LIV and Let Die? Or Is the PGA Still the Future?

  • The PGA/LIV Golf split threatens the future of the sport
  • Thirteen LIV golfers line up at The Masters 2024
  • The proposed PGA/LIV merger is yet to be agreed
LIV Golf sign with US flag
A power struggle between LIV golf and the PGA Tour has resulted in the latter being taken over by the Saudis. [Image:]

Golf’s power struggle

As The Masters 2024 gets underway in Augusta, the politics of golf rumble away in the background. The sport has been split amid much acrimony since October 2021, when it was announced the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) would finance a breakaway tour to rival the PGA – known as LIV Golf.

LIV intended to lure away the elite of the PGA

The initial plan was for a ten-tournament series to start in 2022 with a prize pot in excess of $200m. It was through these eye-watering levels of prize money that LIV intended to lure away the elite of the PGA, and it worked… in part.

While some players had their heads turned immediately, others could see the potential damage it could do to the sport. When the PGA announced that any player who opted to move across to the LIV Tour would be banned from participating in any of their events, the sport’s civil war began.  

Big name defections

Among the first batch of players to defect to the breakaway tour were former world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Sergio García, Kevin Na, Louis Oosthuizen, Lee Westwood, and Ian Poulter.

In June 2022, on the exact same day that LIV golfers started their first tour event, the PGA announced it was suspending 17 of their members, making them ineligible for any US-based tournaments.

These players have made their choice”

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan put it in simple terms in a memo to his players: “These players have made their choice for their own financial-based reasons. They can’t demand the same PGA Tour membership benefits, considerations, opportunities and platform as you. That expectation disrespects you, our fans and our partners.”

The battle lines had been drawn but still the lure of the big bucks were too good to resist for some. Among a steady stream of defectors was former world No. 1, Brooks Koepka, Marc Leishman, Joaquin Niemann, and winner of the 2022 British Open, Cameron Smith.

Anticompetitive behavior

The tug-of-war continued. LIV Golf continued its pursuit of the world’s best players, while the PGA Tour did everything in its power to retain them. Their tactics were unsurprisingly criticized by LIV but what few saw coming was an investigation by the US  Department of Justice over potentially “anticompetitive behavior.”

Their investigation was also looking at the PGA’s ties with other golfing organizations, including the Augusta National Golf Club. 

Mickelson and ten other LIV golfers filed what was described as “an antitrust lawsuit”

Alongside this, Mickelson and ten other LIV golfers filed what was described as “an antitrust lawsuit” against the PGA, with some seeking temporary permission to play in PGA Tour events.

The root of the problem for LIV golfers is that in order to gain access to the four majors – The Open, the US Open, the USA PGA, and The Masters – they need to have amassed a sufficient number of PGA Tour points. Yet, minus the ability to play on that tour, it becomes impossible. Hence the lawsuits.

Ryder Cup places have also been affected by LIV Golf, but only for the Europeans. For US players, whose team is governed by the PGA of America – a different organization to the PGA Tour – there remains a clear route to the Ryder Cup. But for Europe, some competition veterans like Henrik Stenson, Garcia, Westwood, and Poulter, all missed out on last Autumn’s contest held near Rome.

Plans for merger

For some LIV players though, there remains a route into the majors. In the Masters, previous winners receive a lifetime invitation to the tournament, and so even though Jon Rahm – winner in Augusta in 2022 and third favorite this year at +1000 with Paddy Power – defected to LIV last December, he’ll be on the tee this week.

Twelve other LIV golfers also received invitations, including Koepka (+1800), Niemann (+2200),  Bryson DeChambeau (+2500), and Patrick Reed (+5000 – all with Paddy Power).

But, in June 2023, when the gap between the two warring tours appeared at its widest, there was a surprise breakthrough. Shock plans were announced to merge all of golf’s competitions with the help of Saudi’s PIF.

The merger was intended to “combine PIF’s golf-related commercial businesses and rights (including LIV Golf) with the commercial businesses and rights of the PGA Tour and DP World Tour.” 

Also as part of this tentative agreement, both sides agreed to not pursue their various court actions.

jockeying for leverage at the negotiating table”

Of course, that’s not the end of the story and, as the world’s golfing greats gather in Augusta, no agreement has yet been reached. Deadlines of December 31, 2023 and April 10, 2024 came and went and, instead of closing in on a deal, both sides have spent their time jockeying for leverage at the negotiating table.          

All of which adds up to a bit of a mess and a sport that remains in turmoil. To add to the tension, as mentioned above, this week’s Masters brings together players on both sides of the divide. Some of them, like Rory McIlroy, have been openly critical of those who left the PGA for the riches of LIV.

Fireworks in Augusta?

How that tricky dynamic plays out may come to the fore in the next few days, when the pressure of playing the world’s greatest golf tournament kicks in. But it’s behind the scenes where the entente cordiale will be stress-tested to its limit.

will have to suck up any criticism or ill-feeling that comes their way

Ultimately, it comes down to money. Those who chose to take the big bucks have, as Monahan said, made their choice and will have to suck up any criticism or ill-feeling that comes their way.

Either way, the tranquil surroundings of Augusta will have an added edge this year; one that may see the LIV golfers on the receiving end of some crowd hostility.

It could be an interesting few days in more ways than one.

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