Almost a year ago to the day, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan joined CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz for a live television interview at the RBC Canadian Open in Toronto. The Saudi-backed LIV Golf, the upstart rival to the PGA that had raided the tour to sign some of its star players, like Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and Bryson DeChambeau, to lucrative contracts, had just kicked off its first event, in London.
Nantz started the discussion noting that 9/11 Families United had sent a letter to representatives of newly minted LIV golfers accusing them of “betraying the United States.” Families have filed lawsuits accusing Saudi Arabia of playing a role in the attacks—15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. Saudi Arabia has denied such accusations. The kingdom, however, has a long history of human rights abuses; a U.S. intelligence report, for example, concluded that the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, approved the operation that resulted in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a long-term U.S. resident.
“You’d have to be living under a rock,” Monahan told Nantz, “not to know that there are significant implications” for signing on with LIV. Monahan mentioned that two families close to him lost loved ones in the attacks. “I would ask any player that has left, or any player that would ever consider leaving, have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?” Monahan said. Litigation between the two entities soon commenced.
That clip, which is still posted on the PGA Tour’s Twitter page, is remarkable to view in light of today’s stunning news: the PGA Tour and LIV Golf—along with the DP World Tour, or the European Tour—have agreed to merge, and in theory form a unified global entity to showcase the game of golf. All litigation between the two bodies will cease.
While the exact structure of this unnamed, for-profit entity—and what it means for golf fans—is still being worked out, it seems safe to say that the PGA Tour and the players themselves will directly benefit from Saudi investment, especially when it comes to prize money. The kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), according to the release announcing the merger, “will have 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.”
Monahan isn’t mentioning any apologies today.
For almost two years, since word of LIV Golf’s impending launch began causing jitters, the PGA Tour and many of its players—especially four-time major winner Rory McIlroy—have bashed the emergent entity. “There’s no room in the golf world for LIV Golf,” says McIlroy. “I don’t agree with what LIV is doing. If LIV went away tomorrow, I’d be super happy.” The announcement caught Tour players off-guard. “Very curious how many people knew this deal was happening,” Michael Kim wrote on Twitter. “About 5-7 people? Player run organization right?”
“So, you preach loyalty to a tour and convince guys not to take 8 and 9 figure deals based, in part, on that loyalty and, in part, on the source of the money,” ESPN anchor and golf studio host Scott van Pelt wrote on Twitter. “Then those guys find out on Twitter YOU took the very same money?”
Some pundits compared the merger to the NBA-ABA unification in 1976, or the NFL combining with the AFL a decade earlier. Indeed, it’s been a long time since an upstart sports entity bullied its way into the establishment. And both the NBA and NFL were better off, long-term, after absorbing the other entity’s players and franchises.
But there’s a crucial difference between these deals and the PGA-LIV marriage. The ABA and AFL were backed by polyester manufacturers who made a savvy business call and a guy who dressed like your neighbor in the witness protection program, Not the sovereign wealth fund of a state with a troubling record of malfeasance.
The Saudis, however, have kept their aggressive push into sports, maintaining that sports investment plays a key part of the cultural transformation of the kingdom while contributing to its economic diversification. Critics call it “sportswashing.” Cristiano Ronaldo, the five-time world player of the year, is getting a reported $75 million per year to play in the Saudi soccer league. Saudi Arabia may bid on the 2030 World Cup, and the PIF purchased Newcastle United, the English Premier League club, in 2021. F1’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix debuted two years ago. Saudi Arabia has hosted boxing and WWE events.
Given all the acrimony between the PGA Tour and LIV, the tour seemed likely to resist the Saudi sports play. That’s why this deal is such a stunner. Golf couldn’t resist the cash, which speaks louder than any human rights group.
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