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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

PGA Tour agrees to merge with Saudi-backed LIV Golf

Phil Mickelson plays a shot on the eighth hole during a practice round prior to the 2023 PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club on May 17, 2023 in Rochester, New York.   (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
By Matt Bonesteel and Rick Maese Washington Post

The PGA Tour on Tuesday announced that it was merging operations with LIV Golf, the Saudi-funded breakaway league that roiled professional golf by luring some of the game’s best players with hefty paychecks, a lighter schedule and less-competitive tournaments.

The stunning announcement came after months of pointed rhetoric, bitter feelings and heated debate about the human rights record of the breakaway tour’s Saudi backers. It also came amid ongoing litigation between LIV and the PGA Tour, which each filed lawsuits against the other. In August, LIV Golf filed an antitrust suit saying the tour - by banning players who had defected to LIV - was intentionally trying to curtail competition. The PGA Tour countered with a lawsuit that claims LIV committed “tortious interference” by encouraging golfers to violate terms of their existing tour contracts.

The two sides have agreed to mutually end “all pending litigation between the participating parties,” the PGA Tour said in a statement announcing the agreement, which also includes the DP World Tour, the Europe-based league. Under terms of the deal, the three tours organizations will combine to create a new for-profit commercial entity and will continue operating distinct tours, at least for now. In addition, the PGA Tour will continue operating as a nonprofit organization, and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund will become a major tour sponsor, a provision that stunned many in the golf world after tour officials and golfers spent 18 months disparaging LIV’s Saudi funding.

The negotiations took place in secret, with a small number of people from either organization aware that a deal was imminent, according to two people familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. Discussions started several weeks ago and intensified over the past week or so, one of those people said, which left players and high-ranking employees of both tours to learn about the deal from news reports Tuesday morning.

“I love finding out morning news on Twitter,” PGA Tour golfer Collin Morikawa tweeted.

The vague announcement left many unanswered questions, including how and when LIV players would be welcomed back into the PGA Tour’s fold. LIV’s current season schedule will continue, with seven remaining events, starting with a stop in Spain later this month. There were no immediate details about LIV’s status beyond this season.

PGA Tour players, many of whom expressed confusion on social media, were expected to meet Tuesday afternoon in Toronto, site of this week’s Canadian Open. PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan sent a letter to tour players Tuesday morning, saying officials “will conduct a comprehensive evaluation of LIV Golf and determine how best to integrate team golf into the professional game.” Many PGA Tour golfers passed on lucrative LIV offers to remain loyal to the tour. LIV players, banned from the PGA Tour after joining the breakaway circuit, could face repercussions, possibly including fines or suspensions, if they want to return.

“This is a complicated endeavor and one that will be guided by established PGA TOUR rules and regulations,” Monahan wrote to the players.

While PGA Tour officials and some players had objected to the Saudi funding of LIV, the Saudis will now be a major financial backer of the tour. Monahan said Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund will be a “premier corporate sponsor,” and Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the PIF governor, will serve as chair of a board of directors of the new commercial entity, with Monahan continuing in his role as chief executive.

With its deep-pocketed Saudi investors, LIV was able to sign away some of the PGA Tour’s biggest names, including major champions Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Cameron Smith, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau. The LIV tour staged eight events last year and seven so far this year but was never close to turning a profit. The league struggled to find a broadcast partner, eventually striking a modest TV deal with the CW Network, and never signed any big-name corporate sponsors, instead relying on Saudi Arabia’s PIF to almost exclusively fund the project.

The deal came together without the knowledge of the network partners, according to an executive at one of the PGA Tour’s broadcast partners. “We just learned about this,” the executive said, adding even many of its Tour contacts had no knowledge of the deal before Tuesday morning.

How the merger might impact golf telecasts, one front of the battle between the two leagues, is unclear. The PGA Tour has lucrative deals with NBC, CBS and ESPN’s streaming service, ESPN+, and as LIV sought its own TV deal, those networks showed little interest in LIV, at least in part to keep their partner, the PGA Tour, stronger. LIV eventually partnered with CW, a nontraditional sports broadcaster, but drew paltry TV ratings and quickly stopped reporting its viewership.

