As the battle lines in men’s professional golf grow more defined, we know (to borrow from Andrew Brandt) one thing about what’s next: There will be lawyers.
On Tuesday, the PGA Tour denied permission for its players to compete in the LIV Golf Invitational in London next month. As first reported by Golfweek, the Tour informed its members who had applied for release late on Tuesday afternoon, shortly before its deadline to respond.
LIV CEO Greg Norman fired back just a short while later, calling the Tour an “illegal monopoly” as well as “anti-golfer, anti-fan, and anti-competitive,” escalating the rhetoric and taking shots at the Tour’s mission and non-profit status.
The PGA Tour’s decision came as something of a surprise. Members are required to obtain releases for any non-PGA Tour events, but they have traditionally granted those releases to one-off events like the Saudi International. And while LIV Golf — the Saudi-backed breakaway tour helmed by Norman — has trumpeted this first event as the beginning of a “Series,” the structure of that series is currently eight one-off events requiring no yearlong commitments, at least for this year and next. Thus many players expected this first event to be treated similarly to the Saudi International.
Instead, the conflict was expected to escalate several weeks later, when LIV heads to Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon. The PGA Tour does not grant releases within the United States and so that was expected to be the week players would have to plant their flags.
Instead, the timeline has been moved up.
WHY THE DENIAL?
While the PGA Tour has not yet commented publicly on the decision, they seem to have determined that LIV’s plans for the future mean it should be treated differently than a one-off event.
It’s possible that decision was influenced by Norman’s latest announcements. He did multiple interviews on Tuesday during which he announced an influx of $2 billion from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund to be used for the 2022 and 2023 trial seasons and then for the official league launch in 2024 and 2025, when LIV plans to have 14-tournament schedules showcasing 12 four-player teams.
“We have notified those who have applied that their request has been declined in according with the PGA Tour Tournament regulations,” wrote Tyler Dennis, PGA Tour senior vice president, in a message to Tour members that the Tour also published on its website. “As such, Tour members are not authorized to participate in the Saudi Golf League’s London event under our Regulations. As a membership organization, we believe this decision is in the best interest of the PGA Tour and its players.”
The Tour’s article on the subject noted that the Centurion event conflicts with the PGA Tour’s RBC Canadian Open, which is being held for the first time since 2019.
As a result, players hoping to dip their toes in the first event’s water have a decision to make: Do they maintain loyalty to the PGA Tour or choose to jump ship?
WHAT WAS LIV’S RESPONSE?
The full statement from Norman came just after 8:30 p.m. ET and reads as follows:
“Sadly, the PGA Tour seems intent on denying professional golfers their right to play golf, unless it’s exclusively in a PGA Tour tournament. This is particularly disappointing in light of the Tour’s non-profit status, where its mission is purportedly ‘to promote the common interests of professional tournament golfers.’ Instead, the Tour is intent on perpetuating its illegal monopoly of what should be a free and open market. The Tour’s action is anti-golfer, anti-fan, and anti-competitive. But no matter what obstacles the PGA Tour puts in our way, we will not be stopped. We will continue to give players options that promote the great game of golf globally.”
WHO ARE THE PLAYERS IN QUESTION?
Part of what makes this such a fluid situation is that we don’t have any comprehensive list of golfers who have applied for a release. The new series and its competitors are in a state of constant flux.
Norman said earlier on Tuesday that among its 170 entries for the event at Centurion were 36 pros ranked inside the top 150 in the world, plus 19 in the top 100 and six in the top 50. But it’s not clear how many of those pros would still play given the Tour’s position.
Among those pros who have publicly confirmed they’d applied for waivers are Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia. Mickelson made the announcement through his agent, Steve Loy, who hedged the announcement with this caveat:
“Phil currently has no concrete plans on when and where he will play. Any actions taken are in no way a reflection of a final decision made, but rather to keep all options open.”
Westwood addressed his interest in a Sky Sports interview on the subject on the DP World Tour, pointing out the connections to Saudi Arabia in other sports like Formula 1, boxing and Premier League soccer.
And Garcia expressed his interest via hot mic at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship, where he seemed to suggest he was eager to leave the PGA Tour when he exclaimed things like, “I can’t wait to leave this tour.” His agent later confirmed that he was among the Tour pros who had applied for a waiver.
Other pros including former World No. 1 Martin Kaymer, DP World Tour veteran Richard Bland and Robert Garrigus have each applied for a waiver as well.
Several things are going to happen at once.
PGA Tour pros who have been denied releases will have to determine whether they’ll respect the Tour’s decision and stay, ignore the Tour’s decision and leave or pick some sort of middle ground where they explore legal options that would allow them to play both places.
The PGA Tour itself will have to determine its specific plan for sanctioning pros who follow through on plans to play a LIV event — and ready its defenses as its non-profit status and alleged “anti-competitive” nature come under fire.
Given LIV’s particular choice of words, it seems prepared for a legal battle. The organization also needs to determine whether it can move forward with plans to announce its list of committed pros, which was expected to come as early as next week. The waivers may have once again delayed that date.
And other parties including the DP World Tour still need to determine where they stand on the matter and decide whether they, too, will deny members the ability to play at Centurion.
It’s all happening quickly now.
That means the lawyers are already hard at work.