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FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE

The PGA Tour has (more!) company

This article originally appeared on the Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

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Despite Phil Mickelson’s harsh critique of the people behind it, the Saudi Golf League is not dead. Not even close. According to sources close to the situation, the SGL is on the verge of announcing its first tournament, perhaps as early as this week. The goal is to enlist at least a few PGA Tour members for the inaugural event, forcing the Tour to follow through on its threat to ban players for life if they support the SGL. This will trigger an antitrust lawsuit that could have deep ramifications for the sport.

That, however, is not the only big development when it comes to the shifting landscape of professional golf. In a recent email obtained by the Fire Pit Collective, the Premier Golf League laid out to Rory McIlroy (and the PGA Tour leadership) its plan for a series of 18 lucrative events featuring $20 million purses in which the PGL would partner with the Tour. Team events would run simultaneously, with the winners each collecting an additional $1 million. In addition, they would have a season-ending team event with a winner-take-all purse of $20 million.

The correspondence is dated Feb. 14, which is significant because that was the day McIlroy officially became one of the four player-directors on the PGA Tour’s all-powerful policy board. In layman’s terms, McIlroy is obligated to present anything to the board that could benefit the players. McIlroy is a key figure in the PGL intrigue. “Funny enough, one of the first conversations I ever had was with Rory,” Andy Gardiner, the CEO of the PGL, told the No Laying Up podcast last November. “I was explaining the concept, and at the time he was of the view that actually this is what golf needs. That was some time ago, he’s entitled to change his opinion, but, had Rory said to me, ‘Andy, that’s rubbish,’ I would’ve probably stopped. But, on we went.”

McIlroy presented the PGL proposal to the board and the plan was subsequently discussed among some Player Advisory Council (PAC) members earlier this month at Bay Hill and the Players. “Their proposal has been studied and scrutinized by an independent company to test its viability,” says Kevin Kisner, another player-director on the policy board. “The results were presented to all of us: Not feasible.” A PGL investor, who would speak only anonymously, strongly disagrees with the analysis, saying, “Money is not an issue—we see how much of it is trying to enter the golf world. There is plenty of cash on the sidelines, as we have witnessed. You don’t think all these private equity guys wouldn’t love a piece of a [PGL] franchise?” A different source close to the PGL says, “They don’t have our model so I don’t know what they audited. We, on the other hand, have had our model audited by multiple financial institutions and industry experts and know it’s not only viable but conservative. For PGA Tour players, the answer is this: let us take you through the model. If it isn’t viable, what do you have to lose?”

The PGL was conceived in 2019 and there were advanced discussions with Golf Saudi to underwrite the new tour. A deal was never consummated, and not long after, Saudi Arabia began making its own play through the SGL. “They 100 percent stole our idea,” says the PGL investor, who hails from Europe. “They’re not our partners; they’re now our competitors.” On its website, the PGL makes clear it is “not connected with the SGL (Saudi Golf League), and the SGL is not associated with us. We have no Saudi backing.” It is significant that the PGL’s money—mostly European—comes without the taint of the Saudis, which has created blowback for Mickelson and others.

The PGL proposal is also notable because, unlike the SGL, it is not just about the rich getting richer; the PGL would give ownership stakes to members of the PGA, Korn Ferry, and DP World tours. The PGL would allocate 100 million shares, with a prospective value of $10 billion. PGA Tour members would get 50 percent of the shares; 7.5 percent would go to Korn Ferry members, and DP World Tour members would get 2.5 percent. The breakdown of how the shares would be distributed is below.

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The proposal states that assuming there are 200 members of the PGA Tour, each member would receive $2 million in cash on the day the PGL deal is ratified. (Technically, the money comes in the form of a “non-recourse loan,” but it would spend like cash.) Each voting member of the Korn Ferry Tour would receive $300,000. The shares the players receive would potentially provide another bonanza if the PGL is successful.

By guaranteeing payment to all PGA Tour and KFT members, the goal apparently is to pressure the Tour to work with the PGL to find a way to partner. Gardiner declined to comment for this story but told No Laying Up, “The original notion was always to work with the PGA Tour, believe it or not. Some might still call that incredibly naive, but it remains our strong desire.” Although the PGL events would have limited fields, the upfront money would allow players to work their way up to PGL events while playing regular PGA Tour events.

At his state-of-the-tour press conference last week, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan swatted away numerous questions about the Saudis, saying, “We are moving on.” That was premature. Although the Tour doesn’t want to acknowledge it, the competition isn’t going away. And while the goal of the PGL is to “partner” with the Tour, it is basically forcing the hand of the suits in Ponte Vedra Beach by making a proposal that is especially attractive to the vast majority of their membership. We talked to numerous players on the Tour and KFT about the proposal. None of them had seen the PGL letter until we sent it to them. The reactions varied:

  • “If the money is truly there and not coming from Saudi Arabia, I don’t see how it doesn’t lead to a serious discussion.”
  • “As players, we all believe we can be in the top 50 in the world. This gives us some upfront money to achieve that.”
  • “I don’t see how this isn’t supported by a majority of players on the KFT.”

Questions remain about the PGL’s financial viability, and, after more than a year of contentious headlines regarding the Saudis, do PGA Tour players still have the appetite to explore yet another upstart league? One member of the PAC declined to comment for this story, saying, “Usually I wouldn’t mind, but I’m over all of this SGL and PGL talk. I’m just ready to move on from it.” But money talks, and it seems likely that other players will want to listen. In the clash for the future of professional golf, the PGA Tour is now fighting a battle on two fronts.

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