PGA Tour and LIV Golf Agree to Alliance, Ending Golf’s Bitter Fight

PGA Tour and LIV Golf Agree to Alliance, Ending Golf’s Bitter Fight

The PGA Tour, the dominant force in men’s professional golf for generations, and LIV Golf, which made its debut just last year and is backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in Saudi money, will together form an industry powerhouse that is expected to transform the sport, executives announced Tuesday.

The rival circuits had spent the last year clashing in public, and the tentative agreement that emerged from secret negotiations blindsided virtually all of the world’s top players, agents and broadcasters. The deal would create a new company that would consolidate the PGA Tour’s prestige, television contracts and marketing muscle with Saudi money.

The new company came together so quickly that it does not yet even have a name and is referred to in the agreement documents simply as “NewCo.” It would be controlled by the PGA Tour but significantly financed by the Saudi government’s Public Investment Fund. The fund’s governor, Yasir al-Rumayyan, will be the new company’s chairman.

The deal, coming when Saudi Arabia is increasingly looking to assert itself on the world stage as something besides one of the world’s largest oil producers, has implications beyond sports. The Saudi money will give the new organization greater clout, but it comes with the troubling association of the kingdom’s human rights record, its treatment of women and accusations that it was responsible for the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a leading critic.

The agreement does not immediately amount to a Saudi takeover of professional golf, but it positions the nation’s top officials to have enormous sway over the game. It also represents an escalation in Saudi ambitions in sports, moving beyond its corporate sponsorship of Formula 1 racing and ownership of an English soccer team into a place where it can exert influence over the highest reaches of a global game.

“Everybody is in shock,” said Paul Azinger, the winner of the 1993 P.G.A. Championship and the lead golf analyst for NBC Sports. “The future of golf is forever different.”

Since LIV began play last year, it has used some of the richest contracts and prize money in the sport’s history to entice players away from the PGA Tour. Until Tuesday morning, the PGA Tour had been publicly uncompromising: LIV was a threat to the game and a glamorous way for Saudi Arabia to rehabilitate its reputation. The PGA Tour’s commissioner, Jay Monahan, had even avoided uttering LIV’s name in public.

But a series of springtime meetings in London, Venice and San Francisco led to a framework agreement that stunned the golf industry for its timing and scope. Monahan, who defended the decision as a sound business choice and said he had accepted that he would be accused of hypocrisy, met with PGA Tour players in Toronto on Tuesday in what he called an “intense” and “certainly heated” exchange.

The deal, though, proved right the predictions that there could eventually be an uneasy patching-up of the sport’s fractures. The PGA Tour’s board, which includes a handful of players like Patrick Cantlay and Rory McIlroy, must still approve the agreement, a process that could be tumultuous.

It was only a year ago this week that LIV Golf held its inaugural tournament, prompting the PGA Tour to suspend players who competed in it. But by the end of the year, even though the circuit was locked in an antitrust battle with the PGA Tour and its stars were confronting uncertain futures at the sport’s marquee competitions, LIV had some of the biggest names in golf on its payroll. Its players have included the major tournament champions Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson and Cameron Smith.

The players were familiar, but LIV’s 54-hole events were jarring, with blaring music and golfers in shorts not facing the specter of being unceremoniously cut midway through. The PGA Tour, meanwhile, defended its 72-hole events, where low performers do not compete into the weekend, as rigorous athletic tests that adhered to the traditions of an ancient game.

The less-starchy LIV concept drew plenty of headlines, and the league won even greater attention because of its links to former President Donald J. Trump, who hosted LIV tournaments and emerged as one of its most enthusiastic boosters. The league, however, was still largely dependent on the largess of a wealth fund that had been warned that a rebel golf circuit was no certain financial bonanza. It stumbled to a television deal with the CW Network, and big corporate sponsorships were scarce.

The league accrued some athletic successes, even as its players faced the risk of eventual exclusion from golf’s major tournaments, which are run by organizations that are close to, but distinct from, the PGA Tour.

Last month, Koepka won the P.G.A. Championship, which was organized by the P.G.A. of America. Koepka, Mickelson and Patrick Reed were among the LIV players who fared especially well at the Masters Tournament, administered by Augusta National Golf Club, in early April.

Within weeks of the Masters, though, after a run of mutual overtures and months of bravado, PGA Tour and Saudi executives were convening in secret to see if there was a way toward some kind of coexistence, in part, Monahan suggested, because he did not think it was “right or sustainable to have this tension in our sport.” The result was an agreement that gives the tour the upper hand but is poised to make permanent Saudi Arabia’s influence over golf’s starry ranks.