LIV Golf was widely criticized as “sportswashing,” an attempt by the Saudi Arabian government to distract from the country’s human rights abuses, including the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA has concluded was approved by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Players were often asked about the moral implications of playing for LIV, while Mickelson created a maelstrom by telling journalist Alan Shipnuck that the Saudis were “scary motherf——— to get involved with.” He later took an extended absence from the game.

“So weird,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted on Tuesday, “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. I guess maybe their concerns weren’t really about human rights?”

Terry Strada, the chair 9/11 Families United, an advocacy group that had protested some LIV Golf events because of its Saudi ties, said Tuesday that Monahan had “co-opted the 9/11 community” and now “the PGA and Monahan appear to have become just more paid Saudi shills.” Monahan last year said he “would ask any player that has left or any player that would consider leaving, have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?” comments cited by Strada on Tuesday.

“PGA Tour leaders should be ashamed of their hypocrisy and greed,” said Strada, whose husband Tom died in the World Trade Center, and who has accused the Saudis of helping to finance terrorism. “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.”

The bitter conflict was costly for both tours, and the agreement was touted as a victory for each side. While LIV struggled to establish revenue streams, the PGA Tour was spending millions on legal fees as it sought to tamp down the threat posed by the upstart.

But even as LIV and the PGA Tour were both left wounded by the sport’s acrimonious civil war, players on both sides prospered. LIV dangled the lucrative checks and the PGA Tour was forced to respond, revamping its own prize structure and creating new moneymaking opportunities for tour players.

“After two years of disruption and distraction, this is a historic day for the game we all know and love,”Monahan said in a statement. “This transformational partnership recognizes the immeasurable strength of the PGA Tour’s history, legacy and pro-competitive model and combines with it the DP World Tour and LIV - including the team golf concept - to create an organization that will benefit golf’s players, commercial and charitable partners and fans. Going forward, fans can be confident that we will, collectively, deliver on the promise we’ve always made - to promote competition of the best in professional golf and that we are committed to securing and driving the game’s future.”

After their PGA Tour bans, the players who had signed up for LIV were able to play in golf’s four majors, which are operated by separate entities. Koepka won the most recent major, last month’s PGA Championship, in a symbolic victory for the LIV enterprise. The organizations now “will work cooperatively and in good faith to establish a fair and objective process for any players who desire to re-apply for membership with the PGA TOUR or the DP World Tour following the completion of the 2023 season and for determining fair criteria and terms of re-admission,” the PGA Tour said. The deal could also open the door for LIV players to compete at the Ryder Cup in September.

LIV Golf bills itself as a louder, brasher product, targeting a younger audience and introducing a team model to the sport. It also features only 48 players at events, no cuts and 54-hole events. Those format quirks have differentiated LIV from the PGA Tour - which has larger fields and 72-hole events - but also created obstacles to LIV being recognized by the Official World Golf Rankings. LIV players are unable to earn rankings points, which made it harder for them to qualify for major championships.

The PGA Tour is planning to announce its 2023-24 schedule in the coming weeks and it is not expected to look substantially different from the current schedule.

The new agreement comes nearly one year after LIV Golf staged its first event last June in London. The upstart immediately upended the sport, as LIV officials were able to dangle eight- and even nine-figure contracts to some players. Greg Norman, the brash LIV chief executive whose future is now uncertain, has said LIV unsuccessfully offered Tiger Woods more than $700 million to leave the PGA Tour.

In filing its antitrust suit against the PGA Tour last August, LIV players said the PGA Tour tried to block LIV’s launch and impeded golfers from joining LIV. The PGA Tour countersued in September, saying the Saudi-funded start-up engaged in “tortious interference” by encouraging golfers to violate terms of the existing contracts they had with the tour. The trial wasn’t expected to start until 2024, but the two sides battled over scheduled and depositions. The PGA Tour had received court permission to depose Al-Rumayyan, the governor of the PIF, which the wealth fund was in the process of appealing.