LIV and Let Die
In an exclusive excerpt from a new book, the author brings to life Jay Monahan’s moment of truth, the backstage bitchiness and the complex forces threatening the framework agreement between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf
By Alan Shipnuck
LIV and Let Die can be preordered here.
This was a tricky book to report, in part because everyone was suing everyone else, or so it seemed. Government scrutiny didn’t help either: One key protagonist said he couldn’t respond to my emails because the Securities and Exchange Commission was monitoring his inbox, while another character in this book beseeched me face-to-face not to text him anymore, because the Department of Justice had access to his phone. Meanwhile, according to the wording in their contracts, LIV players are supposed to get authorization before consenting to one-on-one interviews. All of this is a long way of saying I tried to keep anonymous sources to a minimum but at times it was unavoidable in the service of getting the story. The phrase “anonymous LIV executive” covers six current and former higher-ups, but, per my agreement with each individual, I could not provide any further identifying details. Who knew that researching a golf book could be so cloak and dagger?
Throughout 2020 and ’21, the renegade Premier Golf League tried to forge a partnership with the European Tour, staked by a $500 million pledge from the Saudi Public Investment Fund. Recognizing the existential threat to his business, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan swooped in, investing $100 million in the European Tour and creating a “strategic alliance” to thwart the Saudis. His Excellency Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of the PIF, and Majed Al-Sorour, the CEO of Golf Saudi, began hunting for other ways to invest in the game.
Al-Sorour established a beachhead in West Palm Beach, Fla., renting office space and a big house. He became omnipresent on the back patio at the Bear’s Club, where Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Keegan Bradley, Ernie Els and other pros are members. But before blowing up the structure of professional golf, the Saudis extended an olive branch. Twice. In March 2021, Al-Sorour had a meeting with Jack Nicklaus at the Bear’s Club at which he asked Nicklaus to reach out to Monahan to discuss how “they might work together going forward,” according to a lawsuit Nicklaus later filed against a business partner in another matter. “Mr. Nicklaus reached out to Mr. Monahan later that week and was told that the PGA Tour had no interest in collaborating with Golf Saudi.”
Increasingly frustrated, Al-Sorour dashed off a letter to Monahan dated April 17, 2021. That it carried Al-Sorour’s name and not Al-Rumayyan’s is, says someone close to them, “cultural,” adding, “H.E. would never put his name on a request if there was the slightest chance it would be turned down. He wouldn’t put himself in a position where he could lose face.” After some opening pleasantries, the letter, which has never before been made public, said in part:
I am writing in my capacity as lead advisor of a new golf enterprise. I want to introduce you to our proposition and outline its value as a prospective partner of the PGA Tour. We are proposing an innovative league featuring twelve “teams” of top talent competing head-to-head over 14 weeks, creating a new dimension for sports and stakeholders.
Al-Sorour talked a bit about the new league’s potential “social impact” while pledging to “uphold the values and heritage of the sport.” Then he got to the heart of the matter: “We have a very interested individual and group and are confident our approach will benefit all who participate. With the positive responses we have received, we have chartered our course to launch in 2022.” All the formal language did not disguise the inherent threat: We are launching with or without you.
In closing, Al-Sorour wrote:
I have respect for the PGA Tour and we view this as an opportunity for a collaboration that would grow the game. We’d like to arrange a sit-down with you to discuss our approach in more detail and highlight how this could represent value for you, your members, partners and community.
This was the moment of truth for Monahan, a former defenseman at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Around Tour headquarters the dark side of his personality has a nickname: Hockey Jay. He had been masterful in guiding the Tour through Covid, securing a game-changing TV deal, and thwarting the PGL. But the Saudis were proposing to fundamentally alter his business and force him to give up some control. They were threatening Hockey Jay’s dominion. He never responded to the letter or even brought it before his full board of directors.
