PGA Tour feared it would be ruined by LIV Golf without unifying deal

  • Documents showed plans for Tiger Woods to play for LIV
  • ‘If they take five players a year for five years, they gut us’

Senior officials on the PGA Tour feared that their organisation could be reduced to ruin by the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf without a deal, they conceded on Tuesday.

Documents retrieved by a US Senate committee investigating the controversial framework agreement reached between the PGA Tour, the DP World Tour and Saudi’s Public Investment Fund also show plans from three months ago involved Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy playing under the LIV umbrella.

Jimmy Dunne, a PGA Tour board member, and Ron Price, the group’s chief operating officer, appeared before the senate’s subcommittee on investigations on Tuesday. Dunne, who was integral to the alliance, painted a stark picture of the PGA Tour’s options: “If LIV takes five players a year for five years, they can gut us.”

The chairman of that committee, Senator Richard Blumenthal, was scathing about the PGA Tour’s willingness to do business with the Saudis. “It’s about how a brutal, repressive regime can buy influence – indeed even take over – a cherished American institution simply to cleanse its public image,” he said.

After mutual litigation – which has now ended – and ferocious battling by existing tours to prevent players joining the rebel LIV circuit, the shock deal was announced on 6 June. “For two years, the most vehement opposition and criticism [of Saudi golf involvement] came from PGA Tour leaders themselves,” Blumenthal said of what came before.

Dunne, who was integral to the alliance, painted a stark picture of the PGA Tour’s options. “My fear is if we don’t get to an agreement. They are already putting billions of dollars into golf. They have a management team that wants to destroy the tour. And even though you could say they [only] take five or six players a year, they have an unlimited horizon and an unlimited amount of money. It isn’t like the product is better, it is just that there is a lot more money that will make people move.

Tiger Woods hits from the fairway at the 2023 Masters
Docuements showed Tiger Woods was being lined up to play under LIV’s umbrella. Photograph: Matt Slocum/AP

“I am concerned if we do nothing, they will end up owning golf. They can, they can do it. It isn’t that big, it is only a couple of hundred players. I am deeply concerned.”

Dunne revealed lawyers’ fees had already cost $100m (£77m) per year between the parties. He said LIV has “no economic constraint and no time constraint”, adding: “Their entire existence depends on taking more of our players. We are not complaining about that, it is just the way it is.”

Choice cuts from the hearing and court documents

Senator Blumenthal on golf’s deal:

“The PGA Tour surrendered for the Saudi investment of money.”

The initial contact:

Roger Devlin, a British businessman, was rebuffed in an attempt to negotiate peace between the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia’s golf wing last December. Devlin revived discussions on 14 April.

Senator Blumenthal on the late clause:

“One night before the framework agreement between the PIF and the PGA tour was signed, the PIF added a non-disparagement clause that appears to prevent the PGA Tour from criticising Saudi Arabia.”

The PGA Tour’s Jimmy Dunne on the LIV threat:

“If LIV takes five of our players a year, for five years, they can gut us.”

Amanda Staveley’s PCP Partners and their plan for golf:

“LIV is proposing that “Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods would own teams and play in at least 10 LIV events.”

Other reaction:

“Today we are watching a truly bizarre spectacle, as the PGA Tour is effectively turning over the game of golf to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Terry Strada, the national chair of 9/11 Families United.

Price, who was forced to defend the PGA Tour’s history in China, would not specify how much the PIF had committed to the planned new commercial organisation, other than to say it was “north of $1bn”. Pressed on why the PGA Tour did not seek funding from alternative sources, his sentiment was similar to that of Dunne. “Had we gone down that path, we would still be fighting the very expensive and disruptive litigation,” Price said.

“LIV would have continued to recruit our players and put our tour in jeopardy. They could have become the leader in professional golf and operated it for the benefit of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

Woods and McIlroy, who have been staunch supporters of the PGA Tour, are believed to have been completely unaware of their names being touted in association with LIV. A presentation from April made by Amanda Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners to the PGA Tour was titled “The Best of Both Worlds”. Staveley played a role in bringing the PIF and golf’s establishment together.

The slides include the following standout bullet point: “LIV is proposing that Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods would own teams and play in at least 10 LIV events. This and the participation of other leading players is subject to further discussions.” Those would inevitably be short discussions in the context of McIlroy and Woods, who have been continually dismissive of the LIV model. The presentation also floated the concept of male and female golfers competing against each other in national teams after a qualifying event in Saudi Arabia. Heads will turn in Georgia and in St Andrews; the proposal states Yasir al‑Rumayyan, the PIF governor, would be handed membership of Augusta National and the R&A. Neither organisation is known for appreciating such overtures.

The future looks grim for Greg Norman, LIV’s polarising chief executive. After berating a generally “vacuous, unspecific agreement”, Blumenthal said: “We learned what is not in the agreement, which may be as important as what is explicitly there. Very little is explicit. There are potential side agreements and understandings.

“Only in the internal documents, reviewed by this committee, did we learn PGA Tour officials prepared a side agreement providing that LIV CEO Greg Norman would be terminated upon execution of the final agreement.”

Rory McIlroy looks over a putt at the Travelers Championship in June 2023
Rory McIlroy has been a staunch defender of the PGA Tour since LIV’s emergence. Photograph: Vincent Carchietta/USA Today Sports

That refers to a letter from Ed Herlihy, the PGA Tour chairman, on 24 April. The correspondence asked that included in the framework agreement should be: “The parties hereby agree that the services provided by Greg Norman and [LIV consultants] Performance54 to LIV will cease upon the management transition to the PGA Tour contemplated by the framework agreement and in any event by no later than one month thereafter.”

With LIV apparently continuing at full speed, Norman was in attendance for its recent events in Spain and England. Norman and Rumayyan had been called as senate witnesses but cited scheduling conflicts and did not attend.

Contributor

Ewan Murray

The GuardianTramp

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