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'The ultimate hypocrisy!': Golf insiders pick apart the PGA Tour-Saudi deal

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Power Poll, a Golf Digest content partner.

June 12, 2023
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Rene Johnston

The stunning announcement on Tuesday that the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund have agreed to merge their commercial business interests sent shockwaves across the sports world. Before the deal is even finalized or approved – much less has passed antitrust muster – the reaction has been intense from all sides.

PGA Tour players had heated words for commissioner Jay Monahan for making a deal behind their backs. LIV Golf players have been quick to declare victory. A 9/11 families group angrily called the tour “paid shills” for Saudi sportswashing. Words like “betrayal,” “hypocrite” and “sell-out” have generated intense feelings that overshadow the deal’s intent to unify and heal the rift in the professional game. Nobody is quite sure how (or even if) it will all coalesce in the end, but many cautiously hope for the best.

Our Golf Power Poll responders were equally not shy about expressing their feelings about the shocking turn of events, and opinions vary widely. The majority (58 percent) were disappointed in the deal, while only 13 percent were pleased, 15 percent relieved and 13 percent don’t know yet how to feel about it.

Despite those initial reactions, roughly two-thirds of poll voters believe the peace agreement between the rival tours will either be good for the game (37 percent) or neither good nor bad (28 percent), with 35 percent feeling that it will turn out to be bad for the professional game.

In assessing winners and losers, the prominent theme of responders was to follow the money.

“Just proves it was never about human rights for the PGA Tour,” said Hank Gola, the retired New York Daily News golf writer now freelancing. “After telling their players not to take the $ they took the $.”

“This never was and never will be about ‘growing the game.’ It’s about ‘growing the money,’” said Joe Logan, co-founder of MyPhillyGolf.com and former Inquirer golf writer.

Said J. Roger Graves, senior writer/editor for PGA Magazine: “The ultimate hypocrisy! Maybe Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler, Tony Finau, Jordan Spieth and all the PGA Tour players who chose not to defect to LIV should receive a $100 million stipend from LIV as a ‘franchise’ fee for allowing PIF to become involved with the PGA Tour.”

Count Frances Trimble, historian for the Texas Golf Hall of Fame, among the disappointed: “Ben Hogan is spinning in his grave.”

Here’s a breakdown of results and some responses to this week’s Golf Power Poll questions:

Question 1: What is your reaction to the PGA Tour/LIV Golf merger?

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Pleased - 13% (19 votes)
Disappointed - 58% (83 votes)
Relieved - 15% (22 votes)
Don't know - 13% (18 votes)

Considering the money involved, there was a sense among pollsters that this outcome was always the eventual end game.

“I thought it was inevitable,” said Peter Georgiady, executive director of The Golf Heritage Society. “Everyone was shook up when the LIV started up. My response was can you remember far enough back when there was the NFL and the rival AFL?”

“Rory McIroy spoke for many in voicing dismay at the Tour essentially selling out rather than continuing to oppose the LIV,” said Bob Gillespie, former writer for The State newspaper in Columbia, SC. “Some resolution was likely inevitable given the money involved, and we should wait for more details. But the message so far is: money trumps all in professional golf, and the Saudis have more money than the rest of us.”

Said James A. Frank of LINKS Magazine: “This ‘solution’ is not especially surprising, and I suppose necessary. What will be interesting to see is if the PGA Tour can do anything more with the team-play concept or if 3-5 years (from now) we scratch our heads and wonder ‘whatever happened to...?” My biggest question is if, and how, LIV golfers will be readmitted to the Tour, Ryder Cup, etc., and then how those who stuck with the Tour feel about whatever accommodations are made.”

Dan Shepherd, owner of Dan Shepherd Public Relations, is more disgusted than disappointed. “The hypocrisy of filing a countersuit against the LIV and having the commissioner pound the proverbial table while objecting vehemently to Saudi's using the game for sports washing – then merging with LIV – is sickening. And grossly transparent,” he said. “Everyone grab a front row seat and watch as the TOUR fires up its crisis communications PR team to start flinging the poo... to obfuscate against the harsh judgments to come and significant brand diminishment.”

Herb Gould, former Chicago newspaper writer and co-founder of TMGcollegesports.com, punctuated his thoughts succinctly: “I just want this whole greedy mess to go away.”

Question 2: Is this a unification agreement…?

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Good for game - 37% (53 votes)
Bad for game - 35% (49 votes)
Neither good nor bad - 28% (40 votes)

This is the billion-dollar question of whether or not this merged business enterprise ultimately works to the benefit of the professional game. Reaction is fairly evenly mixed.

Former Washington Post golf writer Len Shapiro, a Golf Digest contributor, does not mince words.

“This is a despicable development and shame on Jay Monahan and anyone else at the tour who thinks this is a good idea,” Shapiro said. “You have joined forces with an organization that is funded by blood money, pure and simple, starting with the murder of a Washington Post columnist but with countless other examples of the Saudis cruel and bloodthirsty ways under the full blessing of the thug prince. Looking at the comment section under the news story in the Post, I suspect many, many, many golf fans are revolted by this move, which, as always, is prompted not by a desire to grow the game, but sheer greed and lust for the dirtiest money on the planet. For shame.”