In describing the letter to a colleague, Monahan called it “strange.” It had come on a blank sheet of paper with no letterhead—not Golf Saudi or the Public Investment Fund. The postmark was from Oregon; after some digging, Tour sleuths discovered that Al-Sorour had a paramour there. The letter did not include his title at Golf Saudi. In this kind of high-level corporate correspondence, it would have been standard to include Al-Rumayyan and PGA Tour board members as addressees, but they were glaringly absent. No mention was made of the source of funding. Al-Sorour included no contact information. Of course, Monahan knew who Al-Sorour was, whom he worked for and how much money he was sitting on. But the letter’s curious lack of protocol and specificity gave Monahan just enough wiggle room to blow it off. Was Al-Sorour freelancing behind his boss’s back? Was the project tied to the PGL or something else entirely? Monahan could have asked any of his top players for Al-Sorour’s cell phone number—they were already in negotiations with him!—and given him a call. He could have bum-rushed the Bear’s Club and found Al-Sorour on the back patio to engage him in discussion. But imagine Monahan’s state of mind: He’s the muthahfuckin’ commissioner of the PGA Tour and one of the most powerful figures in golf. He was not duty-bound to chase after a shadowy would-be competitor offering a nebulous deal. He was already pissed the Saudis had set up shop in Florida—in his backyard!—and were trying to steal his players. If they wanted to talk, there was a right way to do it, and Al-Sorour’s unorthodox letter wasn’t it. It is true that Monahan could have taken a more nuanced view: that the Saudis—already friends of the LPGA and partners with Ladies European Tour and the European Tour (through the Saudi International)—were potentially an asset, an opportunity, a windfall. But that would have taken a humility, perspective, and savvy that eluded Monahan. He responded to the letter like Sonny Corleone, not like Tom Hagen.
James Hahn was one of the four player directors on the PGA Tour Policy Board throughout 2021, alongside five independent directors drawn from the business world. “We never saw the letter in any of the board meetings,” Hahn says. “The letter was never brought up, it was never discussed.”
Says an adviser to Golf Saudi, “Not taking the meeting has to be one of the biggest mistakes in the history of golf. You’re the commissioner of the PGA Tour and somebody wants to pour a billion dollars into the Tour to improve your product and make your players fabulously wealthy, and you won’t even talk to them? In corporate America that’s a fireable offense.”
What was the response of Al-Rumayyan and Al-Sorour to being blown off?
“‘Fuck those guys,’” says the adviser. “There are heads of state who will turn their schedule upside down to get a few minutes of Yasir’s time. The Saudis are used to getting their way. They are not used to being told no.”
Rejected by the European Tour and ignored by the PGA Tour, the SGL’s patrons finally accepted that getting a seat at the table would not be possible through partnership or compromise. No, they would have to buy it with the crushing weight of their money. (Not for nothing, a McKinsey report commissioned by Golf Saudi to assess the viability of a breakaway league was referred to as “Project Wedge.”) Al-Souror began recruiting players with huge offers, and, unlike with the PGL, this was guaranteed up-front money from a source that had an endless supply of it.
Monahan continued to take a hard line against the Saudis. In the fall of 2021, the PGA Tour convened another board meeting. Player director Charley Hoffman asked Monahan, “Why don’t we have a discussion with any of the Saudi guys who are putting together this tour?”
The answer to that simple query, according to Hahn and another person in the room, would shape golf history. “We are at war,” Monahan replied. “We do not negotiate with another entity that is trying to put us out of business. We do not negotiate with people who are trying to ruin the golf ecosystem.”
PGA Tour board meetings are populated not only by the directors but also legal counsel and a handful of Tour suits. “All of the other Tour people are on Jay’s side, obviously,” says Hahn. “As a player, you feel outnumbered. When Jay said we wouldn’t negotiate with the Saudis, as a player, that was it. End of discussion. It felt like a dad yelling at his son: ‘This is how it is because I said so, and we’re done talking about it.’ There was no pushback, no follow-up questions. Every meeting we had from then on was about how do we combat this threat to our business? ‘We’re at war here, fellas. These guys are trying to take over our business.’ That’s all we heard: ‘We are at war, we are at war, we are at war.’”
In February 2022, Phil Mickelson made what had become his annual pilgrimage to the Saudi International. Coming out of that week, the talk of a breakaway league turned into a low roar. But a couple of weeks after the Saudi International, an excerpt from my Mickelson biography Phil was published on FirePitCollective.com, in which Mickelson called his potential LIV patrons “scary motherfuckers” and admitted the would-be competitor to the PGA Tour was nothing more than “sportswashing.” The ensuing firestorm sent Mickelson into exile and forced other top players to publicly pick sides.
LIV executives had been deep in discussions with Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau but were blindsided by the players’ public pronouncements of loyalty to the PGA Tour. “We first heard about it on Twitter,” says one LIV executive. “It was complete and total panic and chaos. We went from the verge of launching to feeling like, Hey, it was a good run, but now it’s over.” Then Al-Rumayyan organized a group call.
