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In a stunning move, PGA Tour agrees to merge with its Saudi-backed rival, LIV Golf

South African golfer Charl Schwartzel plays a last shot during the LIV Golf Invitational Series in St. Albans, England in June 2022. The launch of the series rocked the world of golf by setting up rival leagues.
Adrian Dennis
/
AFP via Getty Images
South African golfer Charl Schwartzel plays a last shot during the LIV Golf Invitational Series in St. Albans, England in June 2022. The launch of the series rocked the world of golf by setting up rival leagues.

Updated June 6, 2023 at 3:08 PM ET

The PGA Tour has agreed to merge with its rival, LIV Golf, a Saudi-backed league founded last year, to create one unified, global golf enterprise the PGA announced on Tuesday.

The merger, which has not yet been finalized, would end all pending litigation between the parties, mending a widening split in men's professional golf that dominated the game in the last year.

In a deal that includes the DP World Tour, the three groups have agreed to create a "new, collectively owned, for-profit entity" that will deliver "maximum excitement and competition among the game's best players," the PGA said, adding that the PGA will retain its not-for-profit, tax-exempt status.

The deal would establish the Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund as the exclusive investor for new, yet-to-be-named company. The PGA will hold a majority of board seats, with Yasir al-Rumayyan, the wealth fund's governor, serving as chairman.

Current PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan will step up as chief executive officer, according to the announcement on the deal.

"After two years of disruption and distraction, this is a historic day for the game we all know and love," Monahan said in a statement. "Going forward, fans can be confident that we will, collectively, deliver on the promise we've always made — to promote competition of the best in professional golf and that we are committed to securing and driving the game's future."

The surprise deal comes after months of mounting tensions

The feud between the PGA and LIV began simmering last summer, when the Saudi-backed group started luring high-profile players, including Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, away from the traditional tournaments with lucrative cash prizes and eye-popping contracts.

Just after the inaugural LIV tournament teed off in June 2022, the PGA issued sanctions against 17 players who defected to the new series, threatening to do the same to others who followed suit. Nine of the 17 players had preemptively resigned their PGA membership.

In August, 11 of those suspended players filed an antitrust lawsuit against the PGA, saying the organization was acting as a monopoly and harming their careers. The PGA counter-sued LIV, claiming the group was stifling competition.

LIV's Saudi ties raised red flags beyond the world of golf

Critics of LIV called the new series a blatant use of "sportswashing" — a strategy countries such as China and Russia have used to remake their global reputation without improving their poor records on human rights abuses.

The PGA had previously leaned into that sentiment, accusing LIV golfers of "betraying" the United States and knowingly condoning human rights abuses.

One LIV tournament was hosted at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., which is not far from Ground Zero, the site where thousands perished on 9/11.

Family members who lost loved ones in the tragedy protested both the golfers and Donald Trump for doing business with Saudi Arabia, pointing to evidence that the Saudi government may have knowingly assisted hijackers who caused the devastation.

After news of the deal broke on Tuesday, the nonprofit 9/11 Families United blasted the PGA in a statement, accusing the organization of co-opting the 9/11 community.

"Now the PGA and Monahan appear to have become just more paid Saudi shills, taking billions of dollars to cleanse the Saudi reputation so that Americans and the world will forget how the Kingdom spent their billions of dollars before 9/11 to fund terrorism, spread their vitriolic hatred, and finance al Qaeda and the murder of our loved ones," wrote the group's chair, Terry Strada, whose husband Tom died in the World Trade Center's North Tower.

The deal will set terms for how LIV players can rejoin the PGA

But not everyone spoke out against the deal. LIV golfer Phil Mickelson retweeted news of the agreement with a smiling face emoji and the phrase "awesome day today."

Former President Trump applauded the merger in a Truth Social post on Tuesday, calling it a "big, beautiful, glamorous deal for the wonderful world of golf."

PGA player Michael Kim implied that he and other PGA loyalists hadn't been warned about the news of the deal, tweeting, "very curious how many people knew this deal was happening. About 5-7 people?"

Another PGA player, MacKenzie Hughes, tweeted, "nothing like finding out through Twitter that we're merging with a tour that we said we'd never do that with."

The announcement of the agreement comes just two weeks after LIV golfer Brooks Koepka took home the major PGA Championship title, prompting a fresh round of conversation and criticism over whether LIV players belonged in PGA matches.

The new agreement will establish a "fair and objective process" for allowing LIV players to reapply for the PGA for the 2024 season, according to the press release.

For the remainder of this season, the PGA Tour, LIV Tour and DP World Tour are all expected to proceed as scheduled, separately, starting with the U.S. Open next week.

NPR's Bill Chappell and Tom Goldman contributed reporting.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.