Monahan, the tour’s commissioner, is in line to be the chief executive of the new company, which will include an executive committee stocked with tour loyalists. But al-Rumayyan’s presence, as well as the promise that the wealth fund can play a pivotal role in how the company is ultimately funded, means that Saudi Arabia could do much to shape the sport’s future.

In a memorandum to players on Tuesday, Monahan insisted that his tour’s “history, legacy and pro-competitive model not only remains intact, but is supercharged for the future.”

That was hardly a consensus view. Mackenzie Hughes, a PGA Tour player, acidly noted on Twitter that there was “nothing like finding out through Twitter that we’re merging with a tour that we said we’d never do that with.” And Terry Strada, the chairwoman of 9/11 Families United, who had assailed the Saudi foray into golf because of misgivings about the kingdom after the 2001 terrorist attacks, said Monahan and the tour had “become just more paid Saudi shills, taking billions of dollars to cleanse the Saudi reputation.”

The tour and the wealth fund both had incentives to forge an agreement, besides the prospect of concluding a chaotic chapter marked by allegations of betrayal and greed.

LIV had faced setbacks in civil litigation against the PGA Tour that threatened to drag al-Rumayyan into sworn testimony and force the wealth fund to turn over documents that could have become public. The tour has been under scrutiny from Justice Department antitrust investigators, who had examined in recent months whether the tour’s tactics to counter LIV had undermined golf’s labor market.

The litigation between the tour and LIV will end under the terms of the agreement announced Tuesday. The fate of the antitrust inquiry was less clear — experts said the new arrangement would not automatically immunize the tour from potential legal trouble — but LIV’s standing as its leading cheerleader evaporated.

For this year, the world’s professional golfers are unlikely to see seismic changes in their schedules or playing formats, with LIV and the PGA Tour expected to hold competitions as planned. There may be far more consequential changes later, though, chiefly because the new PGA Tour-controlled company will determine whether and how LIV’s team-oriented format might be blended with the tour’s more familiar offerings.

LIV players are expected to have pathways to apply for reinstatement to the PGA Tour or the DP World Tour, circuits from which some had resigned when faced with fines and suspensions, but they could face residual penalties for leaving in the first place. Through a spokeswoman, Greg Norman, the two-time major tournament champion who has been LIV’s commissioner, declined to be interviewed on Tuesday.

No matter what comes of the LIV brand or style, Tuesday’s announcement is a singular milestone in the Saudi quest to become a titan in global sports. With the deal, the kingdom can move, at least in golf, from a well-heeled disrupter to a seat of power at the establishment’s table.

Saudi officials have repeatedly denied that political or public relations motives undergird their eager pursuit of sports investments. Instead, they have framed the investments as necessary for shoring up the resource-rich kingdom’s finances and to enhance its standing on the world stage.

Beyond its imprint on golf, the wealth fund previously purchased Newcastle United, a potent English soccer team, and a company with close ties to the fund has eyed investments in cricket, tennis and e-sports. And Saudi Arabia has tried to become a host of major sporting events, from boxing matches to its pending bid to host the World Cup in 2030.

But when Saudi Arabia barged into golf last year, it was nearly unthinkable that al-Rumayyan would so swiftly become a formal ally of Monahan and the sport’s other power brokers.

“Anybody who thought about it logically would see that something was going to have to happen,” Adam Hadwin, a PGA Tour player, said on Tuesday. It was inconceivable, he suggested, that the world’s best players would only compete against each other at the four major tournaments, but an armistice “happening this quick and in this way is surprising.”

For much of the last year, LIV players have deflected questions about Saudi Arabia’s history on human rights and other matters that helped make the kingdom’s surge into golf an international flashpoint. They were, they often said, merely golfers and entertainers.

Until Tuesday, Monahan had tried to use the stain of Saudi Arabia to undercut the new league and its golfers.

“I would ask any player that has left, or any player that would ever consider leaving: Have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?” he said last year.

On Tuesday, when Monahan declared that the leaders of golf’s factions had “realized that we were better off together than we were fighting or apart,” it was his tour’s players facing questions about lucrative connections to Riyadh.

“I’ve dedicated my entire life to being at golf’s highest level,” Hadwin, the tour player, said. “I’m not about to stop playing golf because the entity that I play for has joined forces with the Saudi government.”

Reporting was contributed by Andrew Das, Kevin Draper, Lauren Hirsch, Eric Lipton, Victor Mather, Ahmed Al Omran and Bill Pennington.

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