Will golf be reunited? Status report of the potential PGA Tour-Saudi PIF deal

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — An important step toward a potential peace accord in men’s professional golf might take place Monday when Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, is scheduled to meet player directors of the PGA Tour’s policy board, including Tiger Woods.

While the initial meeting might be nothing more than a meet-and-greet — or a chance “to put a face to a name,” as player director Adam Scott puts it — it might be another step toward reuniting the fractured sport, which has been embroiled in controversy since the PIF helped launch the rival LIV Golf League in June 2022.

“I doubt we’ll get into anything substantive in the first meeting,” player director Patrick Cantlay said Sunday.

Still, there seems to be a renewed interest from both sides in getting a deal done sooner rather than later. Along with Woods, Scott and Cantlay, player directors Peter Malnati, Webb Simpson and Jordan Spieth are expected to attend the meeting with PIF officials.

“I think it should have happened months ago, so I am glad that it’s happening,” Rory McIlroy said. “Hopefully, that progresses conversations and gets us closer to a solution.”

Here’s a look at where the potential PGA Tour-PIF alliance stands.

Why does the PGA Tour need to get a deal done with the PIF?

While there might not be as much urgency for the PGA Tour to strike a deal after it received a $1.5 billion investment from Strategic Sports Group, a consortium of billionaire sports team owners, athletes and others, getting an agreement finalized is probably the best thing for the future health of the sport — and the tour.

The simple answer is that if the PGA Tour doesn’t strike a deal with the PIF, the Saudis will keep poaching its best players. Reigning Masters champion Jon Rahm is the latest star to defect, signing a contract worth more than $300 million in December.

McIlroy said he believes there’s a difference between dealing with LIV Golf CEO and commissioner Greg Norman and Al-Rumayyan. McIlroy said he hopes player directors hear that Al-Rumayyan “wants to do the right thing.”

“I think I’ve said this before: I have spent time with Yasir, and the people that have represented him in LIV I think have done him a disservice, so Norman and those guys,” McIlroy said. “I see the two entities, and I think there’s a really big disconnect between PIF and LIV. I think you got PIF over here and LIV are sort of over here doing their own thing. So the closer that we can get to Yasir, PIF and hopefully finalize that investment, I think that will be a really good thing.”

With top players like Rahm and reigning PGA Championship winner Brooks Koepka and other stars now competing in the LIV Golf League, there’s no debate that the tour’s fields have been depleted, even at its signature events like the Pebble Beach Pro-Am and Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The Players Championship, which used to be revered for having the “strongest field in golf,” even seemed watered down this year. There were 60 players ranked 100th or worse in the 144-man field at TPC Sawgrass last week, including 16 ranked 200th or higher.

“Whoever wins this golf tournament is going to have achieved the most incredible accomplishment, to win on this golf course, against this field, but it would be even better if we had Jon Rahm here,” Malnati said. “I’ll just say it: It would be even better. It would be an even better win.”

Golf fans have apparently noticed. According to published reports, TV ratings for the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, Florida, where world No. 1 golfer Scottie Scheffler ran away with a 5-stroke victory earlier this month, were down 30% compared to the final round in 2023. TV ratings for final-round coverage of the Genesis Invitational on Feb. 18 — when 2021 Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama returned to the winner’s circle — were down about 5%.

Monahan said it was too early to evaluate the signature events, especially after weather disrupted three of the first four. Longtime pro Lucas Glover, a two-time winner last year, called the new model of events “selfish” and a “money grab” because the reduced fields prevent many players from competing for $20 million purses.

“You’re getting the best players to play, the top guys to show up, but the fields are more competitive when you have bigger field sizes,” reigning FedEx Cup champion Viktor Hovland said. “I think that’s just the fact. There’s a reason why we’re playing the Players Championship with 144 guys.

“But at the end of the day, I don’t know what the fans want to watch. Do they want to watch these limited field sizes or do they want to watch the bigger sizes? I really don’t know. So, yeah, I just don’t know what trajectory we’re on.”

Why does the PIF need to strike a deal with the PGA Tour?

For all the money the PIF has spent, and all the noise it has made with its unique format that includes shotgun starts, team and individual competitions, and 54 holes, the league is still struggling to get a foothold in the U.S.

Rahm’s new team created some buzz in the offseason, and the return of former Ryder Cup star Anthony Kim from a nearly 12-year hiatus garnered headlines. For the most part, however, LIV Golf’s TV ratings in the U.S. haven’t improved.

According to data obtained by ESPN, the final round of the LIV Golf tournament in Saudi Arabia on March 1-3 averaged 208,000 viewers in the U.S. There was a seven-hour time difference, and TV coverage in the U.S. started at 3:05 a.m. ET. The final round of the Cognizant Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, which Austin Eckroat won for his first PGA Tour victory, averaged 1.362 million.

Former LIV Golf COO Atul Khosla told ESPN in 2022 that the PIF spent about $784 million on the new circuit in 2022, and that didn’t include the hundred of millions of dollars in signing bonuses it paid to lure golfers to the league. In court papers, PIF’s lawyers wrote that LIV Golf had generated virtually no revenue in its first season.

