The PGA Tour wins the first legal skirmish against LIV Golf in the battle for golf’s soul
By Alan Shipnuck
August 9, 2022
SAN JOSE, Calif.—When it was over, when the last slide had been presented and the verbal fireworks had ended and the judge had handed down her verdict, the lawyers for the PGA Tour slowly made their way out of the courtroom on the fifth floor of the Robert F. Peckham Federal Building. They were a dozen strong, many rolling wheeled briefcases, while one junior associate strained to control a dolly loaded with three large crates of documents. Win, lose or the draw, this army of sharply dressed lawyers sent a clear message: The Tour knows it is facing an existential threat to its survival, and every resource will be mobilized.
On this day, the Tour prevailed in court, as U.S. District Court Judge Beth Freeman denied a temporary restraining order being sought by three LIV golfers (Talor Gooch, Matt Jones and Hudson Swafford) who were trying to muscle their way into this week’s FedEx Cup event in Memphis.
The ruling on Tuesday was not wholly unexpected, as plaintiffs always face a high bar to prove “irreparable harm,” the crucial legal standard in such cases. And this ruling does not affect the larger antitrust case that LIV golfers have filed against the Tour, which threatens to reshape the business of professional golf.
Still, this was a meaningful victory for the embattled Tour, which has been rocked by the defection of numerous big-name players to an upstart competitor with seemingly unlimited reserves of cash. (On Tuesday, the first reports leaked what has long been rumored: World No. 2 Cameron Smith is, supposedly, bolting to LIV.) The satisfaction could be seen in the weary smiles of the Tour’s legal team and the gloating press release that hit reporters’ inboxes within minutes of the verdict. “With today’s news,” wrote PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, “our players, fans and partners can now focus on what really matters over the next three weeks: the best players in the world competing in the FedExCup Playoffs.”
Indeed, the Tour argued it would suffer “irreparable harm” if the temporary restraining order allowed for “forced promotion” of LIV Golf at one of the PGA Tour’s flagship events. Lawyer Elliot Peters outlined the doomsday scenario in which Gooch, Jones or Swafford could be wearing LIV-branded apparel between the ropes. Freeman’s ruling eliminated such awkwardness, not to mention the chance the three plaintiffs would have died from frostbite in Memphis in August because of the frigid reception from their peers, who were in effect the defendants.
Tuesday’s ruling was narrow legally but deeply satisfying to Tour loyalists. In an interview the day before, former Tour commissioner Deane Beman said of LIV, “They are trying to take advantage of what we created. They’re not competitors — they’re raiders.”
Gooch, Jones and Swafford did not make overly sympathetic plaintiffs because of the inconvenient fact they chose to leave the Tour despite knowing they would be barred from future events, and baked into their bloated upfront money from LIV was the potential lost earnings from missing the FedEx Cup.
Freeman, an impressively sharp presence on the bench, repeatedly came back to this point throughout the hearing. She was privy to the players’ contracts with LIV, as were the lawyers, and Peters made the compelling argument that Gooch’s bonus payout was larger than the $18 million that will go to the FedEx champ. With this as the backdrop, proving “irreparable harm” was a bridge too far. (Gooch is unwittingly turning into a wildly impactful player on the game’s history, a rung or two below Jones, Palmer and Woods.)
Beyond the particular issue of the TRO, this day in court served as an unwitting preview of the upcoming antitrust case, for which Freeman (below) set a tentative trial date of September 2023. The Tour tipped its hand by arguing it can’t be a monopoly because LIV has already been so successful barging into the marketplace. A slide was presented showing the PIP results for 2021, and five of the top 10 most impactful players by the Tour’s own measurements have now joined LIV. In what serves as a tidy coda for this unprecedented moment in professional golf, Peters said with a touch of wistfulness, “The competition is fierce.”