By Ben Morse, Jack Bantock and Aimee Lewis, CNN
(CNN) — It came out of nowhere. Tuesday’s announcement that golf’s bitter rivals would join forces took everyone by surprise – even, it seems, the players.
The US-based PGA Tour said its merger with the breakaway LIV Golf and the DP World Tour would “unify the game,” with all pending litigation mutually ended under the new agreement. A truce has been called.
Although it’s unclear at this stage what this means for the future of golf, it appears some of its most important stakeholders are attempting to bring unity to the sport after a period of division.
What the partnership means
The move unifies PGA Tour, DP World Tour and LIV Golf’s commercial businesses and rights under a new, yet to be named for-profit company.
A spokesperson for the PGA Tour told CNN that the new relationship is not being viewed as a merger, but “a partnership/creation of a new commercial entity.”
In a memo to PGA Tour players, commissioner Jay Monahan said the new partnership would require approval from the PGA Tour policy board, while Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), told CNBC he expected it to be finalized “in a matter of weeks.”
The announcement promised a “capital investment” from PIF – Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, which has splashed billions of dollars on investments at home and overseas – to “facilitate” the “growth and success” of the new entity.
Monahan said that golf’s calendar for 2023 would remain the same, while also confirming that the team element to LIV’s format would continue in some capacity.
The announcement also said that Al-Rumayyan, the majority owner of Premier League club Newcastle United, would be named to the board of the new entity as chairman, with Monahan named the chief executive.
Most importantly, the merger would end almost two years of legal disputes between the organizations and their participants.
“After two years of disruption and distraction, this is a historic day for the game we all know and love,” Monahan said in a statement.
What about the players?
Participating players in the LIV Golf series were banned from competing in PGA Tour events – although they could compete in all four majors – and were punished for leaving the established tours.
In a memo obtained by CNN from a PGA Tour spokesperson, Monahan said a “fair and objective process” would be established for players wanting to re-apply for PGA Tour or DP World Tour membership after the 2023 season.
Ahead of the inaugural event last June, players resigned their PGA Tour status to compete at Centurion Golf Club near London for LIV Golf’s inaugural event.
Eleven LIV Golf players filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour in August last year, which was scheduled to be heard in May 2024.
In April, the DP Word Tour won in arbitration against members of the LIV Golf series after players had appealed following the European Tour’s decision to discipline them for wanting to play in the inaugural event.
Appeals brought by the players were dismissed, and the £100,000 ($125,000) fines originally imposed had to be paid within 30 days.
Shortly afterwards, three of European golf’s biggest names – Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood – quit the DP World Tour and therefore ruled themselves out of the Ryder Cup after the DP World Tour won its legal battle to be able to suspend and fine players who featured in conflicting LIV Golf events without permission.
However, much is now up in the air, chiefly who can and can’t compete in September’s Ryder Cup.
Why has the merger come about?
In short, no one really knows. According to the Financial Times, the framework agreement was brokered over two months of meetings between the PGA and PIF across the United States, Europe and the Middle East.
Monahan told the Financial Times on Tuesday that he began to trust Al-Rumayyan “10 minutes after sitting down with him in Venice.”
Relations between the two sides of the argument seem to have thawed over recent weeks after 12 months of barbs, jabs and pointed comments.
During LIV’s inaugural season last year, it felt as if the quality on display was on a lower level than the PGA Tour and that showed in the majors, with many of the breakaway players struggling.
However, in recent months, the gap between the two organizations has narrowed, led primarily through Brooks Koepka. After some lean years, Koepka came out of nowhere to finish tied for second at the Masters before winning his fifth career major at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York, last month.
That success has meant that LIV Golf has never been in a stronger position to negotiate a position at golf’s top table, putting paid to the theory that those competing in the breakaway tournament were in a less competitive environment.
Why was LIV Golf so controversial?
This rift began last year when it was announced that a breakaway golf tour, funded by Saudi Arabia’s PIF and fronted by former world No. 1 Greg Norman, would be established, offering players the ability to compete for more money by playing in fewer, shorter events.
The PIF is a sovereign wealth fund chaired by Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the man who a US intelligence report named as responsible for approving the operation that led to the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Bin Salman has denied involvement in Khashoggi’s murder.
In its first year, the tour pledged to award $250 million in total prize money and such an eye-watering figure turned plenty of star players’ heads, including major winners Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau.
The PGA Tour responded earlier this year by announcing a revamped schedule for 2024, with “designated events” offering increased prize money, smaller fields and no cuts.
However, the formation of the controversial new venture was the subject of criticism and critique from many of golf’s fraternity.
The source of the money, PIF, has led to criticism of competing for money from the Middle Eastern country, given its human rights record.
Another avenue of controversy was the breakaway from golf’s established tours. The PGA Tour and the DP World Tour – formerly the European Tour – have long been where players have plied their trades across the golfing calendar, outside of the four majors.
The chief critic among the players was Rory McIlroy, who became the de-facto spokesperson for the PGA Tour. In August 2022, the four-time major winner told CNN that LIV Golf had “ripped apart” the men’s game.
Tiger Woods was also critical, arguing in July 2022 that players who joined LIV Golf had “turned their back on what has allowed them to get to this position.”
What has the reaction been?
Like many things associated with LIV Golf, the announcement has had mixed reactions.
Many of the PGA Tour fraternity took to social media to express their surprise at the news. “I love finding out morning news on Twitter,” wrote two-time major champion Collin Morikawa.
Canadian world No. 67 Mackenzie Hughes wrote: “Nothing like finding out through Twitter that we’re merging with a tour that we said we’d never do that with.” Mickelson – who was one of the first big names to join the tour and whose reputation had been tarnished the most – said it was an “awesome day today.”
Former US President Donald Trump, whose courses have been used extensively by LIV Golf, celebrated the news, writing in all capital letters on his social media platform Truth Social: “Great news from Liv Golf. A big, beautiful, and glamorous deal for the wonderful world of golf. Congrats to all!!!”
But some were not as positive. “Tell me why Jay Monahan basically got a promotion to CEO of all golf in the world by going back on everything he said the past 2 years,” US golfer Dylan Wu said. “The hypocrisy. Wish golf worked like that. I guess money always wins.”
Fellow American Wesley Bryan said he felt “betrayed.”
“Love finding out info on twitter. This is amazing. Y’all should be ashamed and have a lot of questions to answer,” Bryan wrote.
“I feel betrayed, and will not be able to trust anyone within the corporate structure of the PGA TOUR for a very long time.”
Other golfers saw the humorous side in the news. “I’ve grown up being a fan of the 4 Aces. Maybe one day I get to play for them on the PGA Tour!” Joel Dahmen said on Twitter, making reference to one of the teams participating in the LIV Golf series.
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