At some point, one would expect, the PIF is going to expect some sort of a return on its investment.

McIlroy believes the PIF is interested in investing in PGA Tour Enterprises because it wants to make money.

“Look, they’re a sovereign wealth fund,” McIlroy said. “They want to park money for decades and not worry about it. They want to invest in smart and secure businesses, and the PGA Tour is definitely one of those, especially if they’re looking to invest in sport in some way.

Will LIV golfers still be punished if they come back to the PGA Tour?

Malnati said the biggest issue on the minds of PGA Tour members might be what potential punishment, if any, LIV golfers would face if they want to come back to the circuit. McIlroy, even as one of the PGA Tour’s most vocal supporters at the beginning of its battle with LIV, has recently changed his tune.

“I think life is about choices,” McIlroy said at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February. “Guys made choices to go and play LIV, guys made choices to stay here. I think it’s hard to punish people. I don’t think there should be a punishment.”

“If people still have eligibility on this tour and they want to come back and play or you want to try and do something, let them come back.”

The Saudis are also negotiating for a clearer path back for its players, according to sources.

However, some PGA Tour members still want their pound of flesh from players who defected to LIV Golf and signed guaranteed, multi-year contracts, some for more than $100 million. Monahan indefinitely suspended them as soon as they competed in a LIV Golf event.

“You would find opinions that run the gamut — from guys that just have a line in the sand that say never and guys [who are more open to LIV golfers coming back],” Malnati said. “I think Rory’s been pretty outspoken that he wants to see the best players playing on the PGA Tour, so we’re going to have to net out somewhere in the middle.”

A PGA Tour committee has been tackling the delicate issue of potential punishment for months. According to sources, there could be varying degrees of punishment, including suspensions and fines. Players who actively recruited PGA Tour players for LIV Golf (like Phil Mickelson) and players who sued the tour in federal court (Matt Jones, Hudson Swafford, Talor Gooch, Bryson DeChambeau and others) could face more severe punishment than those who just left (Brooks Koepka, Cameron Smith, Dustin Johnson and others) and didn’t criticize the tour publicly.

“That’s something that we as a membership and as leaders of the membership, we need to figure that out,” Malnati said. “How do we make this happen for people to come back and do it in a way that has some semblance of fairness, some semblance of [justice]? How do we do it in a way that can at least somewhat pass the sniff test and get us to a place where, when we have championships like this, we have a group of the best players?”

If LIV Golf players return to the PGA Tour, would they be eligible for the new equity program?

Malnati, who joined the policy board to represent the tour’s rank-and-file players, seemed to suggest that two things would probably happen if a deal with the PIF is reached and LIV golfers are allowed back: They wouldn’t return as PGA Tour members and wouldn’t be recipients of the initial shares of the planned $1.5 billion equity program that PGA Tour Enterprises plans to grant past, current and future members over the next several years.

It’s yet to be determined whether LIV golfers would be eligible for equity shares in the future, according to sources.

“It’s going to make players owners of the tour, and guys who violated our policies aren’t ever going to be eligible for that,” Malnati said. “That’s a big deal. Like, that’s a big, big deal. So I think, if we do find a pathway for guys to come back, there will certainly be safeguards in place to protect the members of the tour who stayed here.”

What happens to team golf and the LIV Golf League if a deal gets done?

Along with greasing the wheels for its golfers to return to the PGA Tour, the Saudis have also dug in their heels when it comes to LIV Golf and keeping its team format intact in some way, sources have told ESPN.

The Saudis either want team golf to be part of the PGA Tour schedule, or for the LIV Golf League to continue in its present form-with PGA Tour stars competing. Most of the PGA Tour’s best players want no part of team golf outside of the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, and don’t want to play in even more tournaments.

Malnati described LIV Golf’s team concept as a “very forced team model” and didn’t see how it would be part of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup schedule.

“I personally don’t want that, but I can always have my mind changed if I see a great idea,” Malnati said. “But personally, I don’t want that and I don’t see a way that we do that — that we integrate team golf within the FedExCup schedule. We’re going to have some time to play with in the fall, I think, we’re going to have some options, but I just don’t know.”

When would the sport be reunited?

Even if a deal is struck this spring, the PGA Tour’s alliance with the PIF might not take effect until late 2025 or 2026 at the earliest. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division has opened an investigation into the PGA Tour’s alleged antitrust behavior, and it wouldn’t be closed simply because the former competitors are now partners. Antitrust experts previously told ESPN that a DOJ review could take as long as 18 months.

That means, even if a deal is finalized, the LIV Golf League would finish out this season, which ends at the Greenbrier Golf Club in West Virginia on Aug. 16-18, and probably play next season too.

On Tuesday, Monahan wouldn’t offer a timeline and said, “It’s going to take time.”

For now, the PGA Tour will ponder its own future, while trying to find peace with the PIF and LIV Golf League.

“I think a lot of that is depending upon the fact of what happens to the LIV guys; do they come back eventually?” Hovland said. “I don’t think it’s a great outlook if we keep being divided for 10, 15 years, whatever, however long it’s going to take. There has to be some kind of decision being made in the future.”

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