. I think it unifies it and it secures its financial future.
“So there’s mixed emotions in there as well, as there’s going to be. I don’t understand all the intricacies of what’s going on. It’s a very, what’s the word? There’s a lot of ambiguity.
“It’s hard for me to not sit up here and feel somewhat like a sacrificial lamb and feeling like I’ve put myself out there and this is what happens.”
McIlroy was keen to distinguish between LIV Golf and the PIF, admitting: “It’s not LIV. I still hate LIV. I hope it goes away and I would fully expect that it does.
“That’s where the distinction here is. This is the PGA Tour, the DP World Tour and the PIF, very different from LIV.
“All I’ve tried to do is protect the PGA Tour and what it stands for. There may be a team element and you’re gonna see maybe me play in some sort of team golf, but I don’t think it will look anything like LIV has looked and I think that’s a good thing.”
He had previously said LIV defectors “took the easy way out” and were “duplicitous”. He said he “hated” what it was doing to the game of golf, and said, about those who took the Saudi money, “you make your bed, you lie in it”.
LIV golfer Sergio Garcia fell out with McIlroy, who was a groomsman at his wedding, over the split. McIlroy told Paul Kimmage in the Sunday Independent that Garcia told him to “shut up about LIV”.
“I was pretty offended and sent him back a couple of daggers and that was it,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy also notably had a feud with Patrick Reed, and was subpoenaed by the player’s lawyer on Christmas Eve. McIlroy and other players were part of a class-action antitrust lawsuit that Reed’s lawyer, Larry Klayman, filed against the PGA Tour and DP World Tour in November.
How have the other players reacted?
Pádraig Harrington said the announcement proved “sports washing works” but was not surprised the merger had occurred. He also said: “My own country sells military technology to Saudi Arabia. So many other compromises. Yes this is sports washing and yes unfortunately it proves sports washing works. But maybe [there is] one positive, inclusion and trade has shown to improve and change countries involved for the better. My own country thought it was acceptable to lock up unmarried mothers as late as 1996.”
Paul McGinley said he was “stunned” at the development and said there was a long road ahead with a lot more disruption.
In the players meeting last night, Johnson Wagner estimated the negative/positive split to be 90:10 in the player meeting. He said there was a “standing ovation” when the room called for new PGA Tour leadership. Geoff Ogilvy described the mood as “grumpy” and Monahan described the meeting as “intense, certainly heated”.
Bryson DeChambeau said he felt “bad” for the players who stayed loyal to the PGA Tour. “I do feel bad for the PGA Tour players because they were told one thing and something else happened, and our side, we were told one thing and it’s come to fruition,” DeChambeau told CNN.
Phil Mickelson tweeted it was an “awesome day today”, while LIV golfer Talor Gooch said it was a “win for all of us”.
How have human rights groups reacted?
The merger is “just more evidence of the onward march of Saudi sportswashing”, Amnesty International has said. “Away from the glamour of the golf courses and the TV cameras there’s been mounting repression in Saudi Arabia, with government critics and human rights activists arrested, a spate of unfair trials, and with the death penalty widely used, including as a tool of political repression.
Terry Strada, the national chair of 9/11 Families United, has been a long-time critic of the LIV Series and has alleged the Saudi government played a role in the terrorist attacks.
“PGA commissioner Jay Monahan co-opted the 9/11 community last year in the PGA’s unequivocal agreement that the Saudi LIV project was nothing more than sportswashing of Saudi Arabia’s reputation,” said Strada, whose husband Tom was killed in the 9/11 attacks. “But now the PGA and Monahan appear to have become just more paid Saudi shills, taking billions of dollars to cleanse the Saudi reputation so that Americans and the world will forget how the kingdom spent their billions of dollars before 9/11 to fund terrorism, spread their vitriolic hatred, and finance al Qaeda and the murder of our loved ones. Make no mistake – we will never forget.”
How will it affect the Ryder Cup?
The European LIV players are still unlikely to play on the European team at the Ryder Cup. Stalwarts such as Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and previous captain Henrik Stenson had previously given up the chance to play in the event as they resigned from the tour.
“There’s only two criteria to being a Ryder Cup member or player,” DP World Tour chief Keith Pelley said. “You have to be European, and you have to be a member of the DP World Tour. And that’s the only criteria. After that, you can qualify or [European captain] Luke [Donald] can select you.”
Pelley said they are currently not eligible and haven’t requested reinstatement yet. He said it would be an exceptional circumstance to allow them to rejoin this year based on the rules and regulations.
The American team is a different story, with Brooks Koepka second in the US rankings, purely based on his major performances – finishing second in the Masters and winning the PGA Championship. Unlike the European team which is attached to the European Tour, the US Ryder Cup team is run by the PGA of America, who have allowed LIV golfers to play in the PGA Championship and are unlikely to have any objection to their inclusion.
However, it would take an exceptional major performance for anyone other than Koepka to qualify for the US team in September, given they are currently unable to earn points through the LIV tour and that is unlikely to change in the next few months.
What happens next?
Jay Monahan will meet the players council and the biggest name players on tour on Wednesday and Thursday. No changes to the schedule are likely in 2023. LIV Golf will conclude its season, while the PGA Tour will announce its 2024 schedule later this month, where all eyes will be on any event changes or changes to prize funds. LIV Golf players such as Brooks Koepka and Cameron Smith could be back playing in the PGA Tour in 2024.