In 11 years of covering professional golf, no single piece of news has been more shocking. Nothing Tiger Woods has done, no tournament outcome, no single shot at a major championship, not even the genesis of LIV Golf just over a year ago.
On Tuesday,from Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund and create its own for-profit entity -- to preside over the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and LIV Golf -- immediately became the golf news of the decade.
It kickstarted what became an "Is this tweet real or fake? I need to check 100 times before my brain can accept it!" type of day.
Anyone who would have known about such a development was in attendance at the PGA Championship two weeks ago. When media, players, agents and officials all get together on the same property, it's virtually impossible to keep anything tight-lipped. Yet, not only was there no mention of this as a possible outcome, nobody even hinted at it as a possibility. Reportedly even Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy didn't know about the framework agreement until Tuesday.
In fact, just three weeks ago, the PGA Tour reportedly declined a deal at the last minute in which Raytheon would have become the title sponsor of the Byron Nelson. Why? The optics of Raytheon selling military equipment to Saudi Arabia while also sponsoring a PGA Tour event would have been a tough look for commissioner Jay Monahan and the Tour itself.
If that was what was happening publicly -- during a down market in which it's difficult to find title sponsors -- how could anyone suspect something different was happening privately?
And yet, over the course of the last two months, Monahan and PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan were meeting in secret to form a entity that would meld together the global game while simultaneously ending pending litigation between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf. It feels a bit like a "Succession" episode -- and there's no question it is an all-time power play by Monahan.
What does it mean for the game, the players and the leagues? Let's take a look.
Desired outcomes achieved
Despite all the posturing and nonsense in public and private, both sides ultimately reached an outcome that satisfied their desires. All the PIF has ever wanted to have its hands in the world of golf; it had no real interest in running a league. Just look at the PIF's investments in Newcastle United FC, WWE, the Aston Martin F1 team and pro soccer teams in its own country. Its aim is to have its tentacles in as many sports as possible, and there are numerous reasons behind that goal.
It starts with diversifying assets. It's no secret that Saudi Arabia is trying to wean itself off oil, and sports is a fun (if sometimes unprofitable) way to accomplish that task. The nation is also thirsty for global influence, and it's be difficult to find a trio of more globally influential sports than soccer, golf and the F1. (WWE's international reach should not be ignored, either.) There is also the sportswashing aspect of the enterprise, which will be touched on momentarily.
The dirty little secret from this merger is that the PIF has wanted a similar outcome all along. Do you really believe Al-Rumayyan cares enough to spend his time determining whether a shotgun start is the fairest way to begin a tournament or taking Justine Reed's calls about pin placement? Of course not.
Let's go back to this excellent New Yorker article from last fall.
In 2018, Rumayyan appointed a high-school friend, Majed Al Sorour, to be the C.E.O. of the Saudi Golf Federation. Both men are golf obsessives. (Each claims a twelve handicap.) They began asserting their presence in the golf world. At the Masters one year, according to a person familiar with the conversations, they asked about renting Augusta National's clubhouse to host a meet and greet for top golfers. "You can't just do that," the person said.
Sorour, a big-biceped, aviator-wearing former soccer player, also began searching for investments. He told me recently that he'd approached the P.G.A. Tour's commissioner, Jay Monahan. "What I said to him is I have a budget of over a billion dollars that I'd like to invest in the Tour," he said. "I got no response." (Tour officials deny that they were approached with such an offer.)
When the PGA Tour allegedly rebuffed the PIF's efforts several years ago to ... do exactly what it did Tuesday by infusing the Tour with ungodly amounts of Saudi money, Al Sorour and Al-Rumayyan chose to flex financially and thumb their noses at the Tour by creating LIV Golf.
The PGA Tour side is slightly more complicated. Was this Monahan's plan all along? If so, it's a significant indictment on him as a leader that he would spend a year hammering LIV Golf, rhetorically asking whether anyone was ever ashamed of playing on the PGA Tour, and rolling out his superstars (most often Rory McIlroy) to speak on publicly praise the league ... only to turn around and sell everyone out for whatever the PIF decided to invest into this newly formed entity.
