Sally Jenkins on the Secret Deal Which Signed the PGA Tour Over to a Saudi Prince

From a Washington Post column by Sally Jenkins headlined “It’s time for golfers to seize control of their game”:

Three guys smoked cigars together and made a secret deal in which they signed the PGA Tour over to a single Saudi financier. How did such a thing happen? The fact that it could is reason enough for players to junk the current system for the trash bag that it is and launch a whole new platform, a new order, a new tour. Owned by the players. Fellas, everybody stand up and take two steps to the side. Get out from under. Leave the double-dealing honchos holding nothing but paper. Turn the PGA Tour — and LIV Golf, too — into empty cardboard boxes. They have it coming.

The question of whether the PGA or the LIV Golf players would get the best of the proposed secret agreement to merge is a false one. Every golfer on both sides — and on the European tour, too — should realize he lost in this process. It exposed just how servile the players are to the money men wheeling behind their heavily commodified backs — and how blithely false and incompetent those supposed rainmakers really are. Neither side is fit to be the overlord of a global golf entity.

Both botched the rollout and miscalculated public outrage and governmental scrutiny from a despotic Saudi deal. Each is duplicitous, with promises that change by the day in this graft-smelling pact whispered with Cohiba-whiffing superciliousness. Both seek to simply plunder the players-as-assets, tell them where to play or what to wear on their caps and sleeves while they out-earn them. Trust is impossible. Based on what? How they have kept players in the loop up to this point? “I don’t really get how all of it works,” Max Homa said. “The more I’ve tried to learn, the more I’ve just gone in circles.”

Everybody is carving up the bull. And the players are the fatted bull, not the carvers. The real question players from Brooks Koepka to Scottie Scheffler should ask is, how can they make themselves the carvers instead of everybody else’s meal?

How conveniently blank this agreement is where the players are concerned. Yet how precisely it spells out the rewards for the power brokers. The players don’t know what they will be getting from it. But PGA Tour policy board chairman Ed Herlihy knows what he’s getting. He and his law firm are credited as “counsel” to the PGA Tour in the deal, and he gets a seat on the board of the new for-profit global entity, next to the Saudis. PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan knows what he’s getting: the title of CEO of the new company. Saudi money man Yasir Al-Rumayyan knows what he’s getting: chairmanship and authority over all of the new global golf entity, with “exclusive” rights to invest further.

And what goes into this new global entity? “The commercial businesses and rights of the PGA Tour.” That means you, boys.

And who will be managing these assets? The same jokers who can’t find a major sponsor for LIV, have to pay to get on TV and admitted to revenue of “virtually zero” last season while spending $1 billion or more. The same PGA Tour bunglers who say they are projected to go broke and tapped into cash reserves, who failed to properly consult lawyers and who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in antitrust litigation and invited governmental suspicion. “I don’t understand this sophisticated group of people being this stupid,” says one person involved in PGA affairs.

Stupid — or just corrupt, cosseted insiders? You think Monahan has been overpaid and over-luxed up to this point, with his $14 million in compensation for 2021 — double what Jordan Spieth made in prize money — and his reported use of the tour’s Citation X jet to go to Steamboat Springs and his kids’ college campuses? Just wait. Here’s the sort of thing golfers can expect from letting honchos with weekender snap hooks reach private arrangements in their club chairs. The last time the Saudis made a large sports-washing acquisition, it was the Newcastle soccer team in October 2021. The deal was brokered by a British banker named Amanda Staveley. She wound up with 10 percent of the club and a seat as director of the team.

How could players who imagine that they are independent, self-determining contractors wind up in this position? The answer is, Jack and Arnie did it to them, and it’s time to undo their work. Nicklaus and Palmer didn’t mean to, but they ceded way too much control to the commissioner and his policy board when they formed the tour back in 1968. They were unable to claw the power back despite their best efforts. And it has remained a problem of more than 50 years standing.

A fascinating review of this history was written by Adam Schupak in a biography of the former PGA Tour commissioner, “Deane Beman: Golf’s Driving Force,” which players ought to read if they want to understand the fight they’re in for their own futures. By 1983, Nicklaus and his fellow top players had grown seriously disgruntled with the Beman-led board’s secretive management, overspending and “conflicts of interest” they felt came at their personal expense. “I think the basic problem is that the tour is competing with its own players,” Tom Watson told Golf Digest, presciently. The tour was so run from Beman’s back pocket that it didn’t even bother to issue an annual report to its own players.

Nicklaus, Watson and other players sent a letter to the policy board calling for Beman’s resignation for exceeding his powers. In response, Beman sent an emissary, his player-ally Jim Colbert, to confront Nicklaus. Colbert read to Nicklaus from an original charter-incorporation document that ceded sprawling discretionary powers to the commissioner and the appointed business titans on his board.

“Who granted those privileges?” Nicklaus demanded.

“You did,” Colbert said, and pointed to his signature among those of other tour founders. Nicklaus was forced to let the revolt die. Over the years, there was never again enough of a player-consensus to challenge the structure. Until now.

Phil Mickelson was not wrong about the PGA Tour’s flaws. He just did the wrong thing about it with the wrong people, got in bed with despots known for sweating their partners. He and the others did nothing to improve the sport’s governance or grow self-determination. They merely fattened their personal accounts — and they may yet have to give some of it back in the form of fines and suspensions.

Today’s players should use this moment as an opportunity. Surely, the PGA Tour and LIV talent can arrive at a simple, unified consensus to stop being used by self-dealers. The players have one incredible advantage: They have an extremely small membership. They can make a move with a single flex of collective will to get out from under this ridiculous umbrella. Form a new platform and court new suitors, cleanly. Companies will line up to back them. With capital.

There is no game, no asset, without them. There are no events, no tournaments, no fields, nothing to televise or sponsor. Nothing to sell. They are the game of golf. Not the cigar smokers.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. She began her second stint at The Washington Post in 2000 after spending the previous decade working as a book author and as a magazine writer.

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