Jim McCabe, former Boston Globe writer and publisher of powerfades.com, echoes the inevitability sentiment but argues it’s too soon to tell its impact. “A partnership or merger or alliance – whatever word you choose – was inevitable and to ignore that is naive and borderline ludicrous,” he said. “The swiftness with which they came about is what shocks many, especially because golf writers love to scream ‘exclusive’ and the always popular ‘told me’ in stories. No one could this time, so there is outrage. There also are very few details, until which time it’s careless and foolhardy to pass judgment. But people will.”

“I am stunned – but think it’s good for golf,” said Kevin Drum, owner of Drum Media Group. “I feel bad for Rory (McIlroy) taking one for the team and Phil (Mickelson) perceived as winning although I love, love both but that’s my gut reaction. Rory showed such impressive leadership but Phil looks like he won but kudos to long term thinking – this is what is best for the game and I love golf.”

Question 3: Who is the biggest winner in this merger?

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Saudi PIF - 63% (89 votes)
PGA Tour - 6% (9 votes)
Phil Mickelson - 6% (9 votes)
Golf Fans - 15% (22 votes)
Other - 9% (13 votes)

The seemingly obvious winner in all this – Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund – didn’t not escape our pollsters, who picked the PIF and its governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan with 63 percent of the vote for gaining a seat at the big table in golf. Golf fans getting to enjoy a re-unified game came in a distant second with 15 percent.

The winning choice doesn’t make everyone happy.

“The thrill of seeing a great golfer sink the final putt to win a tournament will be diminished by the knowledge that MBS owns it all,” said Barry Cronin, another former Chicago Sun-Times writer.

“While golf fans win, we also all lose after once again being forced to swallow the notion that money always wins,” said Bill Potter, of the First Tee Greater Richmond.

Steve Habel, owner/publisher of GolfDaily.com, said, “This had to happen. And (Greg) Norman, Phil (Mickelson) and the Saudis knew this would be the end game. All parties played their roles so well. Manipulation and orchestration from the start… Everyone knew it was just a matter of time. America is in too deep to the Saudis to upset them for long.”

Matt Lawell, managing editor of Golf Course Industry magazine, believes any distaste for Saudi involvement will subside.

“Professional golf fans will ultimately love the results of this deal, just as many Newcastle United supporters love the results of Saudi Arabia's investment in their club – a return to the Champions League after wandering through the football desert for two decades!” he said. “The golf product we see on television will be overwhelming and incredible. Everything beneath the surface will stink of hypocrisy and corruption. Welcome to the PIFGA Tour.”

Question 4: Who are the biggest losers in this merger?

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PGA players that stayed - 44% (62 votes)
LIV players that left - 1% (2 votes)
Jay Monahan - 20% (29 votes)
Greg Norman - 18% (25 votes)
Other - 17% (24 votes)

“Until more details are released about what each tour will look like moving forward, and who will lead them, it’s too early to say who the winners and losers are,” said Nicholas Heidelberger, GolfLink editor.

Fair enough, but people remain quick to judge. Few believe the players who took the money to join LIV Golf came out losers, conversely leaving the most votes (44 percent) for the deal’s losers being the players who remained loyal to the PGA Tour and stayed. There was comparable sentiment that the commissioners of both rival leagues – Jay Monahan (20 percent) and Greg Norman (18 percent) – came out on the wrong end of the deal.

“Just another reminder that PGA Tour players have little control over the Tour. In this case, the keyword is going to be ‘betrayal,’ ” said Gary Van Sickle, Sports Illustrated writer.

“It's often said that the PGA Tour is a member-run organization. How can you still argue that is the case?” said Sean Fairholm of Global Golf Post.

Bill Hobson, executive producer/host of Michigan Golf Live, cited Monahan’s prominent statement that no tour player would have to apologize for being on the PGA Tour. “On Tuesday, Monahan officially completed the sale of his soul,” Hobson said. “He will soon be referred to as ‘former Commissioner.’ ”

Journalist Bradley Klein thinks the agreement will “seriously hamper the operational structure and support base for local (PGA Tour) events, undercut charitable efforts, and further disconnect elite professional golf from the real, everyday business of the game as it is actually played. The prize money will be obscene and the moral rot unmistakable.”

Among the 15 percent who picked “other” losers, Phil Stambaugh of CaGolf.com said simply, “DP World Tour.” Billy Satterfield, writer and photographer for Golf Course Gurus, thinks “those that don't accept change well” will be the biggest losers. “All sports evolve over time,” he said. “Shots clocks, 3-point lines, designated hitters, pitch clocks, equipment, instant replay, etc. Phil (Mickelson) became a villain being part of this movement, but in the end I think all tours, tour players and fans will be the beneficiary of what eventually comes of the merger.”