Golf’s new giant may be too big to exist and too rich to stop

If this new for-profit venture launched by the PGA Tour and the Saudi Public Investment Fund ever gets off the ground—a surprisingly big “if” given the prestige of its principals and the triumphant tenor of its announcement—it will only be after participating in several major achievements of official government control. It turns out that two powerful and influential bodies that spend the better part of a year accusing each other of egregious human rights abuses and anti-competitive behavior may end up creating their own regulatory hurdles when they suddenly propose to form a commercially dominant new body .

At least two hostile investigations have already been launched in the US Senate: the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations sent letters on June 12 to PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan and LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman requesting documents charting the formation of the new entity and laying out its proposed structures; announced the finance committee in a violent letter sent on June 15 to PGA Tour management that it intends to examine the ownership and equity structures of the proposed corporation and examine favorable tax statuses granted to both the PIF and the PGA Tour. Both investigations highlight the kingdom’s human rights abuses and express concern over the PIF’s apparent goal of using foreign investment to advance the interests of Saudi Arabia’s autocratic monarchy. Both releases note that Monahan himself investigated Saudi Arabia’s sports laundering operation to anyone who would listen while spearheading the PGA Tour’s case against LIV Golf intrusion.

Meanwhile, in the House, Congressman John Garamendi communicated quickly his introduction of the “No Corporate Tax Exemption for Professional Sports Act,” which, if passed (ha!) would strip professional sports leagues of their tax exemptions. Garamendi’s announcement was specifically linked to what he described as “the Saudi Arabian Sovereign Wealth Fund’s surprise takeover” of the PGA Tour, deploying the same concerns about Saudi influence but in the distinctly hysterical rhetoric favored by members of the lower house. “The notion that the Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund would pay zero dollars in taxes on their blood money and potentially billions of dollars in profits while countless American families pay their fair share as they struggle to make ends meet is ludicrous,” wrote Garamendi, who says the bill would close the “loophole” that the PGA Tour and other leagues “exploit” to avoid paying taxes on hundreds of millions of dollars in annual corporate income.

A little more urgent, Thursday that The Wall Street Journal reported that the US Department of Justice has formally opened a review of the merger due to antitrust concerns. This one has an immediate backbone: the new venture cannot be formally completed until it has approved this inquiry and received approval. That Journal reports that at least one unnamed PGA Tour executive is warning employees that it could be another year before the fate of the new venture is settled. This is another freehold. It was LIV Golf’s antitrust complaint, filed against the PGA Tour in the summer of 2022, that triggered a Justice Department investigation into the campaign’s stranglehold on men’s professional golf, an investigation that was still ongoing at the time of the merger announcement. Worse, in the fumbling first round of media appearances after the announcement, the principals of the deal had yet to remove problematic truths from their messages, and now they have to eat crap for how they explained the basics of the merger.

“Ultimately, to take the competitor off the board, to have them exist as a partner, not an owner,” Monahan said on June 6, touting the benefits of the merger to the PGA Tour just hours after news of the deal broke. “And for us to be able to control the direction going forward, put ourselves in a position as the PGA Tour to do and serve our members, while again getting into a productive position for the game as a whole.” I’m not an antitrust lawyer, but in general it seems to me a bad idea for the head of an entity accused of anti-competitive behavior to be happy to absorb its only credible competitor into an enterprise that will be under your power and control. Monahan will have to answer for this and similar statements; in what I’m sure is an unrelated coincidence, Monahan has been temporarily taken out of circulation due to what has been vaguely described as “a medical situation”.

Messaging in general is a problem for the secretive backers of this proposed behemoth. Jimmy Dunne, the excited PGA Tour board member who spearheaded the talks with PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan, told anyone who would listen last week that Monahan, as the new chief executive, will have immediate authority to decide the fate for LIV Golf, which would certainly seem like an extraneous appendage now that the PIF can siphon its billions of investment dollars into the considerably more established, credible and popular PGA Tour. Monahan too indicated that he “can’t see” a scenario where LIV Golf would continue as currently built until next year, but said he wouldn’t fully evaluate the starting promotion position until after this season. It is the stated expectation of Rory McIlroy, the PGA Tour’s most vocal loyalist, that LIV Golf will be dissolved at the conclusion of the 2023 season, an impression he got after direct meetings with PGA Tour honchos.

But that seems to be the opposite of the impression given by LIV Golf’s players, some of whom say they were reassured by no less an authority than Al-Rumayyan himself. “Everything I’ve heard, they’re still working on a full schedule for next year,” Dustin Johnson explained to ESPN. “The rest of this year and 2024 will be the same as far as I know. After that you know as much as I do.” Fellow LIV defector Bryson DeChambeau declined to go into detail about what he described as private conversations with Al-Rumayyan, but confirmed that he and other LIV Golf professionals were told that LIV Golf will continue through at least another season of distractingly noisy tournaments.

Add to all this confusion that no one seems to know if Greg Norman will have a role in the new company or if he still has a job at LIV Golf. Norman was reportedly left out of the negotiations entirely and only learned of the merger in the hours before it was publicly announced. It was apparently Norman’s impression, at least initially, that LIV Golf would continue as “an independent entity” that would have its own operations and organizational hierarchy and would continue indefinitely under his leadership. As reported by Alan Shipnuck of The Fire Pit Collective, Norman assured LIV Golf employees on a June 7 call that this information came to him “right from the top.” It seems pretty clear that when he made this statement he had not yet been informed that the person given formal authority to decide the fate of his promotion would be Monahan, who had spent the last year telling world, how much LIV Golf sucked shit.

So, um, there’s still an awful lot of crossed wires and uncertainty about what the hell is going on here. Some or all of these hastily erected regulatory hurdles will prove to be little more than empty stands. Don’t hold out too much hope that anything will prevent the basic, fundamental restructuring to order: Yasir Al-Rumayyan and the Saudi PIF are buying their way to the top of professional men’s golf, in one form or another. If Al-Rumayyan is the only person who has the full picture of the playoffs, it’s because the money he controls is really the only significant part of any of this.

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