To that point in the process, Al-Rumayyan had been a low-key presence with the LIV people: soft-spoken, reserved and happy to stay in the background while his swaggering lieutenant, Al-Sorour, handled the day-to-day details. There were 30 or so people on the call, including a handful of Public Investment Fund employees and LIV consultants Andrew McKenna and Ari Fleischer, who had served as President George W. Bush’s press secretary. “I believe in all of you, I believe in what we are building, and we are going to press forward,” Al-Rumayyan said with some steel in his voice. “We will do what we have to do to launch this. Just get me 16 players.” His resolute tone galvanized the operation. “We all went into the call with our heads hanging low, feeling so defeated,” says the LIV exec. “Then it became like in The Wolf of Wall Street when Leonardo DiCaprio gives that speech and the whole room goes crazy. When His Excellency finished speaking we were all high-fiving. It was like, Let’s fucking go! We’re gonna fucking do this!”
LIV launched in June 2022, in London. At the completion of its second tournament, in Portland, LIV supplied a jumbo jet to ferry its players to the JP McManus Pro-Am in Ireland. It marked just the second comingling of LIV golfers and PGA Tour loyalists. Amid all the palace intrigue at Adare Manor, the LIV guys were living it up. Deep into the night following the closing party, Brooks Koepka, Jason Kokrak, Pat and Ashley Perez, and Dustin Johnson and his bride, Paulina, repaired to a small, private bar tucked into the Manor. The drinks were flowing, and Paulina, spilling out of a tight black dress, was having trouble balancing atop a leather barstool. Perez, wearing a backward baseball cap, pointed at Johnson, who had recruited him to LIV, and shouted, “I owe everything to that man!” DJ was too busy tending to his wobbly wife to notice. Despite the relaxed setting, Koepka radiated some heat when reflecting on his career change. “Fuck all of those country club kids who talk shit about me,” he said, referring to the likes of Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and others. “You think I give a fuck what they think? You think I care what people say about me? I have three [potential] surgeries, and I’m supposed to turn down $130 million? I grew up with nothing. After signing that contract, the first person I called was my mom. We both cried.”
The following week brought the 150th Open. It was supposed to be a joyous celebration of the game’s oldest championship and most historic venue, but everyone was edgy during Open week. Mickelson was snubbed from a private dinner for Open winners held in the R&A clubhouse. Woods orchestrated that. “He talked to a handful of other [past champions] to get their blessing and then went to the R&A and told them, basically, no one wanted Phil there and it would make the night weird and awkward,” says one of the men at the dinner. “Whose side were they going to takeTiger’s or Phil’s? That’s an easy choice.”
The Open marked Paul Casey’s first real tournament since the onetime UNICEF ambassador had gone to LIV. Sky Sports reporter Jamie Weir approached Casey on the practice chipping green at the Old Course to see if he would do an on-camera interview. “He said, ‘Oh, hello, mate,’ in his usual smug, insincere tone,” says Weir. “I asked about having a chat, and right away he was defensive and wanted to know the questions. I told him I wanted to talk about the 150th Open, his good history at St. Andrews, how his back was feeling, and then finish off with a question about LIV.” Casey asked what the LIV question would be. Says Weir, “I said that he was 29th in the world but had just joined a tour without ranking points and would surely fall out of the top 50, so, given that, had he given serious consideration that this Open could be the last major championship of his career? His face darkened. He said, ‘Fuck off. Go fuck yourself. What a fucking shit question. Go fuck yourself. That’s a shitty fucking question from a shitty fucking reporter.’ I said, ‘Paul, you’re massively overreacting to this.’ He was like, ‘No, I’m not. Go fuck yourself. Fuck you, and fuck your interview.’”
Says Casey with a laugh, “That’s a fairly accurate recounting. But what is missing is the fact he sauntered over, invaded my space, and interjected himself into an environment where he was not invited. And what he actually said was, ‘This is probably going to be the last major championship you ever play.’ He’s just assuming I’m going to fail! I could have won that Open and been exempt for another 25 years. I was there grinding on my game, and it was his smugness that got me. I can debate with anybody, but he was just being a dickhead. You know what, Jamie Weir can go fuck himself. Again.”
During these acrimonious times, no person in golf provoked stronger feelings than Brandel Chamblee, the Golf Channel analyst who relentlessly offered withering critiques of LIV. Claude Harmon III is the swing coach to Koepka, Johnson and Perez. Harmon says of Chamblee, “He has to take Rory’s cock out of his mouth so he can suck off Tiger.”
In November 2022 the PGA Tour made a far-reaching decision, adding Jimmy Dunne to its board of directors in what he called “a wartime deal.” Dunne is a quintessential insider, reputed to be the first man to become a member of all four leading private golf clubs in the United States: Augusta National, Cypress Point, Seminole and Pine Valley. With his many glittering club memberships, Dunne was a walking embodiment of everything Al-Rummayan craved and hoped to achieve through golf: acceptance, access, validation, status. Oil money can buy yachts and planes and even golfers and politicians, but pretty much the only thing not for sale is a locker at Augusta National, Cypress Point, Seminole or Pine Valley. At least, not directly.
