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The Cowardly End of Golf’s Civil War

The PGA Tour announced Tuesday that it will join with LIV Golf and the DP World Tour to become a new entity funded by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund. What this signals for each specific tour is unclear, but the financials are the guiding principle.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Not everything about golf changed on Tuesday. You are still terrible at it. The club you think is automatic is not. You are not locked in, and your range session from yesterday will not carry over. All that’s still the same. But everything else changed. Yes, everything.

On Tuesday, the Saudi Public Investment Fund “combine[d]” its golf business with the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour to create one golf entity. The quotes around “combine” cannot be emphasized enough. This seems like a takeover of the sport in the strongest terms by the forces that created LIV Golf—the disrupting tour that broke away from the PGA last year and signed many of its players in the process. Now, golf’s civil war is over a year after it began because one group had far more cash than the other.

This is not news—there is no more shallow aphorism in sports than “follow the money.” But we can outline the shock, the ridiculousness, and the cowardice of the end of the strangest 12 months in golf history (so far). The civil war is over because it wasn’t even a war: It was a negotiation. Someone just forgot to tell the participants. Now, an obvious period of reckoning starts: A handful of golf executives who gave retroactively cringeworthy LIV quotes will have them thrown back in their faces. Those folks will not care, because there’s bad cell reception on the yachts where they’ll park the tens of millions of dollars they made today. Rich clowns are still rich.

The Golf Channel’s Todd Lewis reported that influential golfers, those who turned down lots of money from LIV previously, feel “betrayed and manipulated” by this merger and the lack of communication about it from PGA Tour officials. It appears that a vast majority of golfers found out the same way we did: on Twitter or via press release. This group appears to include Tiger Woods. PGA pro Wesley Bryan tweeted, “I feel betrayed, and will not … be able to trust anyone within the corporate structure of the PGA TOUR for a very long time.” He went on to call commissioner Jay Monahan a horrible communicator who stresses he “works” for the players—the same players he failed to loop in on the biggest golf deal of all time. Oops.

And players are right to feel betrayed, because they were. Monahan sent Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm, among many others, in front of camera after camera last year to defend the PGA Tour and condemn LIV Golf and its backers. These golfers also gave up tens of millions of dollars or more in upfront cash and spent countless hours reshaping the tour in an attempt to make up some of that money. The product was miles better than LIV and leveraged the history of the game and nostalgia in ways LIV could never match. But as the noted sports business expert Floyd Mayweather Jr. once said: Your kids can’t eat legacy.

The shock of this deal comes when you consider that there was no inkling that this was going to happen. No hint of an olive branch. No suggestion of any compromises, let alone what seems like a full-blown takeover. McIlroy and the rest of the PGA loyalists learned a very valuable lesson about modern sports (or modern life) on Tuesday: If you do not sell out, someone will sell you out.

Tuesday was a shock to the system unprecedented in the golf business, but it will not fundamentally change what we watch from Thursday until the early evening on Sunday. I’ll probably still watch a lot of golf. I’ll probably still lose about $80 per weekend because I liked Hideki Matsuyama’s ball-striking stats and thought Corey Conners’s putting was due for a rebound. The day-to-day will not change that much. Instead, this episode serves as a useful gathering of names of people we should never take seriously again, starting with Monahan.

At last year’s Canadian Open—a tournament that’s being held again this weekend, by the way—Monahan gave his most passionate defense of the tour. Responding to 9/11 victims’ families who were protesting the Saudi-backed LIV, Monahan asked whether PGA members ever had to apologize for being a member of the tour. It seemed at the time a useful dividing line between the two camps: One had associations with a country that’s been in the news for human rights violations and that has links to the 9/11 attacks; the other didn’t. But what the viewer didn’t know, and what golfers didn’t know, was that Monahan would surrender a year later. He forgot to mention he would be happy to apologize for being a member of the tour if it came with the “world-class investing experience” he described in his statement on Tuesday.

The negotiators got what they wanted. Saudi Arabia now runs golf, and the tour got rich. This, as Todd Schuster from No Laying Up pointed out, was exactly the deal the PIF proposed four years ago, which Monahan dismissed out of hand. Some theorized that a pending lawsuit between the tours forced this—whether in fear of discovery or a big judgment against the PGA—but there’s a hell of a lot of daylight between a settlement on one lawsuit and what’s happened. This episode suggests this was always the exit plan.

