The Bloody Truth
With a Dec. 31 deadline looming for the PGA Tour and the PIF, the stakes are rising as parties jockey for position in golf’s new world order
By Alan Shipnuck
Adapted in part from LIV and Let Die: The Inside Story of the War Between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, available now.
In Gaza and Israel, the streets run red with blood. In London, the blue bloods at the OWGR vote to uphold the status quo and deny LIV Golf precious World Ranking points in its ongoing attempts at respectability. In Ponte Vedra Beach, Jay Monahan and his lieutenants flail for a consensus and a way forward. In New York and Silicon Valley and even Hollywood, private equity sharks and other moneyed predators circle, eying an embattled sport. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers watch every twist and turn intently, subpoenas at the ready. Meanwhile, the pros play through all the noise, chasing cartoonish checks—this week alone, a combined $58.5 million is up for grabs in Florida and Japan. (That $50 million of it is being handed out at LIV Miami speaks to the disparities between the haves and the have-mores that has cleaved the sport.)
Professional golf, as never before, convulses from events in faraway lands and shadowy back rooms. Who could have ever guessed that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia putting out a statement of support for Palestine would impact the future of the PGA Tour? Mohammed bin Salman had previously been laying the groundwork for an unprecedented normalization of relations with Israel, but last week, in the wake of Hamas’s terrorists attack and Israel’s extreme military reaction, MBS said, “The kingdom continues to stand by the Palestinian people in their pursuit of their legitimate rights, striving for a dignified life, realizing their hopes and aspirations, and achieving a just and lasting peace.” Given that MBS’s Public Investment Fund is in protracted negotiations to forge a partnership with the PGA and European Tours, his carefully chosen words still inflamed an already delicate situation for professional golf.
For the last year and a half, 9/11 Families United has been protesting outside the gates at LIV events and offering withering critiques of the players who took the Saudi money; the advocacy group has also pounded Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, for using the surviving family members as pawns in his previous war of words with LIV. “Does the PGA Tour want to partner with a government that refuses to condemn Hamas’s savage butchery of civilians and instead attempts to excuse its terrorism by blaming Israel?” Terry Strada, the chair of 9/11 Families United, told me in a recent interview. “Does the PGA Tour want to partner with a government that undermines U.S. national security interests at a moment of crisis like this? Because that’s what it would be doing by getting in bed with the Saudis.”
Monahan spent a year demonizing the Saudis, up until the moment his tour was running out of money. Then he sold a piece of his soul to forge a tenuous armistice. The framework agreement announced in June had a lot of words but no hammers; it was basically a pledge to try to work things out, but there is nothing binding in the document, including the notion that the Saudis can veto other investors. Even the Dec. 31 expiration date is fungible, with room for an extension. Good thing, too; one finance titan deeply involved in the negotiations says, “It’s a mess. Any deal is always about more than the numbers—there is a human element. There are so many obstacles to getting this done, starting with government scrutiny and intense media attention. But the cast is too big. There is too much ego and too many agendas.”
Is there any chance a deal will be consummated by the Dec. 31 deadline?
“Not really, no. I’m sure it will get extended. And changed.”
In recent days, little birds have leaked the news that as many as 10 private equity firms, merchant banks and bored billionaires are bidding to become part of golf’s new world order. The PGA Tour is seeking in the neighborhood of $2 billion in investment in the new for-profit entity (“NewCo”), which also includes the European Tour. The dream scenario for Monahan, the anointed CEO of the new company, is for a couple of U.S.-based interests to come in alongside the PIF, diluting the Saudis’ equity and influence and thus making the deal more palatable to Congress and fans and players.
This leads to a fundamental question: Whither Yasir? As laid out in the framework agreement, Monahan’s boss will be the chairman of the NewCo board, His Excellency Yasir al-Rumayyan. The LIV patriarch might be content to welcome other investors if that’s what it takes to cement his role in golf’s new ruling cabal. Recall the soft-core fantasy prepared by PIF advisers PCP Capital under the title “The Best of Both Worlds,” which laid out the endgame for Yasir through the framework: a membership at Augusta National and in the R&A. This was revealed as part of a document dump ahead of a summer Congressional hearing related to the framework agreement. At last, buried in the small print of a Senate appendix, we had come to the essential truth of what LIV Golf is all about. If H.E. were to be granted such memberships, he would penetrate the most elite strata of Western society in a way no Saudi king or ambassador ever has. It would give him access to friendships and relationships that MBS could only dream about.
But a LIV executive who has dealt extensively with Al-Rumayyan and other PIF staffers is dubious that the Saudis will allow themselves to be relegated to just one of a few investors in the NewCo, saying, “They want total control of every situation. That’s how they roll.”
If the Tour can’t consummate a deal with the PIF, LIV goes back to being a direct competitor, and a pissed-off al-Rumayyan might once again start writing astronomical checks to raid Tour talent. But there is a little more swagger around Ponte Vedra Beach these days, as the Tour suits are now confident they can raise a $2 billion war chest even without the PIF. In some ways LIV has already taken its best shot, and the Tour held on to its key needle-movers in Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas. Their loyalty now seems unshakable, and the Tour can withstand the loss of anyone else.
LIV’s limitations were thrown into sharp relief when Talor Gooch, 31, claimed the $18 million bonus as the winner of a season-long points race on the same week the OWGR rapped LIV on the knuckles for its belligerent demands that it be granted World Ranking points despite failing to conform to the most important criteria for consideration. After a closing 62 in Jeddah last week to lock up his bloated bonus, Gooch, a three-time winner on LIV this year, declared himself one of the best players in the world. That’s probably true, but how will we know if Gooch is locked out of major championships? They remain the measuring stick of greatness.
LIV has always been about much more than golf, chief among them money, power and politics. This week LIV is paying a former U.S. president millions of dollars to host its season-ending extravaganza at Trump Doral. As President, Donald Trump helped bin Salman maintain his iron grip on power amid international outrage over the state-sanctioned assassination of Jamaal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist who had become MBS’s fiercest critic. (When MBS was vulnerable, Trump dispatched U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh for photo ops and staged denials. “Mike, go and have a good time,” Trump said, according to Pompeo’s recent memoir. “Tell him he owes us.” It was a make-or-break diplomatic rescue mission that blunted efforts to isolate MBS in the halls of Congress and around the world.) It must be noted that Al-Rumayyan has donned a Make America Great Again hat when playing in the pro-am at LIV events at Trump courses.
Doral marks the end of the end of the LIV season, and the Tour has only a couple of tournaments left this year. Soon the only game in town will be the negotiations around the tenuous framework agreement. The golf season may be ending, but the real intrigue is only beginning.
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.