How the PGA Tour Made a Deal with Saudi Arabia

PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan had gone unnoticed in Venice last month.

With luck, he thought over breakfast near the Palazzo Ducale, his confidential talks in Italy with Yasir al-Rumayyan, the governor of Saudi Arabia’s more than $700 billion sovereign wealth fund, might stay secret. A leak would endanger what only a handful of insiders knew: that the PGA Tour was considering going into business with al-Rumayyan’s LIV Golf league, whose monthslong clash with Monahan’s tour had become a fight as much over golf’s soul as its future.

Then Stefano Domenicali, Formula One’s CEO, strolled into view. He was in town for the same wedding that had brought al-Rumayyan to Venice. If the motor sports executive spotted the PGA Tour’s leader, he would assuredly connect the presences of Monahan and al-Rumayyan, and golf’s greatest secret might get out. All Monahan could do, he told people later, was try to dodge Domenicali’s gaze.

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But Domenicali never seemed to notice him. What would ultimately amount to seven weeks of clandestine meetings and furtive calls stayed hidden until a stunning announcement last Tuesday: The PGA Tour, the dominant force in men’s elite golf for decades, planned to join forces with LIV, the upstart that had provoked debate over the morality of Saudi money in the game.

The agreement was a singular moment in the history of the professional game. The civil war that had disrupted and defined the once genteel sport — for example, Monahan once publicly asked whether PGA Tour players had ever felt compelled to apologize for competing on the circuit — was abruptly suspended. The tour’s reputation was stained and many of its loyalists were furious, but its coffers were poised to overflow.

The deal, though not yet closed, was also a breakthrough for Saudi Arabia’s ambitions in golf. The culmination of a years-old plan called “Project Wedge,” the agreement gives al-Rumayyan, one of the kingdom’s most influential officials, a seat in the sport’s most rarefied rooms. And for a country that has craved a greater global profile, an economy based on more than oil and a distraction from its gruesome human rights abuses, the agreement was another step in its rapprochement with the West.

This account is based on interviews with nine people with knowledge of the negotiations. Most of them spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the lead-up to an extraordinary transaction — one so closely held that most of golf’s eminent bankers, lawyers and broadcast partners had no warning that it was even being discussed.

It was not until this spring that even golf’s most connected power brokers grew confident a deal could happen this year, if ever. But there seemed enough conspicuous pressure points, some much more severe than others, that prodded both sides into secret talks.

LIV had enticed some of golf’s most talented and bankable stars, including Brooks Koepka and Phil Mickelson, with contracts that sometimes promised them $100 million or more. The league’s television deal, though, had been meager, and its lawyers had acknowledged that its revenues were “virtually zero.” Federal judges in California added to LIV’s turmoil when they showed limited interest in shielding the Public Investment Fund from the kind of scrutiny it had generally avoided in other court battles in the United States.

But the PGA Tour, a tax-exempt nonprofit with an aging audience and a stiff reputation, was in greater peril. As part of a federal antitrust inquiry, Justice Department investigators were asking questions about heavy-handed tactics the tour used to discourage player defections and examining whether tour leaders were too cozy with other powerful golf organizations, such as Augusta National Golf Club, the organizer of the Masters Tournament.

More precariously, the tour’s efforts to retain the loyalty of players, which included raising prize purses by tens of millions of dollars, were severely straining its finances. The tour’s television contracts had been constructed before it was facing one of the richest conceivable rivals. And the tour’s legal fees had swelled to more than $40 million a year — up more than twentyfold from the start of the decade — as it waged fights some thought could last until at least 2026.

Monahan had foretold something like this.

“If this is an arms race and if the only weapons here are dollar bills, the PGA Tour can’t compete,” he said last June in Connecticut.

Late in the year, the PGA Tour said a veteran deal-maker, James J. Dunne III, would join its board, and some involved in the wealth fund wondered whether he would someday emerge as an emissary.

He did on April 18, when a WhatsApp message flashed on al-Rumayyan’s phone. The tone toward one of the world’s most influential financiers, a figure often addressed as “Your Excellency” and close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was strikingly casual.

“Yasir,” Dunne began as he introduced himself and asked to arrange a call and, “hopefully,” a visit. He signed the message with equal informality: “Jimmy.”

The approach, as optimistic and unguarded as men’s professional golf had been tumultuous and tense, led to a conversation within hours. Dunne and al-Rumayyan fast found a point of harmony that would shape the negotiations: Neither man insisted on a nondisclosure agreement.

‘Let’s See How That Would Work.’

London was neutral ground, only hours from golf’s birthplace in Scotland. The men decided they would meet there less than a week later, joined by Edward D. Herlihy, chair of the PGA Tour’s board. Herlihy was not any ordinary board member; more than a half-century after he earned his law degree, he was a partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz and one of Wall Street’s most sought-after counselors for mergers and acquisitions.

Even without nondisclosure agreements, the men concluded that any prospective deal would have to be weighed in private. Most members of the tour’s board, including Rory McIlroy, one of the world’s most renowned golfers and a ferocious critic of LIV, and former AT&T Chair Randall Stephenson would be largely shut out. Greg Norman, the two-time British Open winner who had envisioned something like LIV long before he became its commissioner, would not be at the bargaining table, nor would most of the seasoned bankers and lawyers the two parties had worked with over the years.

But the negotiators also knew that an accord would not be reached at the initial gathering in London, in part because Monahan would not be in attendance as some of his allies took stock of the Saudis.