The more charitable (albeit also unflattering) reading of it? The PGA Tour found itself in a bad spot legally, whether due to the merits of the case or what might be uncovered by opening its books to the Department of Justice in discovery as the DOJ also considered antitrust allegations. (You can bet the PIF and its leaders had no interest in similar exposure.) Perhaps Monahan realized the PIF could make the PGA Tour bleed money as long as it wanted given its endless reserves, and even if LIV Golf was without momentum or foreseeable growth, settling became a more attractive option.
This is, of course, how a lot of litigation often plays out. In retrospect, while the outcome seems perhaps not obvious, it does at least appear reasonable. However, it nevertheless caught everyone by surprise because of how much public animosity was already on the table, perhaps most notably from the PGA Tour membership that seemingly sacrificed so much financially only to see their colleagues flee for the money.
Legal hurdles ahead?
Joseph LaMagna brought this up first: What if this deal gets blocked by the DOJ for violating antitrust laws when that was why the two entities were in a lawsuit in the first place? Could that happen? It's certainly possible. And now, ironically, some of the Tour's arguments against LIV might be used against the Tour itself.
So weird. PGA officials were in my office just months ago talking about how the Saudis' human rights record should disqualify them from having a stake in a major American sport.— Chris Murphy 🟧 (@ChrisMurphyCT) June 6, 2023
I guess maybe their concerns weren't really about human rights? https://t.co/SQ9HQuBsNT
A different prism
Monahan is not a beloved man on the PGA Tour today. Players are gobsmacked by the news. Nearly all of them found out the same as you did via breaking news alert, Twitter or otherwise. After a year of championing for the good of the league, it appears to many of them as if Monahan pulled a Lincoln Riley without even so much as a heads-up text.
I love finding out morning news on Twitter— Collin Morikawa (@collin_morikawa) June 6, 2023
Again, if this was Monahan's plan all along, it's gross. To play the 9/11 card like he did, rally his troops for the good of the league and constantly trot his players out to defend the position ... only to ultimately make the deal they were all fighting against? At best, that's weak leadership. At worst, it's cowardice and hypocrisy.
"I recognize that people are going to call me a hypocrite," Monhan said late Tuesday. "Anytime I've said anything, I've said it with the information I've had at the moment, and I've said it as someone who was trying to compete for the PGA Tour and our players. I accept those criticisms, but circumstances do change. Looking at the big picture and looking at it this way, that's what got us to this point."
However, there's a different way to look at this, if you choose. As Michael Rosenberg wrote, Monahan effectively ended LIV as an entity and simultaneously brought about a windfall to his league. In other words, the PIF paid the PGA Tour for LIV Golf to go away as a direct competitor.
That's pretty wild, but it was also unnecessary. Remember: The PIF has reportedly been trying to give the PGA Tour money for years, and Monahan either didn't have the foresight to see this is how it would end, or he really believed in his own ability to take a stand until the chips were truly down and the DOJ was bucking its head against him.
How angry are the players?
Imagine being McIlroy. Imagine being Tiger Woods. Imagine being Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth, Max Homa or any number of other players who turned down obscene money to stay loyal to the PGA Tour. For the last year, you've spent time, effort and energy standing up for your league, your commissioner and your future. Meanwhile, your propping up of the league was ultimately leveraged by Monahan to Al-Rumayyan.
Is that exactly what happened? We do not know quite yet. But that's what it certainly feels like for some of the game's biggest stars.
"Those players that have been loyal to the PGA Tour, I'm confident that the move they made -- they made the right decision," Monahan said Tuesday. "They helped rearchitect the future of the PGA Tour. They moved us to a more pro-competitive model. … As we finalize this process, any player that has stayed is going to realize that the money that they are going to make, the strength of this platform, all the things we talk about are going to put them in a really strong position.
"They are going to win. They are going to continue to grow. We're in a control position on their behalf as we move forward in this structure. I get it. I can't specifically talk about what the impact is today. I can't talk specifically about what it's going to be in the future until we complete the definitive agreement. … We will have gotten to that point in time because the case we made is very clear."
