The PGA Tour and LIV Golf Merger, Explained

The PGA Tour, the world’s pre-eminent professional golf league, and LIV Golf, a Saudi-funded upstart whose emergence over the past year and a half has cleaved the sport in two, have agreed to join forces.

The pact is complicated and incomplete, and numerous golfers hate it. They are directing their wrath at the architects of the deal. Let’s start from the beginning.

The PGA Tour holds tournaments nearly every weekend, mostly in the United States but also in other countries in North America, Europe and Asia, with prize pools worth millions of dollars. The tour has been the home to practically every male golfer you can name: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer and so on.

It has relationships with, but is separate from, the organizations that stage men’s golf’s four majors: The Masters Tournament, The P.G.A. Championship, The U.S. Open and the British Open.

LIV Golf began in late 2021 with the former PGA Tour player Greg Norman as its commissioner and billions of dollars in backing from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, which is known as the Public Investment Fund. LIV lured several PGA Tour players, including the major champions Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka, with massive purses and guaranteed payouts that far surpassed what they could earn on the established circuit.

LIV promised a sharp break from golf’s fusty traditionalism, with music blaring at events, looser dress codes and team competitions — and tournaments that lasted three days instead of four. Further, of particular appeal to potential players, while the PGA Tour tournaments cut golfers with the worst scores after two rounds, LIV wouldn’t cut anyone.

Acrimonious, to put it lightly. Players who joined LIV were forced to resign from the PGA Tour — and its European equivalent, the DP World Tour — under the threat of suspension and fines. LIV sued the PGA Tour and the PGA Tour countersued, litigation that is still technically ongoing (though the deal is supposed to resolve it).

PGA Tour supporters and other critics of LIV said the venture was simply an attempt by the Saudi government to distract attention from its human rights record, while LIV supporters said the PGA Tour was a monopoly that used inappropriate strong-arm tactics to protect its position in big-time sports.

It seems so. The PGA Tour and LIV announced Tuesday the creation of a new entity that would combine their assets, as well as those of the DP World Tour, and radically change golf’s governance.

The PGA Tour would remain a nonprofit organization and would retain full control over how its tournaments are played. But all of the PGA Tour’s commercial business and rights — such as the extremely lucrative rights to televise its tournaments — would be owned by a new, still to be named for-profit entity that is currently called “NewCo.” NewCo will also own LIV as well as the commercial and business rights of the DP World Tour.

The board of directors for the new for-profit entity would be led by Yasir al-Rumayyan, who is the governor of the Public Investment Fund and also oversees LIV. Three other members of the board’s executive committee would be current members of the PGA Tour’s board, and the tour would appoint the majority of the board and hold a majority voting interest, effectively controlling it.

Not yet. For the rest of 2023, all the tours will remain separate, and all their tournaments will continue as scheduled.

Who knows? This is how Jay Monahan, the commissioner of the PGA Tour, answered questions Tuesday about what golf might look like in the future.

  • Will LIV continue to exist as a separate golf league? “I don’t want to make any statements or make any predictions.”

  • Will LIV golfers go back to the PGA Tour and DP World Tour? “We will work cooperatively to establish a fair and objective process for any players who desire to reapply for membership with the PGA Tour or the DP World Tour,” Monahan wrote in a letter to players.

  • Will PGA Tour players, many of whom spurned LIV and its huge paydays, receive compensation? Will LIV players somehow be forced to give up the money they were guaranteed? “I think those are all the serious conversations that we’re going to have,” Monahan told reporters.

Broadly, LIV players seem to think they have gained a major victory, and they are probably right. They got their cake (huge paydays) and can eat it (a pathway to returning to the PGA Tour), too.

Mickelson, the first major player to leave for LIV, tweeted that it was an “awesome day today.” Koepka took a jab at Brandel Chamblee, a former professional golfer and current television commentator, who has been vocally anti-LIV.

Many PGA Tour players were less jubilant. They were blindsided by the news, learning of the agreement when the public did, and they did not seem to understand why the tour waged a legal war against LIV and a war of morality against Saudi money, only to invite the wolf into the henhouse.

Monahan met with a group of players Tuesday in Toronto at the Canadian Open, which was set to start in two days, and afterward told reporters it was “intense, certainly heated.”

Johnson Wagner, a PGA Tour player, said on The Golf Channel that some players at the meeting called for Monahan’s resignation.

“There were many moments where certain players were calling for new leadership of the PGA Tour, and even got a couple standing ovations,” he said. “I think the most powerful moment was when a player quoted Commissioner Monahan from the 3M Open in Minnesota last year when he said, ‘As long as I’m commissioner of the PGA Tour, no player that took LIV money will ever play the PGA Tour again.’”

Wagner estimated that 90 percent of the players in the meeting were against the merger.

Possibly! The agreement was negotiated in secret over seven weeks this spring. Most of the board, players, broadcast partners and others were left in the dark until the public announcement.

Monahan stressed that there was only a “framework agreement” and not a “definitive agreement,” with many details still to be decided. The definitive agreement will have to be voted on by the PGA Tour’s policy board, which is what it calls its board of directors.

The policy board is made up of five independent directors, including Ed Herlihy and Jimmy Dunne, who helped negotiate the deal. The board also includes five players: Patrick Cantlay, Charley Hoffman, Peter Malnati, Rory McIlroy and Webb Simpson.

If Wagner’s estimate is right that 90 percent of players oppose the merger, the vote could be difficult.

“Listen, circumstances change, and they’ve been changing a lot over the last couple years,” Monahan said.

Get it? No?

“What changed? I looked at where we were at that point in time, and it was the right point in time to have a conversation,” Monahan said.

Between the lines, Monahan made it sound like the agreement came down to money and competition, as it often does. To compete with LIV, the PGA Tour has enhanced purses, supported the DP World Tour financially and pursued extremely expensive litigation. “We’ve had to invest back in our business through our reserves,” Monahan said.

He also said the ability to “take the competitor off of the board” while retaining control was significant.

The Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission or the European Commission could certainly try.

For about a year, the Justice Department has been investigating the tight-knit relationship between the PGA Tour and other powerful entities in golf. Among its questions is whether the organizations have exerted improper influence over the Official World Golf Rankings, which determine players’ eligibility for certain events and can be an important factor in their success and income.

As part of their deal, LIV and the PGA Tour agreed to drop their dueling lawsuits, but doing so would not necessarily change the Justice Department’s inquiry. If there were any illegal conduct by the PGA Tour, a merger would not prevent the PGA Tour from being punished for it.

“The announcement of a merger doesn’t forgive past sins,” said Bill Baer, who led the Justice Department’s antitrust division during the Obama administration.

The federal government, through the Justice Department and the F.T.C., also reviews more than 1,000 mergers for approval each year, and the European Commission reviews them for the European Union. Without a definitive agreement, it is not clear whether this might be the type of combination regulators could block or whether they would try to do so.

As always, Saudi Arabia has the perfect vehicle to gain more control: money.

The Public Investment Fund will invest “billions,” according to its governor, al-Rumayyan, into the new for-profit entity. It will also hold “the exclusive right to further invest in the new entity, including a right of first refusal on any capital that may be invested in the new entity, including into the PGA Tour, LIV Golf and DP World Tour,” according to the release announcing the agreement.

If the Public Investment Fund invests more money, it will surely demand more board seats and greater voting rights, further tilting control of men’s professional golf toward the kingdom.

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