There will be a lot of comparisons made between this merger and Succession, and, unlike the vast majority of Succession references, they will not be all that forced. It is not some great leap to imagine McIlroy as this saga’s Kendall Roy, staring out into the abyss after seeing all he’s worked for collapse and his rivals walk away as clear victors. We, the fans, are his security guard, standing at a distance and knowing there’s nothing to say. I could go through many, many comparisons between the show’s finale and this deal, but the last one I’ll make is between Phil Mickelson and the Swedish guy who is always excited about the sauna and partying. It is probably not great news that a show with as many unlikable characters as Succession seems like an apt analogy here, but, well: woof woof.

Rather than seeing what Monahan did as some high-level negotiating from a prestige HBO show, though, maybe it’s more useful to look at any office park in America: a random executive communicating poorly; getting through just a year of posturing before cashing out; getting a promotion in some jumbled, confusing bureaucratic structure; and leaving his employees to pick up the pieces while the executive takes a victory lap. Monahan said on CNBC on Tuesday that the deal took two months of negotiations, which never leaked, and that he trusted Yasir al-Rumayyan, head of the PIF, within 10 minutes of their initial meeting. It would benefit everyone if the tour aired the same talking points as the most honest LIV players, like Harold Varner III, who said this was simply a get-rich-quick scheme.

Monahan defended his actions at a player meeting Tuesday, then in a press briefing afterward. He called the meeting “intense—certainly heated,” which seems like an understatement given that many of the players in the room gave up plenty of money to take Monahan’s side (if that even was his side). He said he’s confident that those who supported the PGA Tour made the right decision. He acknowledged that “anytime I said anything, I said it with the information I had in the moment” and that people will call him a hypocrite. People will call him much worse, too.

We still don’t know what anything will look like in this new entity when this thing starts in January 2024: structure; which, if any, of the LIV concepts will live on (the release this morning mentioned the team concept surviving, but I’ll believe it when I see it); and, really, everything else. It appears the sides came to an agreement first and decided to figure out the golf later. Probably a bad sign.

The one thing I won’t accept is the PGA’s mention that the merger will “grow the game.” There is no evidence of that whatsoever. Ratings for LIV on the CW were hard to find, but the numbers that did leak out—the Washington, D.C., tournament saw a cool 3,400 in-market viewers for Saturday coverage—were slim. LIV Golf’s “innovations”—shotgun starts and a team golf concept—felt forced just to have some differentiation from the PGA. The lack of buzz was always the biggest indication it wasn’t working. I am a golf fanatic and generally a sports fanatic and have not once heard anyone earnestly discuss the team golf concept. The only time I ever heard much discussion about it was when Bubba Watson, with a straight face, named LIV teams in the same answer as the Yankees, Chiefs, and Cowboys. “My 10-year-old son was sitting in the bed with me,” Watson said in January, “and we were watching golf on the TV, and he knew the Aces—everybody knows the Aces; they keep winning. He knew the Aces. He knew the Stingers.” No one, I’m sorry to say, knows the Aces or the Stingers. No one knows that the Aces keep winning.

So what happens now? Whatever the PIF wants. My guess is it’ll keep the PGA loyalists happy by giving McIlroy and Rahm some financial make goods to keep another civil war from brewing. Seeing Talor Gooch lap you in earnings is not healthy for anyone’s ego. Rich Lerner already said on Golf Channel on Tuesday that LIV head Greg Norman was aware of the deal but not really a part of it. Tiger Woods (among others) has publicly clowned Norman, and having such a divisive figure be the face of this merger would have only hardened the resolve of the folks the PIF needs to win over. Lerner incidentally had the most concise take on the matter of Golf Channel’s afternoon coverage: “The Saudis won.” Now we see what they want going forward.

Having seen Middle Eastern entities take over many sports teams in my day—Manchester City, PSG, Newcastle, Saudi and Qatari races in Formula One—my guess is that this reality will eventually become background noise for most viewers and even most media. Golf will endure because it always does. It managed to be a compelling product even with Monahan in charge. It endures because of McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Rahm, and, yes, Mickelson; they will likely all be back in the same tent weekly in some way. Any boycotts and public upset will likely be short-lived. We might get the golf-viewing version of what actual golfers go through all the time—promising they are done with the sport only to be back at it the next day. But that’s golf. It’s just owned by someone else now.