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Judge denies LIV golfers’ bid to play PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs

Fans watch the final round of the LIV Golf Invitational Series event in Bedminster, N.J., last month. (Seth Wenig/AP)
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The PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs will take place without any of the players who defected to the Saudi-funded LIV Golf Invitational Series.

A federal judge Tuesday denied the bid by three golfers — Talor Gooch, Matt Jones and Hudson Swafford — seeking spots in this week’s St. Jude Championship, which begins Thursday in Memphis. The trio had sought a temporary restraining order that would allow them to play in the season-ending FedEx Cup playoffs, a three-tournament competition that includes the top 125 golfers in season-long standings.

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)

In ruling against the players, U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman said they failed to demonstrate their exclusion from the PGA Tour’s season-ending event amounted to “irreparable harm,” noting that they stand to earn more money by competing in the LIV Golf series.

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“The evidence shows almost without a doubt they will be earning more than they would have made and could have reasonably been expected to make in a reasonable period of time under the tournaments,” Freeman said.

The temporary restraining order request was part of a federal antitrust lawsuit filed last week by 11 golfers who contend their careers were hurt when the PGA Tour punished them for signing on with the competing LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed start-up that lured away some of the sport’s biggest names with eight- and nine-figure contracts.

A LIV spokesman said in a statement Tuesday: “We’re disappointed that Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford and Matt Jones won’t be allowed to play golf. No one gains by banning golfers from playing.”

Tuesday’s hearing was narrowly focused on the temporary restraining order request, not the broader antitrust issues, but Freeman’s ruling and her comments pertaining to irreparable harm amount to an important legal win for the PGA Tour. The judge had access to some of the golfers’ contract details, which were redacted in court filings, and said the players clearly understood what they were forgoing by signing with LIV Golf.

“It appears to the court that the LIV contracts negotiated by the players and consummated between the parties were based on the players’ calculation of what they would be leaving behind and the amount the players would need to monetize to compensate for those losses,” Freeman said.

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The 11 golfers behind the lawsuit — Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Gooch, Swafford, Jones, Ian Poulter, Abraham Ancer, Carlos Ortiz, Pat Perez, Jason Kokrak and Peter Uihlein — were suspended by the PGA Tour when they made the leap to LIV Golf.

Based on the most recent standings, the three golfers seeking the temporary restraining order would have qualified to compete in the tournament — Gooch (No. 20 in the FedEx Cup standings), Jones (No. 62) and Swafford (No. 63) — but they’ve been banned by the PGA Tour.

In urging Freeman to deny the golfers’ requests, the PGA Tour’s attorneys said in court filings that the LIV golfers wanted “to have their cake and eat it too,” cashing the Saudi-backed checks while still trying to earn money from the PGA Tour’s season-ending tournaments. The tour’s attorney, Elliot R. Peters, told the court that allowing the LIV golfers to compete in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event would be “devastating” to the tour.

“If we’re ordered to lift the suspension and they show up Thursday morning to play with their LIV Golf hats and LIV Golf shirts and their news conferences are about LIV Golf, our event becomes a stage for our competitor,” Peters told the judge Tuesday. “… Wouldn’t LIV Golf love that? The opportunity to have its players promoting it at our marquee event? That’s not fair to the PGA Tour.”

While not addressing the antitrust claims, Freeman noted on multiple occasions that LIV Golf has made strides to become a competitive entity in a relatively short period of time. At one point, the tour’s attorney shared a slide that showed half of the top 10 players in the tour’s Player Impact Program last year left for the Saudi-backed breakaway organization.

“That’s remarkable,” Freeman said.

That group includes DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson, but three tournaments into its nascent year, the LIV Golf ranks are apparently still growing. Cameron Smith, the Aussie who won last month’s British Open, has agreed to a $100 million contract and will soon jump circuits, according to the Telegraph, and his countryman Marc Leishman is also reportedly LIV-bound.

Smith is in the field at this week’s St. Jude championship and declined to discuss his plans at a news conference Tuesday. “My goal here is to win the FedEx Cup playoffs. That’s all I’m here for,” he told reporters. “I have no comment on that.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Freeman didn’t spend much time considering the merits of the antitrust claims laid out in the lawsuit, focusing on the temporary restraining order request. The players’ attorneys told the court the golfers should be permitted to compete in PGA Tour-sanctioned events as they appeal their suspensions.

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The tour’s lawyers, meanwhile, argued the players waited too long — less than a week before the first round of the St. Jude Championship — to request emergency intervention, urging the court in a filing to “use its equitable powers to redress real emergencies, not engineered ones by parties who knowingly accepted multimillion-dollar payouts to place themselves in the situation they are in.”

Attorneys at times alluded to redacted portions of the court filings that apparently divulge details of the players’ contracts with LIV Golf. At one point Tuesday, the players’ attorney, Robert C. Walters, made reference to the player earnings from LIV events counting against upfront money they’ve received for signing on with the start-up series, something LIV officials have repeatedly denied.

While the LIV players’ lawsuit will continue — Freeman indicated a trial might not happen before next summer — the Department of Justice is also investigating the tour for potential antitrust violations, according to the Wall Street Journal.