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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Mistrust looms over PGA Tour as deadline for Saudi deal nears

Tiger Woods playing during the Masters Golf Tournament Round One, at Augusta National Golf in Augusta, Ga. on April 6, 2023. The PGA Tour added Woods to its board in August. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By Lauren Hirsch and Alan Blinder

The PGA Tour is less than three weeks from a deadline to finalize a deal with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund that it promised would transform professional golf into a global powerhouse and quiet years of acrimony.

But acrimony clearly remains.

The plan’s outline called for combining the moneymaking businesses of the PGA Tour, the venerable American circuit; and LIV Golf, the upstart league flush with billions of dollars in Saudi investment. The deal’s announcement on June 6, however, was short on the basics, including a total valuation and even modest support from many players. Six months later, unrest and mistrust are still pervasive inside the PGA Tour, as players, board members and senior executives struggle to repair ties after secret talks that led to the Saudi deal surprised even many in the boardroom.

“Since June 6, trust has been broken at the top level,” Adam Scott, who turned professional in 2000 and now chairs the tour’s Player Advisory Council, said in an interview this week. “Nothing has changed to reinstate that trust.”

Scott, the winner of the 2013 Masters Tournament, will assume a seat on the PGA Tour’s board next month. When he does, he will join a group that has lately felt splintered, as players on the board have repeatedly clashed with some outside directors. The rancor may not derail any deal, since many players are open to significant outside investment. But their frustrations with tour leaders — over both the secretive nature of how the deal came together and a feeling that players do not have a strong enough say in how the sport is run — could shape decisions about the details and the future makeup of the tour’s board, influencing golf for decades to come. PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said at the DealBook Summit last month that players “ultimately are going to be responsible for the deciding vote.”

The deal would give the wealth fund a significant stake in American golf as Saudi Arabia pours money into sports to try to shore up its reputation around the word. It faces headwinds outside the golf world, with the Justice Department prepared to scrutinize any arrangement for antitrust violations and senators digging into the tour’s ties to Saudi Arabia, and tour officials have spoken for months with potential U.S. investors.

The tour and Saudi Arabia’s wealth funds set a Dec. 31 deadline to finalize their deal, although the sides can extend their talks.

A spokesperson for the tour declined to comment.

The tentative deal with the wealth fund, which came after the tour long insisted that LIV Golf was merely an attempt by the Saudi government to distract people from its human rights record, provoked an uprising among players, many of whom had spurned LIV’s lucrative payouts. The negotiations’ clandestine nature also fueled the anger. The tour sought to curb the revolt in August, when it agreed to add Tiger Woods to the board, evening the count between the golfers and outside directors at six each. And it vowed that merchant banker Colin Neville, who had already been brought in to advise the players, would “be fully aware of the state of the negotiations.”

Woods’ addition was a boon to the players, who figured his swagger and savvy would give their side more heft in the boardroom. It did. But Woods’ ascendance did not alter certain realities such as, for instance, the voting thresholds required to make significant changes. As expected, it also did not dislodge the two directors who secretly negotiated with the Saudis: the board chair, Edward D. Herlihy, a partner at the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; and James J. Dunne III, vice chair of the investment bank Piper Sandler.

“I’ve learned that any great board, you need disagreement in order to get to the best solution, and we’ve had many disagreements this year — even the players have had disagreements,” said Webb Simpson, the winner of the 2012 U.S. Open and a member of the tour’s board. “But we’re trying to all get to a better place.”

Although tour membership is limited to a fraction of the world’s finest golfers, the players have only so much influence over the appointments of outside directors to the board. That has long frustrated many players, who felt they were put in a subservient position to the independent board members. Worsening the atmosphere, a director many players saw as a good-faith collaborator, the former AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, resigned after the Saudi deal was announced. (Two players were on a committee that recommended Stephenson’s successor, Joseph W. Gorder.)

Charley Hoffman, a longtime player who sits on the board, said he thought “the independents have the best interests of the players” in mind. But the tour’s structure ultimately limited players’ sway over their tour, he and others said, a particular sore point after the Saudi deal.

“The word I hear echoing throughout the membership is ‘accountability,’” Hoffman said.

The announcement last week that the Saudis had recruited Jon Rahm, the world’s third-ranked player, to LIV disappointed and unnerved tour loyalists. It also fueled a surge in infighting, most prominently displayed in a Sports Illustrated article that depicted golfer Patrick Cantlay as having outsize control over the tour’s destiny. Cantlay, the article said, “seemed more concerned about catering to elite golfers like himself” and suggested he was the leader of a group “driving negotiations.”

Cantlay is the player on the board with the highest spot in the Official World Golf Ranking (fifth), but other directors downplayed the notion that he was in charge.

“He just likes to think deep and see if there’s anything under the rocks that can improve the organization for everyone,” Hoffman said.

Jordan Spieth, a past winner of the British Open, the Masters and the U.S. Open who sits on the board, confessed to bemusement over accounts of Cantlay as a distinct power center. He thought Cantlay’s inquisitive, insistent style and vision had unsettled some people inside the tour hierarchy.

“He’s challenged people who have been in a position to not be challenged for a long time, and I think that’s upset them,” Spieth said. “Because he comes from a place of trying to enforce some change where change is inevitable, but kind of do it in a way where the players have a massive role in how it looks, that challenges the status quo and makes him a target.”

Cantlay said his approach to the role had not changed since June 6 and that, “in general, my mentality is just to put my head down and try to get the work done.”

Stephenson is not the only director to have left. The superstar Rory McIlroy resigned last month. Although his replacement, Spieth, is a well-liked tour stalwart with a record of board service, the turnover has stoked unease.

“The dynamic has been shook, obviously,” Scott said, adding, “The reasons don’t even really matter — at a critical time, that is not ideal.”

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