What LIV players want, don’t want from agreement (if any)

What LIV players want, don’t want from agreement (if any)
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DORAL, Fla. – Dec. 31 looms over professional golf like some sort of Draconian deadline.

Officials have dismissed the notion that a groundbreaking deal between the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund will be announced on New Year’s Eve – and there are indications the deadline isn’t written in stone and could be extended if negotiations are progressing.

But players at the LIV Golf team finale last week at Doral were acutely aware of what hangs in the balance.

The framework agreement between the Tour and PIF that was announced in June paved the way to negotiations to possibly create a new, for-profit entity that would include the Tour, LIV Golf and the DP World Tour. Exactly what that would look like remains to be seen and at this stage, it’s impossible to ignore the competing interests between the status quo and what would be called PGA Tour Enterprises.

From the LIV Golf player perspective there’s a predictable bravado from the likes of Ian Poulter, who told The Daily Mail last week, “I talked to [PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan]. He told me, never mind 2024, 2025 – LIV will go on. He is [as] passionate as he was at the very beginning in all this.”

There’s also an undertone that connects both sides of this divide. For many, it appears the best outcome would be no agreement at all. In fact, there is a theory in some circles that the framework agreement’s primary purpose was to end the litigation between the Tour, LIV Golf and the PIF.

For the Tour, the lawsuit had become wildly expensive, costing the circuit $50 million in legal fees with no end in sight. For the PIF, the ruling by two U.S. District Court judges that the fund could be added to the lawsuit as a co-defendant created untenable exposure for all the fund’s investments in the United States.

With no details and little sign of progress from either side, a healthy dose of skepticism is apropos.

“We’re no further along in this thing. It’s the same group of people involved [on both sides]. I’ve not really seen any change at the Tour,” said one LIV Golf player who asked for anonymity. “I don’t think anything’s going to happen.”

If there is going to be a definitive agreement that somehow melds all three sides into a single entity with the PIF as “a premier corporate sponsor,” Al-Rumayyan the chairman of the PGA Tour Enterprises board, and Monahan as the chief executive officer, what would it look like?

While that lens is clouded on all fronts, LIV Golf players see distinct starting points and non-starters.

Access to the major championships is where most LIV players start the conversation. Following the Official World Golf Ranking’s decision earlier this month to deny LIV points, several players have countered that each of the four majors could carve out an exemption category for the top LIV guys, mitigating that issue.

“We’d ask for [top] 15 on the [LIV] money list but top 10 would be great to get into the majors,” Bubba Watson said. “We still do our thing, travel the world, country to country. The PGA Tour would be the same.”

But if bringing the majors in line is “low-hanging fruit,” the possibilities for a deal become far more complicated when the conversation turns to how players who joined LIV Golf could be integrated back to the Tour. According to the framework agreement, both sides would “work cooperatively and in good faith to establish a fair and objective process for any players who desire to re-apply for membership [to the Tour and European circuit] … consistent with each Tour’s disciplinary policies.”

Few, if any, LIV players have an interest in returning to a full schedule on the PGA Tour.

“I don’t really need to play any PGA Tour events, but I wouldn’t mind playing a couple on sponsor exemptions,” Kevin Na said. “I’d like to play three to four events on sponsor exemptions.

“I don’t mean this in a disrespectful way, but people ask, You guys want to come back to the PGA Tour? I love the Tour and am grateful for the Tour, but for me, I’m content playing less.”

Would players who joined LIV Golf be subject to fines or suspensions if they wanted back on the Tour? Would they return with the same status they had when they left, or would they need re-qualify?

“I don’t think you’d be welcomed at all,” Harold Varner III conceded. “I think it’d be hard for a top player to be like, this guy went over there for money.”

Without some sort of punitive response, those who remained on the PGA Tour would likely feel even more betrayed, and if the price is too high, most LIV players said they wouldn’t return.

“I think there’s a way to have [Dustin Johnson] play in the tournaments he wants to play in, Brooks [Koepka] to play in tournaments he wants to play in, there’s a way to do it all but how do you do it civilized? That’s the question,” Watson said. “There’s ways to do it but you have to get out of your old way of thinking. Thinking that your product is the greatest product in the world, you have to get out of that.”

Also at issue would be how players on LIV would be subject to Tour regulations that require a minimum of 15 events. In theory, that would require players on the new circuit to play 29 events (including 14 events on LIV) to maintain membership on both circuits. That’s also a non-starter.

Most LIV players suggested a more à la carte approach to a mixed schedule.

“If sponsors wanted a [LIV Golf] guy to come play and the guy wanted to go then the Tour should let a guy play. You don’t have to give guys status to pick whatever they want. But if a sponsor wants you and you want to go, they should let you do that,” Brendan Steele said.

Beyond the individual boundaries that will make any agreement a challenge, there are the fundamental questions of a potential deal that would combine three vastly different products.

Last week, LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman echoed the comments of Poulter, telling reporters the circuit is close to announcing its 2024 schedule and that he’s not involved in the negotiations between the PIF and PGA Tour. That suggests that a potential definitive agreement wouldn’t attempt to combine the Tour and LIV Golf products, at least not in the short term.

“This part I have thought about, if you give the Tour a [LIV Golf] team or two teams and let them interchange there four guys onto those teams,” Watson said. “That’s the way you can make a for-profit business for them.”

Others suggested a similar entity that would allow the Tour and LIV Golf to continue their current paths while bringing them all under the same roof.

“I envision the two [tours] are separate, they are moving together, they both have the support that they need but then there is a little bit of a flow back and forth – but it’s not a full integration between the two,” Steele said.

Most players on both sides of the divide stop short of putting too much thought into the potential agreement and, at least at Doral, there was a sense that Dec. 31 will come and go with no groundbreaking deal. For many, that seems to be the desired outcome.

Not everyone, however, has given up hope.

“Golf at the highest level deserves to be together,” Charles Howell III said. “When the fan turns on the television on the weekend, the best players in the world should be playing in the same spot. Now, I’m not smart enough to figure out how to get there. I trust that there are people who are smart enough.”

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