PGA’s ‘merger’ with LIV can’t be seen as anything other than a Saudi victory

<span>Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

The cliches have already been trotted out – a great moment for golf, a long-awaited delivery of a united front. Some would have you believe the shock announcement of peace in our time is cause for epic celebration. That the war is over, the adults in the room have won.

The reality is of course entirely different. No level of spin can alter that. The willingness of the PGA Tour, especially, and DP World Tour to forsake entrenched opposition to LIV Golf contradicts so much that has been said and done over the past two years. This serves as the latest, depressing illustration that bottomless pits of money can disrupt and distort everything in sport. And not just any bottomless pit; one emanating from a kingdom guilty of human rights abuses and which is using golf – plus football, plus anything else it can lay its hands on – as a tool to make people look the other way. Sportswashing works, kids. This chapter is to the tune of several billion dollars; chump change to the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF).

Related: PGA Tour, LIV Golf and DP World Tour agree to make shock merger

When Phil Mickelson, for so long the arch-nemesis of the PGA Tour, is revelling in an agreement then it is difficult to portray it in any other terms than a victory for LIV. Under the mainstream golf umbrella, it will be legitimised. World ranking points are sure to follow, as is broader television exposure. Donald Trump joined Mickelson in voicing his delight: that should raise a red flag for everyone involved.

It is impossible to overstate how deep-rooted earlier positions were. The PGA Tour and LIV coming together in perfect harmony is akin to Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy meeting for cocktails. Friendships have been torched, not only among golfers – see Rory McIlroy and Sergio García – but backroom staff who found themselves caught in fierce crossfire. “Today, that tension goes away,” said Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour’s commissioner. If only life were so simple.

In a sport which was money-oriented even before the Saudis arrived, there is a case to be made for all sides needing this deal. Continuing litigation between LIV and the PGA Tour risked huge embarrassment to the PIF. There should be red faces, too, at the exorbitant sums fired towards over-the-hill or run-of-the-mill golfers by the PIF as it looked to establish LIV as a credible force.

For its part, the PGA Tour – which presents itself as the utopia of the professional game – is currently operating minus at least a handful of players who would enhance its product. It may also be the case that the playing out of antitrust lawsuits, which have now been curtailed, would have caused it reputational problems.

The DP World Tour earns itself a slight pass on the basis that it had a previous arrangement with Saudi Arabia via a tournament staged there from 2019, and that its chief executive, Keith Pelley, has called routinely for LIV to operate from within the golf ecosystem. Nonetheless, the overall outcome cannot be ignored; the Saudis offered to commit huge funding to a new model, with the PGA and DP World Tours deciding they would rather have slices of this cake than continue to try to hold their own.

PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan speaks to the news media before The Players Championship golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, USA, on 07 March 2023
PGA tour commissioner Jay Monahan once sniffily referred to LIV as the ‘Saudi Golf League’. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

Still, this is quite the departure. LIV was previously regarded as nothing more than a serious competitive threat. Now, others are pawns in a takeover game. Almost as incredible as this alliance itself is the fact it was pieced together, with talks escalating over the past month, in complete secrecy. Nobody on Planet Golf, aside a handful of individuals, had a clue of what was in the offing.

In a letter to his membership, Pelley labelled these events “historic”. Actually, Tiger Woods winning major No 15 was historic, as was Jack Nicklaus claiming the Masters at 46. Perhaps Pelley can be forgiven his excitement but onlookers must roll their eyes at giddy terms over a matter of commerce. So, too, will golfers who did not take the initial LIV payday who could, as it ultimately transpires, have worked their way back to their previous domain.

Related: Trump and Mickelson praise LIV-PGA merger as 9/11 families hit back

Asked last September about the possibility of a truce, Monahan said: “When you look at where we are, and you think about words and actions, we’re currently in a lawsuit, so coming together and having conversations, to me, that card is off the table, and it has been for a long period of time.” He had refused point blank to deal with LIV over a period of several years, he insisted he was focused on “legacy, not leverage”. In a communication to members, he once sniffily referenced the “Saudi Golf League”. On Tuesday, Monahan wrote to the same players heralding “a momentous day for your organisation and the game of golf as a whole”. Genuinely astonishing.

In order to stem the talent drain to LIV, the PGA Tour hiked up prize funds to a level that would always lead to a judgment day. It is now apparent how all of this will be funded. A penny for the thoughts of McIlroy and Woods, the most famous names in their sport who actually did much of Monahan’s earlier work for him by publicly denouncing what LIV stands for, either in competitive or moral terms. The pair have now been placed in an invidious position.

Even more remarkable than Monahan’s volte face is the crucial involvement of Jimmy Dunne in brokering a merger. Dunne, one of golf’s most connected individuals, said last June of LIV. “I think it’s an exhibition tour. Charl Schwartzel, he’s a delightful, elegant guy. The last time he won was in 2016. He goes out and wins the first thing? I mean, come on.” Dunne also branded LIV frontman Greg Norman “the luckiest man in the world” and accused LIV converts of talking “crap” over their motivation for joining. As if to prove how spectacularly absurd this scene is, Dunne was front and centre of a settlement.

“We’re announcing to the world that on behalf of this game, we’re coming together,” said Monahan. There is more than the whiff of hypocrisy about all of this. If one is to accept that LIV and traditional is now one and the same, there should also be serious questioning about what – beyond blank cheques – permitted it to happen. Otherwise, golf has triple bogeyed by crassly trading its soul.