Tue, Jun 6, 2023 7:05 PM
By DOUG FERGUSON, AP Golf Writer
The announcement was so shocking that not even PGA Tour players knew what was coming. The tour was fighting the threat of Saudi-backed LIV Golf for more than a year. On Tuesday, they decided to start working together.
The PGA Tour, European tour and Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund say they will combine their commercial businesses into a new company with hopes of unifying golf.
That means all lawsuits are being dropped immediately. The other details create as many questions as answers. That starts with whether top stars like Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka — suspended for taking massive Saudi money to leave the PGA Tour for LIV — will have a way back. They would rejoin players who stayed loyal to the tour.
The PGA Tour was in federal court trying to require Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of the Public Investment Fund, to give testimony in an antitrust case. And now, Al-Rumayyan is on the PGA Tour board of directors. He also will be chairman of the new business venture involving the three tours.
Some players felt they were betrayed. Top players have not commented because they know so little about what this means.
Missing from all the announcements was Greg Norman, the commissioner of LIV Golf.
LIV Golf is a rival league funded by the Saudi Arabia sovereign wealth fund that has tried to reinvent the structure of professional golf with 48-man fields, no mid-tournament cuts and up to $25 million in prize money. There also is a team component. The league is run by Greg Norman, a former PGA Tour star who tried nearly 30 years ago to create a world tour. LIV Golf lured away 13 former major champions, including Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, who then were suspended by the PGA Tour.
The kingdom has been investing in sports and entertainment in recent years as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's initiative called “Vision 2030” to diversify and reduce its dependence on oil. Golf was a natural fit.
It has led to accusations of “ sportswashing," an attempt to use sports investments to gloss over human rights abuses, such as the 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA says occurred on the orders of bin Salman.
LIV Golf was trying to get all the top players in the world ranking. A majority of them turned down bonuses estimated at $100 million or more to stay loyal to the PGA Tour.
Rory McIlroy accused LIV defectors of “taking the easy way out” and Tiger Woods said they “turned their backs” on the very tour that made them famous. It also caused a great divide in golf, because LIV players were not allowed to play on the PGA Tour. Now they are angry over the notion LIV players might return without consequences.
The PGA Tour looks nothing like it did when LIV Golf started. PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan says he couldn't match Saudi money, but it wasn't because of a lack of effort. This year the PGA Tour had 13 “elevated events” with $20 million purses. For 2024, it has returned its schedule to start in January and end in August. There will be about 15 tournaments with $20 million purses — nearly twice as much as they were — for the top 50 in the season points race on the PGA Tour.
Monahan refused to meet with the Saudi Golf group for two years. But a few months ago, PGA Tour board member Jimmy Dunne arranged a meeting. Monahan, European tour CEO Keith Pelley and Al-Rumayyan began working out an agreement. Monahan realized LIV Golf had a deep well of funds and wasn't going anywhere. He says golf was too divided and had too much tension and it was best for everyone to come together.
The PGA Tour policy board will add Al-Rumayyan, and then it will either add another player or remove one of the spots that belong to the corporate world. The new commercial company — it still doesn't have a name — will have Al-Rumayyan as the chairman and Monahan as the CEO. The PGA Tour will have a majority stake in the new company. However, PIF at first will be the exclusive investor alongside the PGA Tour, LIV Golf and the DP World Tour. Going forward, PIF will have the exclusive right to further invest.
The PGA Tour will keep tax-exempt status as a 501-c-6 organization that is charity driven. As far as fans are concerned, it will still be the same logo and the same tour. Ditto for the European tour, whose commercial name is DP World Tour.
LIV Golf will finish its second season this year as scheduled. After that is anyone’s guess. Monahan says officials will conduct a thorough evaluation of how to integrate team golf into the PGA Tour. LIV Golf was trying to turn its 12 teams into franchises. No one had sponsored a team.
It is unlikely that if LIV Golf still exists, players can play both sides. That's what led to this in the first place. Curiously missing from all the announcements was Norman's name. Al-Rumayyan said on CNBC that he told Norman about the merging tours only a few minutes before the announcement.
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