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PGA Tour, LIV Golf, DP World Tour merger: Just business—and a betrayal.

Jun 12, 2023Jun 12, 2023

The Saudi Arabian government did not wind up buying out the top tier of men's professional golf, but it did buy into it, permanently. A year after the Saudis fractured the sport with the debut of LIV Golf, a child of their Public Investment Fund, the PGA Tour made peace on Tuesday with its sworn enemy. The American tour will combine itself in a new entity with both the PIF (which owns LIV) and the European Tour (now called the DP World Tour on sponsorship grounds) to form a unified global center for the elite of the elite players.

It looks more like a merger (their term) than an acquisition of one by the other. The parties will stop suing each other, as they’ve been doing for the better part of the past year. The PGA Tour's nominally nonprofit arm will keep running the tournaments it puts on now, and the tour will have a controlling voting interest on its new postwar council with the PIF. The Saudis "will initially be the exclusive investor in the new entity," the big announcement says, and will have the right of first refusal to make future equity investments. The PGA Tour will run this huge chunk of pro golf, but the Saudi government will own at least a big chunk of it, with the sole right to acquire more. (The announcement language is unclear on the PGA Tour's and European Tour's initial financial stakes.) It's unknown whether LIV Golf will continue holding tournaments under its own banner, what those events will look like, and how it will share a sandbox with its new partners in America and Europe. The sides will "work cooperatively and in good faith to establish a fair and objective process" for LIV players to get back onto the PGA Tour and European Tour, which suspended them when they first left.

The union surprised virtually the entire golf media world and all or nearly all of the PGA Tour's players, some of whom said they learned of it at the same time you did. Whether those players will make out well or poorly on the deal depends on a few things, including their own values. The same goes for golf fans.

Viewed only through the lens of making golf tournaments more entertaining, a LIV–PGA Tour–European Tour trio is good news. For 50-some years, the best men's golfers in the world got together not just at the four major championships, but for several other tournaments on the PGA Tour calendar. When LIV cannonballed in, it diluted golf's talent pool. Tournaments did not get more compelling when Dustin Johnson, Cameron Smith, Brooks Koepka, and Phil Mickelson stopped playing against the world's other elite players. It certainly sounds like there will now be more chances for LIV players, if they even remain "LIV players," to go up against the peers they used to see on a regular basis. Given that the PGA Tour's response to LIV included introducing a system where the best players are required to show up at particular tournaments, this new reality could feature more best-on-best events than ever before.

The merger does not represent the Saudis taking over pro golf, but it does signify the Kingdom taking a permanent foothold. The PGA Tour's board control seems to mean it will still wield operational power over how tournaments look and how the golf calendar is structured. But the Saudis’ status as the dominant investor in the new entity, for as long as they want to be, is not nothing. A push-and-pull is coming between the part of the new organization that governs the golf (the PGA Tour) and the one that makes the investments in it (the PIF).

Everyone, after all, had a little leverage. LIV Golf lacks juice. It is an exceptionally boring edition of the sport, because it lacks any history to draw on or any reason for anyone other than its players to care about the results of its tournaments. It couldn't get a serious TV deal and was reduced to a profit-sharing arrangement on the CW, a channel most people would never think to check for golf. The PGA Tour was on the front foot and had far more interesting golf on channels that fans actually watch. But the Saudi government, which is one and the same as the PIF, was never going to run out of money. So the sport gets a deal like this one: The Saudis are allotted a seat at the table in golf's polite society, and the PGA Tour gets to be friends instead of adversaries with an investor who has more cash—and lawyers—than God.

That investor is also, you know, a country with a dismal human-rights record. Enjoying golf while having even a glancing interest in any kind of justice has always been a cognitive dissonance trick. It's a rich-skewing, white-skewing, often purposefully exclusionary game that uses unfathomable quantities of water for private recreation. (Though there are some promising things happening in golf sustainability. Don't laugh!) The Saudis becoming a permanent fixture at the sport's top tier adds another, deeper level to the things one must square, or ignore, when deciding to enjoy golf. The sport has many black marks, but until now, equity ownership by an autocrat who has dissidents taken apart with saws was not among them.

