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PGA Tour files countersuit against LIV Golf, escalating legal conflict

LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman, left, and Yasir Al-Rumayya of the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, applaud the winners of the LIV Golf Invitational-Chicago tournament in September. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
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In an escalating legal showdown, the PGA Tour countersued LIV Golf, accusing the controversial Saudi-funded start-up of “tortious interference” by encouraging golfers to violate terms of the existing contracts they had with the tour.

The PGA Tour made its counterclaim Wednesday as part of a 71-page response to LIV Golf’s amended complaint, which was filed last month in U.S. District Court in Northern California.

In its filing, the PGA Tour denied violating federal antitrust laws and said that LIV Golf officials persuaded players to violate their contracts with the tour, dangling lucrative offers and then imposing “onerous” restrictions on players who made the leap to LIV.

“LIV has executed a campaign to pay the LIV Players astronomical sums of money to induce them to breach their contracts with the TOUR in an effort to use the LIV Players and the game of golf to sportswash the recent history of Saudi atrocities and to further the Saudi Public Investment Fund’s Vision 2030 initiatives,” the PGA Tour claimed in its filing.

Phil Mickelson, three others pull out of LIV Golf lawsuit against PGA Tour

Eleven LIV golfers initially sued the PGA Tour on Aug. 3, claiming the tour unfairly punished players for absconding and engaged in anti-competitive behavior by attempting to hamper LIV’s efforts to launch a competing golf organization. LIV Golf joined that lawsuit Aug. 26, and only three golfers remain as parties to the case: Bryson DeChambeau, Matt Jones and Peter Uihlein.

“The Tour has made these counterclaims in a transparent effort to divert attention from their anti-competitive conduct, which LIV and the players detail in their 104-page complaint,” Jonathan Grella, a LIV Golf spokesman, said Thursday. “We remain confident that the courts and the justice system will right these wrongs.”

A PGA Tour spokesman declined to comment on Wednesday’s filing.

In its response to LIV’s claims, the PGA Tour said “there is no actual injury to Plaintiffs here, and no violation of the law” and further said that “if anyone is competing unfairly, it is LIV, not the TOUR.”

The tour claimed in its filing that LIV Golf was aware that golfers had contracts in place with the PGA Tour and intentionally misled those players in encouraging them to break those agreements. The tour cited a text message Greg Norman, the LIV Golf chief executive, sent to Sergio Garcia in February: “They cannot ban you for one day let alone life. It is a shallow threat. Ask them to put in writing to you or any player. I bet they don’t.”

The PGA Tour did suspend players who left for LIV Golf, saying those golfers violated terms of their agreement with the tour, including regulations that required the players to grant their exclusive media rights to the tour and avoid tournaments that conflict with tour events without permission. The tour said in its filing that Norman’s reassurances “were intended to mislead players who were concerned about the consequences of breaching their agreements with the TOUR and to encourage them to breach those agreements.”

LIV Golf joins its players in lawsuit, intensifying feud with PGA Tour

The tour says those players, in turn, joined a start-up operation that imposes “contractual restrictions on the LIV Players more onerous in scope and duration than any of the TOUR regulations they challenge.” Among the restrictions cited in the filing: multiyear commitments, a requirement that golfers participate in every LIV event, an obligation to wear LIV-branded apparel and granting LIV Golf “broad and exclusive media rights.”

“These membership conditions are far more restrictive than the TOUR’s own Regulations on player participation in PGA TOUR events,” the tour said in its filing, “which LIV Players disingenuously have alleged violate the antitrust laws.”

PGA Tour golfers, in effect, operate as independent contractors, but they enter into membership agreements with the tour “to negotiate efficiently and effectively with sponsors, tournament organizers, media partners, and others to increase the value of their collective rights,” the tour said in its filing.

“That exclusivity influences the fees received by the TOUR on behalf of its members and, in turn, the prize money and other benefits that go to TOUR players,” the tour said.

The trial is scheduled to begin in January 2024.