As soon as the PGA Tour suspended players who competed in the rival LIV Golf Invitational Series, it seemed inevitable that the circuits’ battle for the best players in the world would end up in a courtroom.
On Wednesday, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and nine other LIV Golf players field an antitrust lawsuit in federal court. Three of the players, Matt Jones, Hudson Swafford and Talor Gooch, are also seeking a temporary restraining order that would allow them to compete in the FedEx Cup Playoffs.
After a summer of drama, defections and stunning developments, the gloves have officially come off.
“I don’t like that they’re suing the PGA Tour because they’re suing the players as well,” PGA Tour player Billy Horschel told ESPN on Wednesday. “We are the PGA Tour. I am the PGA Tour. Collin Morikawa is the PGA Tour. Justin Thomas is the PGA Tour. The 200-plus members are the PGA Tour.”
Here are some of the biggest revelations from the lawsuit filed in federal court in the Northern District of California:
Is the PGA Tour colluding with the majors?
Lawyers representing the suspended players believe that the PGA Tour’s bans on players who join LIV Golf “are vastly strengthened if the ban encompasses not only PGA Tour events, but also the four majors,” which are organized by separate governing bodies.
“The Tour is aware that if it can foreclose LIV Golf players from having access to these events — or even create enough credible doubt about whether participation in LIV Golf will end a player’s chances of playing in those events — LIV Golf will find it prohibitively difficult to sign and sustain a critical mass of players to field a competitive elite-level tour,” the lawsuit said.
The players’ lawyers allege that the PGA Tour “has pressured and encouraged the Major organizations to join its group boycott and to prevent LIV Golf from entering the global golf ecosystem.”
LIV players who were eligible to compete in the majors were permitted to play this year.
Some of the leaders of the four governing bodies haven’t minced their words about LIV Golf. PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh said as early as in May 2021 that his organization was in “full support of the PGA Tour and the European Tour regarding the current ecosystem of the professional game.”
USGA CEO Mike Whan added at the U.S. Open in June: “Could you envision a day where it would be harder for some folks doing different things to get into a U.S. Open? I could. Will that be true? I don’t know, but I can definitely foresee that day.”
At last month’s Open Championship at St. Andrews, Martin Slumbers, CEO of the R&A, told reporters that LIV Golf is “harming the perception of the sport.”
Augusta National Golf Club chairman Fred Ridley, who oversees the Masters, hasn’t taken such a hard line, at least not publicly. But the LIV golfers’ lawyers accused him of working behind the scenes for the PGA Tour in the lawsuit.
The complaint said Augusta National representatives “threatened to disinvite players from The Masters if they joined LIV Golf.” It alleged Ridley “personally instructed” players in this year’s tournament not to defect to LIV Golf and that he refused to sit down with LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman to discuss the new circuit’s business model.
Further, the lawsuit alleges that Slumbers and Ridley called Cho Minn Thant, CEO of the Asian Tour, “to threaten consequences relating to the Asian Tour’s position in the current ‘ecosystem’ if the Asian Tour continued to support LIV Golf and its LIV Golf Invitational Series.” The R&A took away the Asian Tour’s Order of Merit winner’s entry into The Open, according to the complaint.
Do the LIV players have a chance to prevail in court?
One of the challenges for the LIV Golf players, according to Craig Seebald, a partner and antitrust expert at the Vinson & Elkins law firm, is proving injury. Many of the players who left the PGA Tour for LIV Golf received guaranteed signing bonuses of between $100 million and $200 million.
“Normally, when you’re representing plaintiffs, you say, ‘Oh my God, our plaintiffs are so hurt. They’re so injured. They’re going out of business,” Seebald said. “But the allegation in the complaint is that to get these players across the transom to be part of LIV, they had to overpay them. They were surprised they had to pay all these upfront payments to get people over. I guess they’re saying that makes it hard in the long term for them to be viable, despite the fact they have the Saudis giving them millions of dollars.”
Seebald believes it will be difficult for the three LIV players seeking temporary restraining orders to participate in the FedEx Cup Playoffs to get them. Seebald did note that the Northern District of California is a popular choice of venue for antitrust plaintiffs. It’s the same court that essentially blew up the NCAA’s amateurism model in the Ed O’Bannon case.
“I think the chances are pretty slim that they’re going to do that [issue a restraining order],” Seebald said. “This is essentially a money case. I think the court would say, ‘Look, we can sort out the money later. This is a big case.’ The judge might not want to just kind of jump in without knowing many of the facts before doing something that extraordinary.”
Horschel, a member of the PGA Tour Player Advisory Committee, also wondered how the LIV Golf players could argue they were injured after receiving lucrative signing bonuses and while competing for $25 million purses.