Jay Monahan, the commissioner of the PGA Tour who is slated to be chief executive of the new company with the Saudis, understands who his new partners are. The video clip that will follow Monahan around for the rest of his days was shot almost exactly a year ago, at the first PGA Tour event after LIV began to pick off tour players. Monahan spoke of opposition to the new tour from families of Sept. 11 victims and survivors, wary that a country that may have been involved in their loved ones’ deaths was now getting into golf. "I think you’d have to be living under a rock to not know that there are significant implications," Monahan said then. "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?"

Jay Monahan, Commissioner of the PGA TOUR, using 9/11 to shame players last year for taking life changing money from LIV…Now, he has no problem with the money and merges LIV Golf with the PGA.

About that: "Our entire 9/11 community has been betrayed by Commissioner Monahan and the PGA as it appears their concern for our loved ones was merely window-dressing in their quest for money—it was never to honor the great game of golf," those families said Tuesday. Monahan will not be able to spin his hypocrisy in the press, but maybe he can do it for himself, at least. We all have to rest our heads at night.

At least Monahan is being rewarded for his trouble. He brokered the agreement with PIF head Yasir al-Rumayyan in a series of stealth meetings around the world over the past few months, as the Financial Times reported. Monahan did not involve the tour's player base in any wide-scale way, if he did at all. Monahan did a deal that made himself something akin to Prime Minister of Global Golf, with a group he had spent the past year vilifying as his coalition partner. That Monahan pursued the deal and put it into action so secretly makes more than a bit of mockery of the tour's image as a "player-run organization." It was a purported lack of player input in tour governance that Mickelson cited as a reason for his defection to LIV in 2022. Monahan proved him right and made Mickelson a winner for taking the Saudis’ millions.

Monahan will have work to do on his own players. He’ll have to explain to them what's happening, first off, after months building a deal that changes all of their lives. But he’ll also need to smooth things over with players who declined to take LIV's enormous guarantees not because of any more morals, but because Monahan or his allies persuaded them to be loyal. How will they feel when defectors to LIV return with millions of extra dollars in the bank? Will those players face any barriers on their way back in? Will some of the players who didn't leave expect to be made whole for the deals they never took? And what of the players the PGA Tour delegated to prosecute its case against LIV in the media over the past 12 months? Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas gave press conference after press conference decrying the Saudi tour. Tiger Woods did, too. They’ll all look hypocritical, too, if they embrace their new bosses. At least the tour's best players have gotten paid more money as a result of LIV-driven reforms. But still, it seems possible that Monahan has a big political problem on his hands:

Spoke with several @PGATOUR players who were a part of a meeting in Delaware that ultimately reshaped the Tour schedule. Most of those players were offered @livgolf_league money but turned it down to be loyal to the Tour. Those players told me they feel betrayed and manipulated.

Any player who did frame his opposition to LIV in moral terms deserves credit, because he was cutting against the grain. That was part of McIlroy's tone as far back as 2020, when the Saudis first started sniffing around a big golf investment, though he had softened up on LIV in recent months and weeks. (One wonders if he was one of the few who had an inkling of what was coming.) [Update, 5:00 p.m.: He reportedly did not.] Most of the official arguments against LIV weren't about unsavory entanglements but about the tour's 54-hole, no-cut tournament format or the need to stay loyal to a PGA Tour that Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Woods built. Rich, authoritarian governments and their buddies have bought up a lot of sporting real estate this century, and that won't stop. Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich's purchase of Chelsea F.C. in 2003 kicked off an era in soccer that now includes the PIF spending eye-watering sums on that sport's biggest icons. The Olympics were just in China. The World Cup was just in Qatar. There are arguments about whether those hostings are OK, but there is no real battle to be waged. The money usually wins.

Because the money tends to win, the outcome in professional golf's saga could have been grosser. The PIF could have squashed its counterpart or bought it altogether, as it has reportedly explored doing in professional wrestling. The PGA Tour—which is just a regular ol’ cash-hungry business and not a government using 5-irons as geopolitical tools—can at least retain a sense of itself. Golf has always aspired to sell you something: rounds at your local course, clubs, balls, lessons, consulting services, fancy cars, dreams, and anything else that can fit into an expensive 30-second spot on a Sunday afternoon. Enough of us have bought it—all of it—that the Saudis decided golf was a business worth getting into. Tuesday's deal solidifies that they aren't leasing the storefront. And in the elite rung of men's golf, there's now nowhere else to shop.