For all of the anticipation, the only constituency actually comforted by the U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on the PGA Tour’s deal with the Saudis were those already convinced as to the piss-poor quality of elected officialdom in the Republic. Anyone eager for a scintilla of clarity on golf’s future was left disappointed, and with about as much faith in their leadership as the nation at large.
That was apparent in comments by Tour members who are congenitally serene. Scottie Scheffler and Jordan Spieth were pointed in expressing their impatience with the pace at which members are being informed in what is nominally a member-led organization, while Xander Schauffele only just stopped shy of voting no confidence in Jay Monahan. The commish returns to his job July 17 after a four-week medical leave, but how long he can keep it is a matter of feverish speculation.
Trust is a precious commodity in commerce, but in the present-day PGA Tour it’s more scarce than snow in the Sahara. There isn’t much among Policy Board members, most of whom were oblivious that a sleeper cell was negotiating such a consequential deal. Still less exists between players and executives, as anger about the blindside calcifies into resentment about the absence of detail and apparent failure to consider alternatives. Even among players, factionalism has taken root, shaped by personal disappointment, a loss of confidence in those entrusted with running things, or simply a loss of leverage masquerading as a loss of confidence. None of those sentiments augur well for Monahan.
Ron Price and Jimmy Dunne, who testified in the commissioner’s stead on Capitol Hill, offered two impetuses to explain the accord with the Saudi Public Investment Fund: financing litigation was unsustainable, and LIV Golf would continue to pick off key players in perpetuity. Both assertions are really assumptions. People familiar with Tour finances insist it is far from penury, while most top players — those who really matter, rankings be damned — seem to have already made their decision on where to compete. To shore up the rationales presented during the hearing, frequent references were made to the PIF’s $700 billion war chest, as though the entire resources of the regime are designated to underwrite its ambitions in golf.
A more plausible explanation for the Framework Agreement is that both parties were incentivized to end the invasive legal discovery process, so they crafted not a roadmap to a shared future but a patchwork quilt of fig leaves to conceal embarrassing shortcomings. It was sufficient (and legally necessary) to end the litigation, and like many peace accords is intentionally vague so all parties can claim a measure of victory. Yet interpretations of the text voiced by either side were becoming difficult to reconcile even before Senator Richard Blumenthal gifted us a document dump that revealed Saudi ambitions wildly inconsistent with their supposedly being a minority, passive investor in the proposed new joint venture.
Soon it will become clear if the deal that the PGA Tour signed is the same one that the Saudis believe they have.
Even if both parties are aligned and negotiating a definitive deal in good faith — a generous grant given that one is proven to prefer bonesaws to brokering — the prospects of it being consummated are highly uncertain. A player revolt on the PGA Tour is precariously near, and likely emboldened by Randall Stephenson’s July 9 resignation as an independent director on the Policy Board. To his credit, Stephenson condemned the amorality of being in business with those who carved up Jamal Khashoggi, but it was his other calls to arms that will resonate in the locker room: for governance reform at the board level, and for examining investment options that don’t involve doffing a visor to the butcher’s bagman, PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan.
Right now, there exists no Saudi deal — only platitudes about the aspiration to reach a deal. But even that flimsy pact might become collateral damage in an internal mutiny at the Tour, regardless of whether members are amenable to it in principle, and long before it can be adjudicated by any regulatory authority. The coming weeks will prove that players have the authority and opportunity to shape the PGA Tour’s future while their LIV counterparts, well-compensated pawns, are dependent on the whim of Al-Rumayyan.
But who will guide the Tour through the turbulence? Monahan has been personally popular among members, but the goodwill he earned was entirely spent with his backflip, the secretive process leading to it, and the maddeningly opaque period since. In circumstances that are devoid of clarity, the tenuousness of Monahan’s tenure is unambiguous. If and when he falls on his sword, a successor faces an unenviable challenge.
The PGA Tour isn’t confronting an existential crisis because an autocratic regime decided golf is a cool vehicle to drive tourism and Monahan refused to take a call to discuss opportunities, but because so many players allowed petrodollars to usurp rational market values in a niche sport. The consequences are warping the economics of professional golf to such an extent that it can no longer be sustained on media rights and sponsorships, and that reality will persist for whoever is in charge.
Alternative investment exists for the PGA Tour, and while such options would demand a return, accountability is preferable to the free-range financials now running amok. Clean capital would leave LIV in the wilderness while mitigating the specter of tournament sponsors exiting rather than risk proximity to the Crown Prince’s next atrocity. And if the scorned Saudis double down, as they were threatening privately when negotiations began, so be it. Let them continue funding a failed product and let players choose sides, once and for all. The PGA Tour simply cannot continue mutilating itself to satisfy every demand for a pound of flesh.