LIV Golf And Its Representatives Are Having An Extremely Normal Masters Week
9:21 AM EDT on April 7, 2023
Spanish PGA Tour veteran and former world No. 1 Jon Rahm had the standout round from the first day of the 2023 Masters Tournament, underway in Augusta, Ga. Rahm four-putted the opening hole for a double-bogey, and then posted seven birdies and an eagle the rest of the way to finish the day at seven-under and with a share of the lead. Only a share, though. Also up there is a fellow PGA Tour pro, Norwegian youth Viktor Hovland. Also at seven-under after round one is LIV Golf pro and captain of Smash GC Brooks Koepka. Greg Norman's tear-jerking vision of LIV golfers storming the 18th green Sunday in shared triumph is now one full round closer to reality.
But this week has not been all birdies and cream for the LIV Golf cohort, despite the warm greeting its representatives all say they've received at Augusta National. For one thing, this may well be the last time LIV Golf sends any players to the Masters except for those who've already won it. The tournament declined to change its qualification criteria this year, which was seen as a short-term victory for LIV Golf for allowing those defectors who've retained high positions on the Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR) to participate in the 2023 tournament. But the OWGR has not yet agreed to award points for LIV Golf's soundtracked, 54-hole, no-cut events, which by OWGR's standards are not considered to have the same competitive value as the standard 72-hole events staged by the PGA Tour, the European Tour, the Asian Tour, and so forth.
LIV Golf pros obviously cannot continue to accrue world ranking points via PGA Tour participation, which is one reason why LIV Golf and several of its professionals filed an antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour in late summer 2022. The Asian Tour and PGA European Tour have thus far not acted to ban LIV Golf pros from participating on their tours, but even that side route to OWGR points is becoming complicated: A United Kingdom-based Sports Resolutions panel this week upheld monetary fines levied by the European Tour against a group of golfers for participating in LIV Golf events after their release requests were denied by the organizer. It was the finding of the three-person appeal panel that European Tour commissioner Keith Pelley "acted entirely reasonably" in denying a "conflicting event" waiver, and that the LIV Golf bros "committed serious breaches of the Code of Behaviour" of the European Tour when they ignored Pelley's denial and participated in LIV Golf events in London and Portland. The ruling in effect says that the European Tour can continue to deny its members permission to participate in conflicting LIV Golf events, and can punish those who participate anyway with monetary fines.
Sixteen different LIV Golf pros were at one point attached to this appeal (here's a PDF of the full ruling), including Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Patrick Reed (of course), and Sergio Garcia, before Garcia and three others self-yeeted from the appeal back in January. Garcia, who shot a two-over 74 Thursday and will open Friday in a tie for 54th place, was asked after his round about the experience of playing in a major tournament after three deeply unserious house-beat-inflected 54-hole tune-up events, and about that Sports Resolutions ruling. Garcia's response to these reasonable questions was to act like a gigantic diaper baby.
This wasn't the only significant legal setback for LIV Golf of just the last 72 hours. Thursday the presiding judge in the ongoing antitrust suit sided with the PGA Tour on rulings that will soon make life extremely complicated for LIV Golf's infinitely deep-pocketed benefactor, a man named Yasir Othman Al-Rumayyan, who is governor of the Public Investment Fund of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (PIF), which foots the bill for the new breakaway league. Back in October, the PGA Tour sought to subpoena the PIF and Al-Rumayyan as non-parties to a PGA Tour countersuit accusing LIV Golf of tortious interference, for basically paying contracted PGA Tour members to violate existing agreements. Al-Rumayyan and the PIF were later made parties to the suit, after having filed motions to quash the PGA Tour's subpoenas and be exempted from giving depositions in the case, arguing, among other things, a lack of jurisdiction and that they were protected by sovereign and common law immunities.
A magistrate granted Al-Rumayyan and the PIF a minor victory in February by ruling that they could move to change the place of compliance for the PGA Tour's subpoenas from New York City, where the suit was initially filed and where Al-Rumayyan regularly attends to LIV Golf-related business, to, uhh, Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia. The PGA Tour appealed to the case's presiding judge for relief, and Thursday Judge Beth Labson Freeman sided with the PGA Tour and decided that the magistrate had used an incorrect and outdated legal standard in that ruling. More annoying for LIV Golf, the judge also shot down a competing motion to quash from Al-Rumayyan and the PIF. The upshot of all this is Al-Rumayyan must now give a deposition on the record in New York City as a party to the PGA Tour's countersuit, and he and the PIF must submit documentation requested by subpoena for discovery. (The two rulings can be found in full at the bottom of this post, you disgusting lawyers.)
Here is an entertaining bit from the ruling effectively relocating the case back from Riyadh to New York City, in a section where Judge Labson Freeman addresses Al-Rumayyan's assertion that his travels to New York City are mostly for personal reasons, despite the fact that many of his visits have been to watch, play, and discuss golf:
The magistrate judge noted that PIF and Al-Rumayyan attempted to discount much of this travel by characterizing it as “social” rather than “business.” It seems disingenuous for PIF and Al-Rumayyan to argue that Al-Rumayyan’s trips to New York City were social when he was attending golf events, considering that PIF was developing a golf league through LIV. It is not as if Al-Rumayyan traveled to New York City solely to take in a Broadway show, see an exhibit at the Met, or go shopping on Fifth Avenue.
Thus owned, LIV Golf quickly filed a series of motions Thursday, including a notice of appeal and a motion to stay discovery pending a motion to dismiss. This shit is going to go on forever and ever.
But there is still golf to be played! One of the LIV Golf guys competing in Augusta is 32-year-old mid-tier professional Harold Varner III, who shot even-par Thursday and enters Friday tied for 37th on the leaderboard. Varner was the subject of a good Washington Post profile this week, and is refreshingly candid about his reasons for jumping ship. Varner, who grew up very poor in North Carolina, has a degenerative nerve condition and a painful chronic foot injury related to early experiences pursuing golf with substandard equipment. He never really broke through during his time on the PGA Tour, and does not foresee a long and prosperous career grinding out paychecks one tournament at a time. He jumped to LIV Golf for the huge payday, and says whatever his self-mythologizing peers might say to the contrary, so did everyone else.
"I don’t care what anyone says. It’s about the damn money," Varner told the Post's Kent Babb. "They’re full of shit," he says of his LIV Golf fellows. "They’re growing their pockets. I tell them all the time, all of them: 'You didn’t come here to fucking grow the fucking game.'" It's not a very ennobling picture that Varner paints of his colleagues, but it's hard to be mad at someone who is at least straight-up about why they are doing what they are doing. You could almost root for a LIV Golf representative who is this truthful about exactly what the hell is going on around here.