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LIV Golf is already vexing the PGA Tour and its sleepless players

Two-time major champion Collin Morikawa on the challenge presented by the LIV Golf Series: “We don’t want to be worrying about this a year or two years down the road.” (Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

BROOKLINE, Mass. — In an age when pro golfers have grown increasingly distant from their audiences, two-time major winner Justin Thomas took listeners right smack into his middle-of-the-nights Monday. In a news conference ahead of this week’s U.S. Open, he talked of having “tossed and turned and lost a lot of sleep last week thinking about what could potentially happen” to the tour of his lifelong dreams.

As an honors graduate of a top-10 business school, two-time major winner Collin Morikawa looked into the future and spotted … murk. “It’s so tough because Justin is right,” he said. “We don’t want to be worrying about this a year or two years down the road.”

With one of the rarer perspectives going, former 15-year PGA Tour player and current capital-management whiz Joe Ogilvie saw newborn rival LIV Golf as doing a Netflix on the PGA Tour. Netflix “shot a money cannon through Hollywood,” Ogilvie wrote in a tweet last month, which “also unbundled the TV/cable package.” This looks like an unbundling time, he surmised.

“The PGA Tour is in a pickle,” he wrote.

The Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series, controversial and lavish beyond lavish, figures to present some level of harm to the stately old PGA Tour for some time barring some unforeseen global rejection of fossil fuels. “I don’t think anyone can see where this thing will be in five years’ time or 10 years’ time,” four-time major winner Rory McIlroy said.

The Saudi-backed LIV Invitational golf series kicked off its first tournament on June 9, luring several PGA Tour players with large financial rewards. (Video: Reuters)

So far, LIV Golf has held one event near London last weekend. Nineteen of the world’s top 100 players either played in that or have confirmed they’ll play in others, swathed in the cushiness such as the $2.125 million Hennie du Plessis got for finishing second or the $120,000 Andy Ogletree got for finishing 48th among 48. Seventeen players got suspensions from the PGA Tour as Commissioner Jay Monahan started grappling with the threat.

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“I feel for Jay Monahan,” said Jon Rahm, the defending U.S. Open champion ranked No. 2 in the world. “If you see his time as a commissioner, he had to deal with covid and now this.”

With novelties such as tournaments of 54 holes rather than 72, shotgun starts, the lack of a cut and a striking non-lack of money, LIV Golf aiming to polish the reputation of a disreputable country poses some great unknowns. How might its poaching affect TV contracts, individual PGA Tour events, the PGA Tour’s side in courtrooms?

The PGA Tour announced lucrative new TV deals in 2020. Those agreements, with NBC and CBS, are for nine years and, according to reports, worth more than $650 million per year. The tour also inked a separate broadcast deal with streaming service ESPN Plus.

The impact on those deals if golfers abandon the tour is unclear. Several current and former media executives, who were not involved in the PGA Tour’s recent negotiations, disagreed on what kind of protection the networks could have. Two suggested the networks probably would have a “strength of field” clause, which could mandate a certain percentage of the top-100-ranked golfers make a certain number of appearances in PGA Tour events.

But two others, who have been involved in TV rights discussions with the PGA Tour and have seen previous tour broadcast contracts, said that often in media deals there will be general language that holds a TV property to past standards of quality but that it would be unusual to have specific metrics.

One former TV executive added that any remedy to such a clause, such as voiding the contract, would be difficult to achieve absent a lawsuit.

NBC, CBS and ESPN declined to comment.

The pain could spread beyond the Tour’s broadcast partners. The Washington Post contacted eight title sponsors of PGA Tour events, including John Deere, Charles Schwab, Travelers, Wells Fargo and AT&T. None responded to requests for comments on whether prominent golfers leaving the PGA Tour would impact their sponsorships.

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The first U.S.-based LIV Golf event outside Portland, Ore., will compete directly with the John Deere Classic, a traditional stop on the PGA Tour in Illinois. Clair Peterson, the tournament’s executive director, said he viewed the LIV circuit as a greater long-term problem, potentially, than short-term, because he is always scrambling for top players to attend.

“We don’t feel it’s going to affect us immediately,” he said. “We’re certainly watching with interest, but we’ve had players come and go. We had Tiger Woods in 1996, and he never made it back.”

He added: “This is such volatile business, quite honestly. Each year has different challenges and hurdles — change of venue, different field, weather. We’re used to being faced with and getting past hurdles. This is certainly a big hurdle, but we have a lot of experience.”

Peterson said he had not had any conversations with the PGA Tour about LIV Golf.

Michael Hausfeld, the lawyer who represented college athletes in a successful federal antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, said that the legal questions at play were separate from the moral questions and that he believed golfers had a strong antitrust case against the PGA Tour.

“The PGA [Tour] has crossed a line, legally, because they’ve basically decided that no player with whom they contract can play outside of their contracts,” he said. “Those players are foreclosed from participating in the sport for other potential competitor organizations. That’s an antitrust violation.”

Hausfeld said players banned from the tour had two legal courses of action. They could ask a court for an injunction to allow them to continue competing on the tour, but they also could ask for monetary damages. The banned players could, for example, tally the money they’ve earned over the past five years and say they are now prohibited from the opportunity to earn that amount over the next five years. With the number of golfers who have joined the LIV circuit and U.S. law mandating that all antitrust damages be tripled, the PGA Tour could have significant liability, Hausfeld said.

Amid the fresh noise and the ravenous public appetite for it, the PGA Tour clings to invaluable strengths, some outlined Tuesday as Rahm, 27, offered his customary wealth of insight. He said he frets most about the Ryder Cup, should some stars wind up barred. He wondered how extensive the damage can be when the LIV circuit has 48-man tournaments but the world has “other hundreds” of boffo players. He mentioned the age factor of LIV Golf’s freshman class, with its 13 players over 35 and two so far under 30, including 28-year-old 2020 U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau.

“For a lot of people, I’m not going to lie,” Rahm said, “those next three, four years are worth basically their retirement plan they’re giving them. It’s a very nice compensation to then retire and sail off into the sunset. If that’s what you want, that’s fine.”

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As for the young, McIlroy said: “I just think for a lot of the guys that are going to play [in LIV Golf] that are younger, sort of similar age to me [33] or a little younger than me, it seems quite short-term thinking, and they’re not really looking at the big picture. Again, I’ve just tried to sort of see this with a wider lens from the start.”

That wider lens focuses on appreciating Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and the tour they built, which McIlroy emphasizes, and legacies, which Woods stressed last month at the PGA Championship.

“There’s meaning when you win the Memorial Championship,” Rahm said. “There’s meaning when you win Arnold Palmer’s event at Bay Hill.”

He added: “Shotgun three days to me is not a golf tournament. No cut. It’s that simple. I want to play against the best in the world in a format that’s been going on for hundreds of years.”

He watched some of the LIV event online, “and to me the only thing they had to talk about is the fact that if Charl Schwartzel won he was going to make $4.7 million, right?” He noted that nobody ever talks purses when speaking of Seve Ballesteros or Nicklaus or golf lore.

Rahm and his wife, Kelley, had a chat: “We started talking about it, and we’re like, ‘Will our lifestyle change if I got $400 million?’ No, it will not change one bit.”

Such sentiments have held on so far for the entire top 10 and 19 of the top 20 — excepting Dustin Johnson, ranked No. 16 — but for how long? Not even a stellar student three years out of the University of California’s Haas School of Business would guess.

“Some guys that have resigned, I think, that have joined LIV, have fully grasped the idea that they’re okay without playing [the PGA Tour], and they’re at peace,” said Morikawa, ranked No. 7. “Everyone else isn’t at peace. Some guys want to come back. Some guys maybe want to join. We don’t want to go, and we want [the distraction] to end. There are so many things up in the air that you’re not really at peace because you don’t know what the world is going to bring you the next day. I guess that’s life, right?”

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