“Why do they need to be a part of the PGA Tour?” Horschel said. “Why do they need a double dip? Why do they need to have their cake and eat it at the same time and sort of rub it and all the other PGA Tour players’ faces? That just doesn’t make sense to me.”
LIV Golf almost partnered with the DP World Tour
One of the more interesting revelations was that representatives of Saudi Golf met with DP World Tour officials in Malta in July. During that meeting, according to the complaint, DP World Tour CEO Keith Pelley “confirmed” the new series’ appeal and fit, but said the “mighty power” of the PGA Tour was his main issue and “need to avoid a collision course between the DP World Tour and PGA Tour.
“Under pressure from the ‘mighty power’ of the PGA Tour, the European Tour agreed to boycott and rejected the opportunity to partner with the new entrant, and instead strengthened its strategic alliance with the PGA Tour,” the complaint says.
The lawyers alleged that the PGA Tour pressured the DP World Tour to amend its regulations to restrict its players from competing in LIV Golf tournaments. The DP World Tour fined its players $125,000 and suspended them from events it co-sanctions with the PGA Tour, including the Scottish Open.
“The European Tour agreed to all of the PGA Tour’s demands to implement the group boycott,” the complaint said.
Mickelson was suspended in March
Mickelson’s explosive comments to author Alan Shipnuck about the Saudis being “scary motherf——“ led him to spend four months away from golf. But part of his hiatus wasn’t his own choosing.
The lawsuit said Mickelson, a six-time major champion, was first suspended for two months by the PGA Tour on March 22 for “attempting to recruit players to [LIV Golf].” An appeals committee upheld Mickelson’s suspension. His request for reinstatement about two months later was denied because he had played in the first LIV Golf event in London.
“The Tour’s unlawful conduct cost Mickelson endorsement deals and sponsorships,” the lawsuit said. “Notably, the Tour is the only golf tour shown regularly on broadcast television in the United States, and it earns vastly more in sponsorship, advertising, and broadcast revenue than any other golf tour.”
DeChambeau signed with LIV Golf twice
DeChambeau, winner of the 2020 U.S. Open and one of the most polarizing players in the game, was linked to LIV Golf long before he actually signed on June 10.
According to the lawsuit, DeChambeau signed with the Saudi-backed circuit twice. Because of the PGA Tour’s “threats of punishment and career destruction,” LIV Golf wasn’t able to fill out its plans for a league this season.
“Some players (including Plaintiff DeChambeau) who had previously signed contracts with LIV Golf were forced to publicly profess loyalty to the Tour,” the lawsuit said. “Other players who had previously agreed in principle to all terms with LIV Golf informed LIV Golf that they now could not sign, and instead publicly professed loyalty to the Tour. Players who had been enthusiastic about joining LIV Golf informed LIV Golf that they regrettably could not join in light of these threats.”
What about the Ryder Cup?
The lawsuit claims that at the 2021 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, PGA of America representatives “privately threatened golfers and their representatives that they would be banned from future Ryder Cups and the PGA Championship if they joined LIV Golf.”
Waugh previously told reporters that U.S. players have to be a member of his organization, through the PGA Tour, to compete in the Ryder Cup, which the PGA of America co-organizes with the DP World Tour.
Waugh repeated the organization’s stance at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills in May.
Zach Johnson, the U.S. team captain for the 2023 Ryder Cup in Rome, Italy, was asked in June if LIV players would be eligible for captain’s picks.
“The way that we’re members of the PGA of America is through the PGA Tour,” Johnson said. “I’ll let you connect the dots from there.”
In the complaint, attorneys representing the LIV players asked the judge to “[p]revent the PGA Tour from conspiring or unlawfully agreeing with the European Tour to ban or threaten to ban players from participating in European Tour events or participating in the Ryder Cup for talking to, contracting with, playing in, or associating with LIV Golf.”
PGA Tour vendors and sponsors don’t like LIV Golf
In what was perhaps the least surprising allegation in the complaint, several longtime PGA Tour vendors and sponsors, including apparel, golf equipment, technology companies and golf courses, allegedly chose not to do business with LIV Golf because of their relationship with the PGA Tour.
“LIV Golf tried to enter into a business relationship with Dick’s Sporting Goods,” the lawsuit said. “In response, Dick’s Sporting Goods informed LIV Golf that ‘[g]iven our relationship with the PGA Tour and our Tournament [PGA Tour Champions tournament], [Dick’s Sporting Goods representatives] agree it’s best to pass right now.”
The complaint said Ticketmaster was prepared to work with LIV Golf, but allegedly pulled out of the deal “in response to pressure from the PGA Tour.”