The PGA Tour Is Casting Around For Plan B
2:28 PM EST on November 15, 2023
The contractual deadline for the PGA Tour and the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) to finalize the big merger agreement, announced on June 6, is Dec. 31. That doesn't mean a ton—ESPN and the Washington Post reported that people involved in the deal expect there to be an extension—but in the five months since the framework deal was announced by PGA Tour president Jay Monahan and PIF chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the merger has seemed to lose traction and become murky, if not somewhat less likely. It's not clear now when or whether the PIF will finally take full control of the PGA Tour, or whether the final entity will have anything like the shape described in that June announcement.
The principals haven't given up on the idea of forming a Saudi-funded juggernaut to rule the sport of men's professional golf. For that matter, you could do worse for a comprehensive summary of the current condition of civilization than to say that agents are working around the clock to bring pockets of affiliated humanity under the dominance of unaccountable zillionaire demigods. Monahan and Al-Rumayyan are still working to finalize a deal, but congressional investigations and in particular the close scrutiny of the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice are holding up the works. The merger was proposed explicitly to remove the existential threat posed by the PIF-funded antitrust complaint filed initially by a group of LIV Golf professionals and then taken up by the Saudi-funded LIV Golf itself. The complaint has since been dropped, but unfortunately for the parties the case has been made—persuasively, by one party to this very merger—that an entity roughly half the size and prominence of the proposed behemoth is already breaching antitrust guardrails. Dragging this merger across the finish line and creating a vastly more powerful super-entity will necessarily involve somehow scraping some or all of the ketchup back into the bottle.
Now that the PGA Tour has signaled its intention to become a for-profit enterprise, and now that it is no longer involved in costly litigation against an endlessly resourced foreign sovereign wealth fund, and now that it appears to be on good terms with the man who controls that fund, other deep-pocketed suitors are positioning themselves to get in on all this reshaping of the sport. Rick Maese of the Post reported Monday that the PGA Tour policy board met in Florida this week to discuss "other investment options" and was "briefed on proposals put forth by multiple groups" who want to form up partnerships with the tour. These deals presumably would not preclude a larger agreement with the PIF—Monahan reportedly referred to these inquiring parties as potential "minority investors" in a memo to players—but the PGA Tour is looking at them more closely today in part due to anxiety about the various hurdles facing the larger merger and its increasingly uncertain timeline.
Prominent among the suitors, says Maese, is John Henry's Fenway Sports Group, the sports holding conglomerate that operates the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool F.C., among other teams and franchises. Golfweek reported on Nov. 4 that Mets owner Steve Cohen is working with Fenway Sports Group on its bid to invest in a for-profit PGA Tour. Fenway Sports Group is an investor in another upstart golf promotion, the TGL, which may or may not stand for "Tomorrow Golf League" and which proposes to bring indoor simulated golf—possibly just Topgolf but professional—to purpose-built stadiums around North America. Fenway Sports Group chairman Tom Werner joined TGL co-founder and then-PGA Tour policy board member Rory McIlroy in an appearance on CNBC on Nov. 6 to promote the league; Werner mostly ducked opportunities to discuss investment talks with the PGA Tour, but when asked about the evolving situation McIlroy threw support behind the PIF merger:
“I would hope when we go through this process, the PIF are the ones that are involved in the framework agreement. Obviously, there’s been other suitors that have been involved and offering their services and their help. But hopefully, when this is all said and done, I sincerely hope that the PIF are involved and we can bring the game of golf back together.”Rory McIlroy
McIlroy was perhaps the most staunch critic of LIV Golf and the Saudi incursion into men's professional golf during the heated early days of the upstart league. He never quite adopted Monahan's now-deeply awkward line of linking LIV Golf defectors to 9/11 perpetrators, but McIlroy otherwise inveighed almost daily against the LIV Golf product and in particular the golf professionals who'd made the jump. Even after the announcement of the merger, McIlroy made clear that he still hates LIV Golf. And it may be his hatred of LIV Golf that animates his desire to see the PIF bring its resources to the PGA Tour: A standout condition of the framework agreement gave Monahan unilateral discretion to determine the fate of LIV Golf, and McIlroy went on the record in June with his expectation that a consummation of the merger would lead to the shuttering of the dipshit noisy team golf promotion.
McIlroy will no longer have more than indirect influence over that decision: McIlroy abruptly resigned from the PGA Tour's powerful policy board on Tuesday, citing personal and professional commitments. This is surprising, especially given the timing, as the PGA Tour faces some significant pressing existential questions. It was McIlroy and Tiger Woods who exerted the pressure over the summer that led to the PGA Tour expanding the policy board with a sixth Player Director, and amending its governing documents to require input from Player Directors in any major decisions. This was motivated by the profound angst felt by the cohort of PGA Tour professionals who'd turned down huge paydays to jump ship for LIV Golf, only to be blindsided by the news that Monahan and weird crusading golf goblin Jimmy Dunne had worked secretly to merge their not-for-profit player-driven organization with an antagonistic foreign wealth fund.
With the PGA Tour's financial future unresolved and the proposed merger seeming a long way off, the PIF still needs its toehold and so LIV Golf is gearing up for a third season. The goofy promotion is preparing to add free agency and a transfer window to its deeply unserious team format, and will stage a player draft to find teams for the five new players who will join the promotion for the 2024 season. The longer it takes for the PGA Tour and the PIF to consummate their agreement, the likelier it becomes that LIV Golf will hit upon the right combination of branding and competitive framework, and will figure out a way to secure World Ranking points for its crazy-making events, and will have wedged itself too firmly into the landscape of men's professional golf for Monahan or anyone else to summarily whack it with the ax of vengeance.
At least something positive is coming from all this upheaval: Wherever the big pile of inevitable investor cash comes from, Monahan says the new PGA Tour will spread equity among the players, who will become direct part-owners of the new for-profit enterprise. "Tour management has designed a program that would align the interests of our members with the commercial business of the Tour via direct equity ownership in PGA Tour Enterprises," said Monahan in a memo to players. Like so much of the evolving future of men's professional golf, this is just a thing that someone has said. No one knows with any amount of clarity what the PGA Tour will look like next year, or which conglomerate of devouring freaks will successfully sink its claws into the sport. But we can say with great confidence that the PGA Tour will soon be the possession of one or several investor owners: However much anyone might prefer another outcome, where there's a will—and in particular where there are soaring mountains of private wealth—someone will usually figure out how to clear a way.