Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau lead group of 11 LIV golfers suing PGA Tour for antitrust practices
Chris Trotman/LIV Golf
Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and nine other LIV Golf players filed an antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour on Wednesday. The Wall Street Journal was the first to report the matter.
In a 105-page complaint, the players are challenging their suspensions by the tour for defecting to the Saudi-backed circuit. Three of those in the lawsuit—Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford and Matt Jones—are attempting to receive a temporary restraining order that would allow them to play the FedEx Cup Playoffs, which begin next week at the FedEx St. Jude Championship in Memphis. All three would have qualified for the tour’s postseason had they not been suspended.
“The purpose of this action is to strike down the PGA Tour’s anticompetitive rules and practices that prevent these independent-contractor golfers from playing when and where they choose,” the complaint alleges.
The PGA Tour announced on June 9 it had suspended 17 PGA Tour members who defected to LIV Golf following their participation in the first round of the inaugural LIV Golf event in London. “As you know, players listed below did not receive the necessary conflicting event and media rights releases—or did not apply for releases at all—and their participation in the Saudi Golf League/LIV Golf event is in violation of our Tournament regulations,” read a memo from PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. “The same fate holds true for any other players who participate in future Saudi Golf League events in violation of our Regulations."
Additional players who competed in LIV Golf events in Portland, Ore., and Bedminster, N.J., indeed were subsequently suspended by the tour.
One of the provisions in the PGA Tour Player Handbook and Tournament Regulations is that each PGA Tour member acknowledges the commissioner, the tour’s policy board and the appeals committee have the authority to permanently ban a member from playing in tour co-sponsored, approved or coordinated tournaments if the member violates its regulations. The handbook also provides that a player ceases to be a member of the PGA Tour if, in the judgment of the policy board, the member commits a serious breach of the tournament regulations, the PGA Tour’s Code of Ethics or otherwise conducts himself in a manner unbecoming of a professional golfer.
One such regulation generally prohibits tour players from playing in events when there is a PGA Tour-approved or sponsored event taking place at the same time. Per the handbook, players who reach the 15-event minimum (which members must meet as a condition of their membership voting rights) are eligible for three conflicting-event releases per season, which is why so many tour players were allowed to play in the Saudi Invitational earlier this year. However, the regulations also state such requests can be denied.
The complaint and application for a temporary restraining order, which were obtained by Golf Digest, were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Others named in the lawsuit include Ian Poulter, Abraham Ancer, Carlos Ortiz, Pat Perez, Jason Kokrak and Peter Uihlein. LIV Golf members like Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and Kevin Na were not named, as they have resigned their PGA Tour memberships.
The tour is adamant it has the legal authority to issue disciplinary measures. When asked to comment on the suit, a PGA Tour spokesperson referenced a memo from Monahan sent on Wednesday to PGA Tour members after the suit was filed. In the memo, Monahan noted: "We have been preparing to protect our membership and contest this latest attempt to disrupt our tour, and you should be confident in the legal merits of our position. Fundamentally, these suspended players—who are now Saudi Golf League employees—have walked away from the tour and now want back in. With the Saudi Golf League on hiatus, they're trying to use lawyers to force their way into competition alongside our members in good standing."
LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman has openly expressed his desires for players to challenge the tour's authority regarding suspensions. Norman additionally telegraphed his litigation threats in an open letter to the tour.
Last week, the PGA Tour told its members that the tour policy board had created an “eligibility points list” for the upcoming FedEx Cup Playoffs. This list removed players suspended by the tour, including Gooch, Swafford and Jones. The top 125 players from this eligibility list are the players who will qualify for the upcoming FedEx St. Jude Championship and who will retain their tour membership for the 2022-23 season.
“While the new list will not take the place of the official FedEx Cup points list, it will provide clarity for players and fans alike in regard to tournament eligibility,” the memo said. The eligibility list was meant to ensure suspended tour members did not negatively impact other players’ tournament eligibility, positioning on the priority rankings or eligibility to compete in the FedEx Cup playoffs.
The complaint from the LIV players alleges that being denied access to the FedEx Cup Playoffs not only would prevent Gooch, Swafford and Jones from playing in those events but “also cripples their chances of qualifying for both the Majors and the Tour’s premier invitationals in future seasons. The punishment that would accrue to these players from not being able to play in the FedEx Cup Playoffs is substantial and irreparable, and a temporary restraining order is needed to prevent the irreparable harm that would ensue were they not to be able to participate.”
“It’s an attempt to use the Tour platform to promote themselves and to freeride on your benefits and efforts," Monahan said in his Wednesday memo. "To allow reentry into our events compromises the Tour and the competition, to the detriment of our organization, our players, our partners and our fans. The lawsuit they have filed somehow expects us to believe the opposite, which is why we intend to make our case clearly and vigorously.”
Last month, three LIV Golf members won a temporary order from a U.K. arbiter to play in the Genesis Scottish Open, an event co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour and DP World Tour. The three players—Poulter, Adrian Otaegui and Justin Harding—had been suspended for three events and fined £120,000 by the DP World Tour, but the suspensions were temporarily stayed pending determination of their substantive appeals by an appeal panel.