McIlroy especially must, at least in part, feel like a pawn. He did all of Monahan's bidding. He sat front and center at all the press conferences and sit downs Monahan probably should have been leading. And for what? So Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau could collect half a billion dollars and carve a path back to the PGA Tour?
Truly a "have your cake and eat it, too" situation for them. Truly a gut punch for those who did not take the money.
Dan Rapaport reported Tuesday that LIV players will be fined if and when they reapply for PGA Tour membership. OK, but is Mickelson going to be fined $200 million? Surely not. How is that going to sit with everyone who chose not to go?
"Those are all the serious conversations that we're going to have," Monahan said. "We're going to have them with our board, and ultimately, everything needs to be considered. What you're talking about is an equalization over time. And I think that's a fair and reasonable concept."
McIlroy has always enjoyed agency and autonomy. He makes decisions about his world that most other players pass off to their teams. He likes being in control, enjoys leading, prefers to be known as somebody that cares about things that are worth caring about in sport. What he does not enjoy is the feeling like he was played.
Even if that was not overt or purposeful by Monahan and the Tour, the way everything looks early in the formation of this new entity is that Rory got used in ways that will not be easy to forget.
Is LIV Golf going away?
This is a big question. The three tours -- PGA Tour, DP World Tour and LIV Golf -- have been aligned under this new for-profit entity in which Monahan will be the CEO and Al-Rumayyan will serve as executive chairman. Monahan said in a memo to players Tuesday that the LIV Golf schedule will go on as planned for 2023 before they "conduct a comprehensive evaluation of LIV Golf and determine how best to integrate team golf into the professional game." In a press conference with the media later Tuesday, he was equally as evasive about LIV's future.
One LIV player with whom I spoke Tuesday said they are all waiting to hear how this will work out. Will the Tour keep LIV around, turn it into something else or just swipe the team concept altogether and apply it to both its PGA Tour and DP World Tour golf? All of that remains to be seen, and perhaps the biggest on-the-course question all of this raises is how these three (or maybe just two) leagues will coexist and interact.
"I can't see that scenario," said Monahan about LIV Golf running events concurrent to PGA Tour tournaments, "but I haven't gotten into the full evaluation, full empirical evaluation of LIV that I'm going to do to be able to comment on that. But I don't see that scenario, no. To me, any scenarios that you're thinking about that bridge between the PGA Tour and LIV would be longer term in nature."
Players lose control
Will the PGA Tour policy board have to approve of this merger? The 10-person board is split between five players and five non-players. It could get interesting if any of this comes to a vote. Either way, players are losing a lot of control because of the newly formed for-profit entity with Al-Ramayyan as chairman. That will feel harsh to a group that has been running its own league for several decades, but ultimately, it will likely only benefit an organization to take business decisions out of the hands of players.
Ultimately a good thing?
Was Phil ... right? The question needs clarification. As in, what exactly would Phil be right about? I'm not even sure he could have conceived of this movie-like script in which he partnered with the sovereign wealth fund of a hostile foreign nation and somehow unified the commissioner of his old league with the benefactor of his new one to the tune of a $200 million payday and even more massive purses to play for in the future. It has been a stunning turn of events in a shocking amount of time.
I don't know if Phil was right because I don't know which of the 1,000 things he's said folks are referencing when they cite that he was right. What I do know is that he was successful. By writing the LIV Golf operating agreement, he changed the future of golf forever, possibly even for the better.
There are moral concerns, of course. Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund is among the largest of its kind globally. While already accused of "sportswashing" for its other related interests -- using sports as propaganda to improve one's reputation and direct attention away from human rights and corruption scandals -- it created LIV Golf to similar fervor.
That was the big talking point this time last year, and that discourse does still exist. Whether you believe businesses or sports entities are responsible for taking a moral stand is a legitimate question, but the players are no longer culpable. Monahan made the call. He accepted the money. Blame him if you want to blame somebody.
If you strictly want to talk about the golf, this is almost certainly a positive outcome. Monopolies, for lack of a better term, are desirous in sports, and the conglomeration of these three leagues represents a reunification of all the best players in the world. That's good for fans, probably mostly good for players and ultimately much better for the sport itself than the fractured, broken golf world that has existed for the last 12 months.