In April 2023, Dunne reached out to Al-Rumayyan in hopes of forging an armistice. A week later he met with Al-Rumayyan in London, along with Ed Herlihy, his fellow Tour board member and Augusta National green jacket. They played golf and had long conversations over cigars. Dunne and Herlihy were impressed with Al- Rumayyan and returned home with a simple message for Monahan: It’s time to swallow your pride and come to the table.
The Tour was fighting legal battles on multiple fronts, with the lawyers’ fees running deep into eight figures. With the barristers for LIV and the Tour fighting tooth and nail over an endless number of procedural matters, casting doubt on their antitrust trial beginning as scheduled on May 17, 2024, the United States Department of Justice became reengaged in its own antitrust investigation, interviewing players, agents and executives from both tours. Key protagonists had to surrender their phone so evidence could be extracted. “You give them all your passwords, and they take the phone for five or six hours,” says LIV golfer Carlos Ortiz, who was one of the original plaintiffs in the antitrust lawsuit before dropping out. “Then they know everything you’ve ever said to anyone. And they tell you not to delete anything because they will find that, too. It’s fine, I have nothing to hide. But I know other people were nervous.”
That included Monahan, who had used all of his political capital to thwart LIV. Surely the DOJ knew that Endeavor—the parent company of International Management Group and the William Morris Agency, with Spieth and Patrick Cantlay among its clients—had been considering a $1 billion investment in LIV but scuttled the deal under pressure from Monahan. “We’re all connected in golf,” Ari Emanuel, Endeavor’s CEO, would say on the Freakonomics podcast. “And [the PGA Tour] said, ‘Please don’t do it.’ So we stopped. I’m friends with Jay. We have a lot of business with Jay. I don’t want to hurt Jay.” Was that merely hard-nosed business or illegal antitrust bullying? The clues to this, and many other instances of potential malfeasance, were buried in the phones of Monahan and his lieutenants, and the government investigators had access to everything.
In June 2023, Monahan and Al-Rumayyan shocked the sports world by announcing the war was over and the PGA Tour, the Public Investment Fund and the European Tour would be collaborating to create an as-yet-unnamed entity to reunify the game. LIV Golf’s lawsuit against the Tour, and vice versa, would be terminated immediately. The airwaves and interwebs immediately lit up with talk of a PGA Tour–LIV Golf “merger,” but that did not capture the reality of the new arrangement, which was merely a framework agreement that would require months of painstaking negotiations to finalize.
As contentious as the battle between LIV Golf and the PGA Tour has been, winning the peace was never going to be easy. Patrick Cantlay is a member of the Tour’s board, which must ratify any final agreement with the PIF. He is known for driving hard bargains; a fellow player who has worked with Cantlay on governance issues calls him “a terrific penis.” Translation: He’s a dick. (Of course, if Cantlay is salty perhaps it is because he turned down a $75 million offer from LIV.)
The anxiety gripping the Tour was codified at the end of July, when 41 top players sent a sternly worded letter to Monahan demanding more transparency and oversight in the ongoing negotiations with the PIF. The embattled commissioner responded the next day, creating a sixth seat for the players on the Tour policy board, though they still don’t have a voting majority with six independent directors hanging on the commissioner’s every word. Tiger Woods had been noticeably silent in the wake of the framework agreement, but he was the key signatory of the letter and he snatched the new board seat.
Woods has always preferred to exert soft power; it is a significant development that he has now put himself on the firing lines. Says a member of the Tour’s Player Advisory Council, “No offense to [board members] Peter Malnati or Webb Simpson, but we need Tiger in the room. We need his presence. He’s not going to take any shit from Jay or Jimmy Dunne, because he doesn’t have to. What you’re seeing with Cantlay, with Tiger, is the players trying to take back control of the Tour.” With a rueful laugh, he added, “Before it’s too late.”
In 1994, Alan wrote his first cover story for Sports Illustrated as a 21 year-old intern, and in the ensuing quarter-century he typed two dozen more. He is the author of eight books, including best-sellers Bud, Sweat & Tees; The Swinger (with Michael Bamberger); and Phil. Shipnuck has won 13 first-place awards in the annual Golf Writers Association of America writing contest, breaking the record of Dan Jenkins, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Alan lives in Carmel, Cal.