In a meeting, and later at dinner and over cigars, Dunne, Herlihy and al-Rumayyan discussed their approaches to golf and their own lives, testing whether their budding rapport would endure across hours of face-to-face conversations.

Dunne’s personal history made him an unlikely figure to connect with al-Rumayyan. More than one-third of his investment bank’s employees died in the 2001 attacks at the World Trade Center. Dunne had been out of the office playing golf that Tuesday. More than two decades later, after years of supporting the families of the victims, he was meeting with a senior official from a country many people still accused of having a role in the attacks. But al-Rumayyan and his allies, he felt, should not be blamed.

“If someone can find someone that unequivocally was involved with it, I’ll kill him myself,” Dunne told the Golf Channel this past week. “We don’t have to wait around.”

The morning after their dinner, al-Rumayyan and Herlihy beat Dunne and Brian Gillespie, a wealth fund lawyer, in a round at Beaverbrook Golf Club.

At some point before the men parted ways after lunch, Herlihy said he believed it was essential that professional golf be unified. It was another clear signal that the tour was open to an armistice with the wealth fund that had thrown it, and golf at large, into chaos and acrimony.

Al-Rumayyan paused.

“Let’s see how that would work,” he replied.

PGA Tour representatives told Monahan that he should meet his Saudi rival.

Détentes and Nerves

Al-Rumayyan was due in Venice in mid-May, scheduled to attend the wedding of the daughter of Lawrence Stroll, the billionaire Formula One racing titan. The lagoon’s islands were not exactly rife with golf courses, but the sides agreed that Venice would be where al-Rumayyan and Monahan would meet for the first time.

Monahan, who had risen through Fenway Sports Group and then the PGA Tour before he became commissioner in 2017, had spent months studying and talking about al-Rumayyan.

The tour had capitalized on LIV’s Saudi ties, harnessing American emotion and skepticism to sow moral doubts about the league. But now Monahan would undertake a covert mission to meet the man his team had vilified.

The group from the United States arrived behind schedule, after its plane required a diversion to Farnborough, England. A series of boat rides later, Monahan at last greeted al-Rumayyan and the Saudi executive’s wife and daughters before the men settled into a private session for about two hours.

In the evening, al-Rumayyan went to the wedding, a glitzy gathering dotted with movie stars and world-class athletes. The Americans, preparing for serious negotiations the next day with al-Rumayyan, met for dinner. The trip would also include a meal with al-Rumayyan’s family and some of his closest lieutenants.

To the tour’s negotiators, the meetings in Italy were the most pivotal of the conversations that would continue in video conferences, phone calls and gatherings in San Francisco and New York over less than a month.

During Memorial Day weekend, the PGA Tour’s Cessna Citation X jet hopscotched from New York to San Francisco. Takeout burgers were brought aboard during a brief stop in Omaha, Nebraska, instigated by Michael Klein, the well-connected banker who was working with al-Rumayyan and invited on the trip.

Most of the flight, which also included Monahan, Dunne and Herlihy, was devoted to ironing out some of the remaining details. The men were hoping to finalize things in San Francisco, where al-Rumayyan would attend meetings related to the wealth fund’s other business dealings.

An agreement was close, its terms detailed across mounting pages of legalese, with the new company known simply as “NewCo.” Some of the negotiators were still nervous. A leak before a deal was signed, they were certain, would cause an uproar: How could the PGA Tour consider taking the Saudi money it had denounced?

“What changed?” Monahan would say after the deal became public. “I looked at where we were at that point in time, and it was the right point in time to have a conversation.”

“I recognize that people are going to call me a hypocrite,” he said. “Anytime I said anything, I said it with the information that I had at that moment, and I said it based on someone that’s trying to compete for the PGA Tour and our players. I accept those criticisms. But circumstances do change.”

In the early hours of May 30, after a bargaining marathon, a dozen or so people gathered at a Four Seasons hotel to sign and toast the deal behind closed doors.

The PGA Tour contingent did not linger long. Monahan was due at an Ohio tournament that Jack Nicklaus, who had helped found the modern tour in the 1960s and rejected an offer worth more than $100 million to work with LIV, was hosting.

A signed pact, intended to bring the moneymaking components of the PGA Tour and LIV, including television and sponsorship contracts, into a new company expected to be flush with Saudi cash, did not mean the deal was complete. No one had agreed on how to value assets since the litigation had left the rivals unable to delve into each other’s books. The deal did not demand a specific investment from the Saudis, but promised them the exclusive rights to inject cash into the new company. The PGA Tour would get Monahan as the company’s CEO and a majority of board seats, including ones filled by Herlihy and Dunne. But al-Rumayyan would be the chair.

Many antitrust experts expect the agreement will intensify the Justice Department’s scrutiny of professional golf, in part since Monahan said the deal would “take the competitor off of the board.” On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have raced to condemn it.

The tour, though, is expecting an investment well into the billions of dollars. The jockeying with a wealth fund aiming to be worth $1 trillion in the next few years will be over.

On Tuesday morning, after a session in New York to finalize the deal’s rollout, Monahan and al-Rumayyan sat beside each other for a television interview. Around the same time, the cellphones of players around the world lit up with the news.

Monahan soon flew to Toronto to face a gathering of golfers that he called “intense” and “heated.”

Dunne and al-Rumayyan retreated to Long Island’s Deepdale Golf Club for another round.

Al-Rumayyan won again.

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