LIV Golf, PGA Tour merger bring money, power and ethics to forefront

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said the organization’s decision to merge with LIV Golf was “in the best interest of all of the members of the PGA Tour.” (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – In a move that shocked the golf world Tuesday, LIV Golf and the PGA Tour announced a merger, ending the feud between the organizations. The decision marked a sharp pivot for the PGA after executives and players had denounced LIV Golf and the fallout leaves many questions about ethics, morals and principles.

For Don Heider, professor and chief executive of the Ethics Center at Santa Clara University, the answer is clear.

“People will take a principle stand when they don’t have principles,” Heider said. “It’s remarkable what money will do.”

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said the merger’s aim is to “unify the game of golf.” As part of the deal, the PGA and LIV have agreed to end all pending litigation.

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“This ultimately is a decision that I think is in the best interest of all of the members of the PGA Tour, puts us in a position of control, allows us to partner with the PIF in a constructive and productive way, to have them invest with us, again, running the PGA Tour, having these three entities under one for-profit LLC,” Monahan said.

Many unknown details remain, but the merger will take effect in 2024. Players representing LIV will be eligible to re-apply for PGA Tour membership following this season.

The WM Phoenix Open, the first full-field designated event each year, is scheduled to take place Feb. 8-11, and plans will not change with the merger, tournament chairman George Thimsen said.

“While today’s PGA TOUR announcement leaves us with unanswered questions, it will not alter our unwavering dedication to preparing for the highly anticipated 2024 WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale,” Thimsen said. “As hosts of ‘The People’s Open,’ The Thunderbirds’ sole focus is to put on a world-class sports and entertainment event for fans from across the world, while generating millions of dollars for local nonprofit organizations in our communities. That is what we have done for 88 years and look to continue doing in 2024 and beyond.”

As expected, PGA golfers and fans alike are critical of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf venture and skeptical of the future. The skepticism is rooted in the perceived motive of LIV and the Saudi regime’s documented violations of human rights and immoral actions.

The PGA Tour-LIV merger comes on the heels of Saudi Arabia’s latest efforts to meddle in sports by offering lucrative contracts to professional athletes and purchasing professional sports teams. In January, Cristiano Ronaldo agreed to a two-year, $200 million deal to play with Al Nassr FC, who play in Saudi Arabia. And Wednesday, Lionel Messi chose Inter Miami over bigger offers, including one from Saudi mega-club Al Ittihad.

Backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which has $650 billion in assets, LIV Golf was founded in 2021 and played its inaugural season in 2022 after offering top PGA Tour players nine-figure salaries and larger purses to join. Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson took the offer ahead of the season and faced intense backlash.

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy turned down offers to play for LIV, with Woods reportedly turning down $700 to $800 million to be a part of LIV.

Based on the Saudi government’s principles and violent history, Heider said, “there is no moral ambiguity here” considering their “abominable track record.” As a result, he believes, Saudi Arabia is participating in “sportswashing” – the concept that through sport, they might be attempting to improve their worldwide reputation.

Tuesday’s reaction to the news from professional golfers was mixed. Collin Morikawa, who plays on the PGA Tour, tweeted, “I love finding out morning news on Twitter.” Mackenzie Hughes tweeted, “Nothing like finding out through Twitter that we’re merging with a tour that we said we’d never do that with.” Mickelson, on the other side, tweeted, “Awesome day today,” followed by a smiling emoji.

Rory McIlroy spoke out Wednesday about the positive ramifications the move could have in the future.

“I think ultimately when I try to remove myself from the situation and I look at the bigger picture, and I look at 10 years down the line, I think ultimately this is going to be good for the game of professional golf,” McIlroy said. “I think it unifies it and secures its financial future.”

The widespread divisiveness presents one of the major challenges of the new merger. Another could be the drastic increase in competition.

On the other hand, a benefit is the potential to create a unifying body for the sport of golf, instead of two organizations indefinitely competing with one another with different rules and events. LIV’s finances also could provide ample funding for the PGA. Conversely, the PGA has the long-standing reputation and prestige to help provide LIV with sponsors.

History shows that mergers have been successful in other sports, from MLB (American League and National League) to the NFL (AFL) and NBA (ABA). The previous professional sports mergers helped grow the game through unification and increased the talent pool, as well as adding competition with the additional teams.

Only time will tell if the surprising LIV and PGA unification will follow suit.

“Recognizing the uncertainty generally in the commercial realm going forward puts us in a position where I can say today to our members that we’re going to experience meaningful growth as we go forward,” Monahan said.

Shy Ghara shy garr-ah (he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix