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PGA Tour And Saudi

Aug 22, 2023

Ending two years of rancor and legal warfare, the PGA Tour has agreed to merge with Saudi-backed LIV Golf.

In a joint statement, the two organizations declared the stunning turn of events "a landmark agreement to unify the game of golf, on a global basis." Technically, the pact that was announced is a framework for a deal, with a finalized version expected in the coming weeks.

The new spirit of comity represents a significant departure from the barbed exchanges between the parties in dueling antitrust lawsuits as well as players and fans on opposite sides of the split. The upstart LIV maintained that the well-entrenched PGA had engaged in anticompetitive practices by punishing its players, while PGA objected to LIV coming into its turf and poaching talent with hefty payouts.

As a result of the merger agreement, all legal claims have been dropped. While the Saudis have made inroads in Formula 1 racing and soccer, the golf merger is the biggest sports win thus far for the oil-rich nation.

The deal came as a major surprise, with the negotiations kept secret from virtually all players and officials. It will have implications for golf's TV partners, though the details of when and how their coverage will change are not yet clear, apart from the fact that this year's LIV and PGA schedules will continue without adjustment. The CW, now under the auspices of Nexstar Media Group, picked up rights to LIV starting this year as its entry into live sports programming. The PGA is in business with Disney/ESPN, NBCUniversal and Paramount, all of which took a pass on LIV rights when they became available upon the circuit's launch in 2022.

"This is an exciting day to unify and grow the game of golf," The CW said in a statement provided to Deadline. "There is no change to the LIV Golf event schedule for 2023 on The CW." Seven more events remain on the network's docket. The LIV-CW deal runs through 2024, with a one-year extension option.

LIV, whose name is "54" in Roman numerals, indicating the number of holes its tournaments are contested on (compared with the PGA's 72 holes) differed from the PGA in other ways besides its 3-day, team-based format. It allowed players to wear shorts and sought to create a party atmosphere at host courses, with dance music pumping through speakers throughout play. Like Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup, the golf initiative was derided as "sportswashing" by critics pointing to Saudi acts ranging from the 2018 killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi embassy in Turkey to harboring the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Former president Donald Trump stood squarely behind LIV, with several of his golf courses hosting its tournaments, including one in New Jersey last year that attracted protests from families of 9/11 victims.

In a statement, the organization 9/11 Families United said it was "shocked and deeply offended" by the merger news. The group's chair, Terry Strada, whose husband died in the World Trade Center's North Tower, said the families had been "betrayed" by PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, who had long derided LIV as unethical.

The yet-to-be-named merged entity is billed as "a new, collectively owned, for-profit entity to ensure that all stakeholders benefit from a model that delivers maximum excitement and competition among the game's best players." Monahan said in a statement that the "transformational partnership" brings to an end "two years of disruption and distraction."

Financed by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, LIV set out to disrupt the sport of golf and use it as a global promotional platform. The effort has drawn fierce criticism, even from some of LIV's top players. Phil Mickelson, who defected to LIV after a long and successful PGA career, railed against the Saudis’ human rights record in an interview for a book, calling them "scary motherf–kers." Mickelson later said he had been speaking off the record to the author, who published the comments online ahead of the book's release. The star was one of several dozen attracted to paydays that ran into the hundreds of millions. Tiger Woods was reported to have turned down $1 billion to defect to LIV.

While Woods, Rory McIlroy and other PGA mainstays remained loyal, major tournament winners such as Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and Dustin Johnson switched to LIV. They were then barred from the PGA for life, but did receive permission to play at major tournaments, which are generally run separately from the regular tour. Koepka won the PGA Championship last month, becoming the first LIV golfer to break through at a major since the new league's founding.

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