Surprise Merger of PGA Tour, Saudi-Backed LIV Golf Stuns Sport

In a surprise announcement this week, the PGA Tour, golf’s long-established premier professional league, announced that it would merge with LIV Golf, an upstart league founded by the Saudi Arabian government’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which was founded in 2021 and began hosting tournaments only last year.

The announcement, unexpected by most people associated with the sport, was particularly surprising because the relationship between the two leagues had seemed overtly hostile since LIV began spending money lavishly to lure top golfers away from the PGA.

“After two years of disruption and distraction, this is a historic day for the game we all know and love,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said in a statement released by his league.

“Today is a very exciting day for this special game and the people it touches around the world,” PIF Governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan said in the same document. “We are proud to partner with the PGA Tour to leverage PIF’s unparalleled success and track record of unlocking value and bringing innovation and global best practices to business and sectors worldwide.”

Major change

The pleasantries that marked the announcement were a marked departure from the way the PGA’s leadership was talking about LIV only last year. As LIV began competing with the PGA for talent, Monahan and others repeatedly cited the Saudi government’s poor human rights record, in an apparent attempt to shame golfers into remaining in the fold.

In a widely cited television interview last June, Monahan asked wavering PGA golfers to ask themselves, “Have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?”

John A. Fortunato, a professor at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business and author of the book Making the Cut: Life Inside the PGA Tour System, told VOA he was surprised by the PGA’s change in tone.

“My first impression was complete shock,” Fortunato said. “I didn’t see it coming. I just thought there was such antagonism between the two and that because of the association with the Saudis, the PGA would never merge with that group.”

Activist groups that oppose the Saudi regime, including 9/11 Families United, which blames the Saudi government for its ties to the 9/11 terror attacks, were angered by the announcement.

Terry Strada, who chairs the group, said in a statement, “PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan co-opted the 9/11 community last year in the PGA’s unequivocal agreement that the Saudi LIV project was nothing more than sportswashing of Saudi Arabia’s reputation. But now the PGA and Monahan appear to have become just more paid Saudi shills, taking billions of dollars to cleanse the Saudi reputation.”

Tough competitor

LIV Golf first appeared on the scene in 2021 with a handful of big-name supporters, including Australian golf legend Greg Norman as its CEO, and a whole lot of money. As the league’s debut neared in 2022, it began spreading some of that money around.

LIV reportedly dangled signing bonuses in the tens of millions of dollars in a successful bid to entice several well-known players to join its ranks, attracting notable figures including American Dustin Johnson and Spaniard Sergio Garcia.

LIV also promised eye-popping purses for tournament winners, often several times the value of those offered at comparable PGA Tour events. In its inaugural tournament last year, winner Carl Schwartzel earned $4 million. At the same event, Schwarzel was a member of the team that won a group competition and split another $3 million.

That same weekend on the PGA Tour, Rory McIlroy won the prestigious RBC Canadian Open and took home a relatively modest $1.5 million.

Rethinking golf

The wealth of its prize money was not the only way in which LIV tried to differentiate itself from the PGA Tour. The Saudi-backed league marketed itself as a modernized version of the game, with events marked by raucous music, a relaxed dress code and new playing formats, including a team-based competition.

The league’s name comes from the Roman numerals that make up the number 54 — a reference to the number of holes played in the league’s tournaments, which consist of three rounds of 18 holes each. By contrast, PGA Tour events last for four rounds and 72 holes, though many of the lowest-performing participants are eliminated, or “cut,” at the halfway point.

After its initial tournament in 2022, the PGA announced that any of its members who had participated would be suspended and blocked from playing in future PGA-sponsored events.

However, as the year went on, a steady stream of players began migrating to the new league. And because the PGA does not sponsor some of the sport’s most significant tournaments, including the Masters Tournament and the U.S. Open, LIV players were not barred from them, and several finished in the top ranks.

This May, after LIV player Brooks Koepka won the PGA Championship — which is sponsored by the Professional Golfers’ Association of America, not the PGA Tour — many connected to the sport began to wonder if it would remain financially viable for the PGA Tour to continue suspending players of his caliber.

Work to be done

The answer, which became clear on Tuesday, was that it would not.

The leaders of the PGA Tour had swallowed their concerns about being associated with Saudi Arabia and agreed to a merger. The deal will leave the PGA Tour’s Monahan as CEO of the as-yet-unnamed new entity, with PIF’s Al-Rumayyan as chairman of the board.

Even with the deal signed, there appears to be a significant amount of work to be done to repair the damage the yearlong schism has inflicted on the sport.

Many players who remained loyal to the PGA Tour declined tens of millions of dollars each in signing bonuses offered by LIV, as well as the opportunity to play in its big-money tournaments. LIV CEO Norman last year told The Washington Post that Tiger Woods, tied for first in total career PGA Tour victories, turned down a sum that was “mind-blowingly enormous; we’re talking about high nine digits.”

For those players, having their loyalty rewarded with a surprise merger that invites LIV golfers back into PGA Tour events will likely be a bitter pill, and one that could threaten a successful reintegration.

Fortunato of Fordham told VOA he expects that LIV golfers will face some sort of penalty, most likely a fine. But he said that won’t make up for the fact that many of them earned windfall profits from their brief association with the league — money that other golfers consciously decided to forego.

“I want to see what they do for Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, who stuck with [the PGA] through all of this,” Fortunato said. “Do they do something further for those guys? It would have to be substantial. We’re talking about millions of dollars.”

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