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PGA Tour players are losing sleep over LIV Golf

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BROOKLINE, Mass. — In an era when professional golfers have grown increasingly distant from their audiences, two-time Grand Slam winner Justin Thomas took listeners right into the middle of Monday night. In a press conference ahead of this week’s US Open, he spoke of having “gone round and round and lost a lot of sleep last week thinking about what could happen” with his lifelong dream tour.

As an honors graduate of a top 10 business school, two-time major winner Collin Morikawa looked into the future and saw…darkness. “It’s so hard because Justin is right,” he said. “We don’t want to worry about this a year or two years from now.”

With one of the rarest of perspectives, 15-year-old former PGA Tour player and current money management whiz Joe Ogilvie saw fledgling rival LIV Golf doing a Netflix on the PGA Tour. Netflix “fired a cannon of money through Hollywood,” Ogilvie wrote in a tweet last month, which “also unbundled the TV/cable package.” This looks like a moment of disaggregation, he surmised.

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“The PGA Tour is in trouble,” he wrote.

The Saudi-backed, controversial and lavish rather than lavish LIV Golf Invitational Series appears to present some level of damage to the majestic old PGA Tour for some time to come, barring some unforeseen global rejection of fossil fuels. “I don’t think anyone can see where this is going to be in five or 10 years,” four-time major winner Rory McIlroy said.

The Saudi-backed LIV Invitational golf series kicked off its first tournament on June 9, attracting a number of PGA Tour players with big financial rewards. (Video: Reuters)

So far LIV Golf has held an event near London this past weekend. Nineteen of the top 100 players in the world played in it or have confirmed they will play in others, wrapped in comfort like the $2.125 million Hennie du Plessis received for finishing second or the $120,000 Andy Ogletree earned for finishing 48th out of 48. Seventeen players received suspensions from the PGA Tour as Commissioner Jay Monahan began to deal with the threat.

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“I feel sorry for Jay Monahan,” said Jon Rahm, the defending US Open champion who is ranked second in the world. “If you look at his time as commissioner, he had to deal with covid and now this.”

With innovations such as 54-hole tournaments instead of 72, shots, the lack of cuts and a striking lack of money, LIV Golf, with the aim of polishing the reputation of a country of ill fame, poses some great unknowns. How might his poaching affect television contracts, individual PGA Tour events, the PGA Tour’s side in court?

The PGA Tour announced lucrative new television deals in 2020. Those deals, with NBC and CBS, are for nine years and are reportedly worth more than $650 million per year. The tour also signed a separate broadcast deal with streaming service ESPN Plus.

The impact on those deals if golfers leave the circuit is unclear. Several current and former media executives, who were not involved in recent PGA Tour negotiations, disagreed about what kind of protection the networks might have. Two suggested that the networks would likely have a “field strength” clause, which could force a certain percentage of the top 100 golfers to make a certain number of appearances at PGA Tour events.

But two others, who have been involved in television rights discussions with the PGA Tour and have seen previous tour broadcast contracts, said often in media deals there will be blanket language that upholds a television property to quality standards. but that it would be unusual to have specific metrics.

A former television executive added that any remedy to such a clause, such as annulment of the contract, would be difficult to achieve without a lawsuit.

NBC, CBS and ESPN declined to comment.

The pain could extend beyond the Tour’s broadcast partners. The Washington Post contacted eight major sponsors of PGA Tour events, including John Deere, Charles Schwab, Travelers, Wells Fargo and AT&T. Neither responded to requests for comment on whether prominent golfers leaving the PGA Tour would affect their sponsorships.

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The first US-based LIV Golf event outside of Portland, Oregon, will compete directly with the John Deere Classic, a traditional stop on the PGA Tour in Illinois. Clair Peterson, executive director of the tournament, said she viewed LIV as a bigger problem in the long term, potentially, than the short term, because she’s always fighting for the best players to show up.

“We don’t feel like it’s going to affect us right away,” he said. “We’re certainly watching with interest, but we’ve had players come and go. We had Tiger Woods in 1996 and he never came back.”

He added: “This is such a volatile business, honestly. Every year has different challenges and obstacles: change of place, different field, weather. We are used to facing and overcoming obstacles. This is definitely a big hurdle, but we have a lot of experience.”

Peterson said he hadn’t had any conversations with the PGA Tour about LIV Golf.

Michael Hausfeld, the attorney who represented college athletes in a successful federal antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, said the legal issues at stake were separate from the moral issues and that he believed golfers had a strong antitrust case against the PGA Tour.

“The PGA [Tour] It has crossed a line, legally, because they have basically decided that no player that they have a contract with can play outside of their contracts,” he said. “Those players cannot participate in the sport for other potential competing organizations. That is an antitrust violation.”

Hausfeld said players banned from the tour had two legal courses of action. They could ask a court for an injunction allowing them to continue competing on the tour, but they could also ask for money damages. Banned players could, for example, count the money they have won in the last five years and say that they are now banned from winning that amount in the next five years. With the number of golfers joining the LIV circuit and US law requiring all antitrust damages to be tripled, the PGA Tour could bear significant liability, Hausfeld said.

Amid the fresh noise and the voracious public appetite for him, the PGA Tour is clinging to invaluable strengths, some of which were highlighted Tuesday when the 27-year-old Rahm offered his usual wealth of knowledge. He said his biggest concern is the Ryder Cup, in case some stars end up shut out. He wondered how extensive the damage can be when the LIV circuit has 48-man tournaments but the world has “hundreds of others” of boffo players. He brought up the age factor of LIV Golf’s freshman class, with its 13 players over 35 and two so far under 30, including 28-year-old 2020 US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau.

“For a lot of people, I’m not going to lie,” Rahm said, “those next three or four years are basically worth the retirement plan that they’re being given. It is a very good trade-off to retire and sail off into the sunset. If that’s what you want, fine.”

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As for the youngsters, McIlroy said: “I think a lot of the guys that are going to play [in LIV Golf] who are younger, of a similar age to me [33] or a little younger than me, it seems like short-term thinking, and they’re not really looking at the big picture. Again, I was just trying to see this with a wider lens early on.”

That broader lens focuses on appreciating Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and the tour they built, which McIlroy emphasizes, and legacies, which Woods emphasized last month at the PGA Championship.

“There is meaning when you win the Memorial Championship,” Rahm said. “There is meaning when you win the Arnold Palmer event at Bay Hill.”

He added: “Three-day shotgun for me is not a golf tournament. Without cutting. It’s that easy. I want to play against the best in the world in a format that has been around for hundreds of years.”

He watched part of the LIV event online, “and to me, the only thing they had to talk about is the fact that if Charl Schwartzel won, he would win $4.7 million, right?” He pointed out that nobody ever talks about bags when they talk about Seve Ballesteros or Nicklaus or the tradition of golf.

Rahm and his wife, Kelley, chatted, “We started talking about it and thought, ‘Will our lifestyle change if I get $400 million?’ No, it won’t change a bit.”

Such sentiments have held so far for the entire top 10 and 19 of the top 20, with the exception of Dustin Johnson, in 16th place, but for how long? Not even a stellar three-year student at the University of California Haas School of Business would guess.

“I think some guys that have quit, that have joined LIV, have fully grasped the idea that they’re fine without playing. [the PGA Tour], and they are at peace,” said Morikawa, ranked No. 7. “Everyone else is not at peace. Some guys want to go back. Some guys might want to join. We don’t want to go, and we want [the distraction] to end. There are so many things in the air that you are not really at peace because you do not know what the world is going to bring you the next day. I guess that’s life, right?

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