Eleven golfers from the fledgling LIV Golf Invitational Series filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour, arguing that their careers were hurt when the Tour suspended them after they joined the Saudi-funded organization. The move has been expected since LIV emerged this year to challenge the PGA Tour’s professional golf supremacy.
Unlike some of the other players who left for LIV Golf, the 11 players who filed the lawsuit — Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford, Matt Jones, Ian Poulter, Abraham Ancer, Carlos Ortiz, Pat Perez, Jason Kokrak and Peter Uihlein — have not forfeited their PGA Tour memberships, meaning they still hoped to play on both tours. But the PGA Tour did not give them permission to play in LIV tournaments and issued multiple-year suspensions after they did so.
The lawsuit alleges that the PGA Tour not only has threatened golfers who sought to play in LIV tournaments, it also “threatened sponsors, vendors, and agents to coerce players to abandon opportunities to play in LIV Golf events”; “orchestrated a per se unlawful group boycott with the European Tour to deny LIV Golf access to their members”; and “leaned on” groups that put on golf’s four major championships, pressuring them into banning LIV golfers from competing in the sport’s most high-profile events.
“The Tour’s conduct serves no purpose other than to cause harm to players and foreclose the entry of the first meaningful competitive threat the Tour has faced in decades,” reads the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in Oakland.
Mickelson, one of the world’s most beloved golfers and a six-time major winner, has long been a proponent of starting a breakaway organization, admitting to a biographer that he had helped pay for attorneys to draw up its operating rules. The lawsuit contends that the PGA Tour suspended Mickelson for at least two months March 22 for, among other reasons, “attempting to recruit players” to join LIV Golf. (Mickelson’s last PGA Tour event was in late January, before news of his involvement with LIV broke.) It then denied his application for reinstatement June 20, saying he violated PGA Tour rules by playing in LIV Golf’s first tournament in London, and suspended him through March 31, 2023. That suspension was lengthened to March 31, 2024, after Mickelson played in LIV’s second tournament in Oregon, the lawsuit contends.
“Mr. Mickelson’s unlawful two-year suspension from the PGA Tour has caused him irreparable professional harm, as well as financial, and commercial harm,” the lawsuit reads. Though Mickelson lost a number of sponsors after he downplayed Saudi human-rights violations ahead of LIV’s launch, he also reportedly has received more than $100 million simply for joining the series, in which the 52-year-old has played poorly over three events. He and the rest of the LIV golfers get paid no matter how poorly they may play because LIV tournaments have no cuts.
For the LIV players’ lawsuit to be successful, they would need to prove they have suffered actual harm and that the PGA Tour’s actions reduced competition in violation of federal law. Jacob S. Frenkel, the chair of government investigations and securities enforcement at law firm Dickinson Wright in Washington, told The Washington Post last week that proving harm “would not be particularly easy when they’re being compensated in a manner that may be greater than the ultimate compensation from the PGA Tour.”
“They made a personal decision to dissociate from the PGA and affiliate with a competing tour. They weren’t forced to do that,” Frenkel said. “As a PGA Tour participant, they also agreed to certain standards, not just standards of the organization but standards of personal conduct.”
PGA Tour golfers are required to receive permission to play in non-sanctioned tournaments, and traditionally were allowed three such instances each season (usually to play in events on the European tour, which has an operating agreement with the PGA Tour). The lawsuit contends the tour “weaponized” this “Conflicting Events Regulation” to prevent its golfers from playing in any non-sanctioned tournament and that this system does not “permit meaningful competition by other tours.”
The U.S. Department of Justice is also investigating the PGA Tour for potential antitrust violations, according to the Wall Street Journal, which is at least the second time federal officials have looked into tour dealings. In 1994, antitrust lawyers at the Federal Trade Commission tried to get the U.S. government to nullify the rule that requires golfers to receive permission to play in conflicting events — and another that said players needed to get permission to appear on television programs not approved by the PGA Tour — because they created possible “unfair methods of competition.”
But after extensive lobbying by then-commissioner Tim Finchem — a former official in President Jimmy Carter’s administration — the FTC’s four commissioners unanimously voted to reject the staff antitrust lawyers’ recommendation to take legal action against the PGA Tour.
In the players’ lawsuit, three LIV golfers also are asking for a temporary restraining order that would allow them to play in the season-ending FedEx Cup playoffs, a three-tournament competition that begins next week with an event that includes the top 125 golfers in season-long standings. Golfers compile points based on their performances over the entire season, and three defectors — Gooch (No. 20 in the FedEx Cup standings), Jones (No. 62) and Swafford (No. 63) — would have been eligible for next week’s St. Jude Championship had they not been banned by the PGA Tour after playing in LIV Golf events.
In a memo to players sent Wednesday after the lawsuit was filed, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan called the attempt by the three players to gain entry to the FedEx Cup playoffs “an attempt to use the TOUR platform to promote themselves and to freeride on your benefits and efforts.”
“Fundamentally, these suspended players — who are now Saudi Golf League employees — have walked away from the TOUR and now want back in. With the Saudi Golf League on hiatus, they’re trying to use lawyers to force their way into competition alongside our members in good standing,” reads the memo, which was obtained by The Post.
There are two FedEx Cup standings pages on the PGA Tour’s website, one with the LIV golfers still included and another with those golfers taken out and the players below them moved up. The latter will be used to determine the 125-golfer field for next week’s playoff opener, barring a judge’s order.
After the first playoff tournament, the top 70 in the FedEx Cup standings advance to the BMW Championship, with the top 30 after that event competing at the season-ending Tour Championship. The winner of that tournament will receive $18 million, and golfers who finish the season ranked highly in the FedEx Cup standings generally are admitted to the following year’s major championships.