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The shock waves that echoed through the sports world that soon spread beyond yesterday when the PGA and LIV golf tours announced they were merging were significant. The New York Post’s Jenna Lemoncelli succinctly recapped the key talking points in an article yesterday for anyone late to this particular tee time:
PGA Tour and LIV Golf are ending a war — by joining forces.
The two golf leagues, along with the European DP World Tour, are merging into one company after a period of fierce rivalry, one where LIV Golf defectors were banned from competing on the Tour.
LIV, financed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund and led by legendary golfer Greg Norman, lured some of the top names in golf last year with reported nine-figure contracts, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau.
Other huge golf names, however, like Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, stayed loyal to the Tour, despite being offered a massive amount of money.
Now, to be sure, I’m not a golfer, though I am a fan. I can’t lift a ball more than a few feet in the air, and I can barely afford a tee, let alone a greens fee or a club membership. But I do know that golf is played best under ideal conditions. Playing amidst a bunch of snowflakes is not recommended.
There was a vertiable blizzard of snowflaking that erupted on social media yesterday, which resulted in a hastily called press conference which the AP’s Doug Ferguson attempted to objectively report on:
PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan spent more than an hour explaining to players Tuesday afternoon why he changed his mind about taking Saudi funds in a surprise collaboration, saying it ultimately was for their benefit.
“As time went on, circumstances changed,” Monahan said in a conference call after the meeting. “I don’t think it was right or sustainable to have this tension in our sport.
“I recognize everything I’ve said in the past. I recognize people will call me a hypocrite. Any time I’ve said anything, I’ve said it with the information I had, and I said it with someone trying to compete with our tour and our players.”
And snowflakes have driven the kind of dialogue we’ve seen for the past year and change. As the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Mark Ziegler opined yesterday, some of the details regarding yesterday’s announcement may be upsetting, but they are realities:
LIV Golf, the PGA Tour and Europe’s DP World Tour announced they have formed a “merger” that feels more like an acquisition. The exclusive financier of a yet-to-be-named, for-profit organization will be Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, and it will have right of refusal on new investments that might dilute its influence. The chairman will not be Monahan but Yasir al-Rumayyan, the fund’s managing director who also runs the state-owned Aramco oil company worth an estimated $2.1 trillion (with a t).
It probably wasn’t a coincidence, the cynical set will note, that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken just happened to be in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Ziegler prefaced his remarks with those that were offered by Phil Mickelson, one of the first PGA defectors to join LIV.
It was February 2022, after comments surfaced he made a few months earlier about Saudi Arabia’s plan to invest billions of petrodollars in professional golf.
“They’re scary (expletive) to get involved with,” Mickelson allegedly told writer Alan Shipnuck. “We know they killed (Washington Post reporter Jamal) Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. “Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.
Yes, Mickelson was also offered life-changing money, a reported $200 million, for a tour where unlike the PGA weekly winnings were guaranteed. As I wrote at the time, anyone who has been offered that sort of money, for realsies, would undoubtedly have to think long and hard, not necessarily offer blanket support for the status quo. But it was the reaction of the strongarm tactics that Monahan and the PGA enacted on him and his fellow early adopters that resulted in the headline that gripped the sport roughly a year ago, as Outkick’s Cortney Weil reported at the time:
Now that the PGA TOUR has officially suspended seventeen players for agreeing to participate in an LIV Golf event, the TOUR could face “a major” anti-trust lawsuit, according to some lawyers who specialize in noncompete law.
“The PGA TOUR is really opening itself up to a major lawsuit with potential antitrust claims and also a situation where they can’t justify what they’re doing other than saying, ‘We don’t like competition,’” said John Lauro, a New York- and Florida-based attorney.
In it, PGA TOUR commissioner Jay Monahan accuses LIV participants of “turning their back on the PGA TOUR.” He then gets a bit petty and nitpicks them for not filing the proper paperwork: “As you know, (the LIV) players… did not receive the necessary conflicting event and media rights releases – or did not apply for releases at all.”
He also seems to judge the players for wanting to play for money. “These players have made their choice for their own financial-based reasons,” Monahan tsk-tsks.
What was abundantly clear amidst the thetoric and shock from yesterday’s news is that it was becoming far more abundantly clear to legal advisers of Monahan’s that he and the tour were likely to be found guilty by an objective court. And as Ziegler continued, it was that fact, along with other business-related issues, that seemed to be the motivation behind this unexpected peace treaty:
Two things happened. The first was the flurry of lawsuits between the rival tours that figured to drag on for years and drain PGA Tour bank accounts against an opponent with bottomless reservoirs of oil and, thus, money. The discovery process and court testimony also threatened to expose uncomfortable truths of two highly secretive organizations.
The second was that LIV’s format and purses forced the PGA Tour to react, increasing payouts and creating “designated” events where the top-ranked players were compelled to participate. Sponsors of those events had to fork out more for the elevated purses; sponsors stuck with lesser events griped about paying the same for weaker fields on a tour already weakened by LIV defections.
Golf courses are lined with trees. Money doesn’t grow on them.
As LIV tour advisor and former FOX Sports head David Hill chided when interviewed last summer, there were also existential issues involving the long-term appeal of the sport of golf to be considered. The median age of a viewer of a typical golf tournament rivaled that of FOX News’ prime time. Last summer, President Biden was in Saudi Arabia meeting with officials, much like Blinken was yesterday. Regardless of the emotions that are expressed by the outspoken and still grieving members of societies that support the families of 9/11 victims, the U.S. has never completely stopped doing business with the Saudis.
I genuinely feel horribly for anyone who may have lost a loved one in 2001. I personally don’t know anyone who did. But I do know plenty of people who lost loved ones in the Holocaust. Six million of them died over several years, not 3000 in one day. Many of those family members have bought BMWs and Mercedes ; some even went to work for German-owned companies. Legal statutes of limitations are seven years, Moral ones don’t necessarily have to be longer. As far too many allegedly well-meaning people have attempted to tell me, at a certain point, life goes on. It’ll be 22 years this fall. Many grievers have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps far sooner. And haven’t demanded that qualified people turn down hundreds of millions of dollars to support their inability to do so.
As Ziegler concluded, as far as the sportswashing argument goes, there were plenty of examples of entities that have moved on:
The Saudis bought English soccer club Newcastle United, injected $450 million and watched it finish fourth in the Premier League — best in two decades — while the fan base wore mock headdresses in appreciation. NBA ratings remain robust despite the league’s deep ties to a Chinese government with its own human rights issues. People still watched a World Cup in Qatar despite horrid conditions and numerous deaths among workers who built the stadiums. Russia and China have hosted recent Olympics.
A few hours after the LIV and PGA Tour announcement came news that Real Madrid soccer star Karim Benzema signed a three-year contact with a Saudi club worth $321 million. Cristiano Ronaldo is already there. Lionel Messi could be next.
Even the PGA Tour could never completely extricate itself from Saudi money. The current tour stop is the RBC Canadian Open in Toronto. That’s Royal Bank of Canada, which helped Aramco launch its world record stock offering in 2019.
Money does talk. And we know what walks.
And I’d offer that anyone who wasn’t personally affected by any of this who chooses to offer an opinion that doesn’t take these realities into account is taking an extra long walk off a very short pier.
Sure, Monahan’s a proven hypocrite. He’s admitted it. And, in effect, he’s being demoted. But he can afford his greens fees, and he’s saving himself and the entity he has been charged with leading far more in fighting windmills where his tactics were perhaps not as lethal as those supposedly used by the leaders that Mickelson called “scary expletives”. But they weren’t all that dissimilar in the coldness and commitment. Monahan knows it. He chose the path of least resistance, and one that will keep him out of lawyers’ offices. I can’t blame him. Really, can you?
Far more of us will still be watching the U.S. Open next week than boycotting it; I know I’ll likely be picking up well-heeled patrons looking for rides. The ones who cheered when Brooks Koepka won a major earlier this year. The ones who will feel sorrier for the likes of Rory McIlory, who was pressured into staying the course while his contemporaries set their families for generations, and will be rooting for his victories as much for the concept of karma than mere fandom, especailly since there’s gonna be an infusion of a whole lotta Saudi cache into the game.
No less than Jack Nicklaus had made his own peace with this yesterday, as Lemoncelli reported:
The last three years have been difficult for the game and the players,” Nicklaus said, according to The Palm Beach Post, adding that he spoke with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan on Tuesday morning.
“He seemed pleased with the arrangement that will once again bring together the best players in the world. I agree that this is good for the game of golf.”
Nicklaus went on to explain that his full support lies in what is best for the game.
If all of this is good enough for the Golden Bear, it’s more than good enough for me.
We all make hard choices. Some seem harder than others. But somehow, we LIVe. We’ll get over this, I assure you. You don’t need to be hit over the head with a club to realize that, do you?