The PGA Tour fired back at a lawsuit filed by professional golfers who recently joined the rival LIV Golf tour, dubbing them “Saudi Golf League employees," according to a memo obtained by Yahoo Finance.
Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, and nine other LIV golfers filed an antitrust complaint against the PGA Tour on Wednesday. Within hours, the PGA Tour responded in a scorching memo to members from Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan.
“It’s an attempt to use the TOUR platform to promote themselves and to free ride on your benefits and efforts,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan wrote to members. “To allow re-entry into our events compromises the Tour and the competition, to the detriment of our organizations, our players, our partners and our fans. The lawsuit they have filed somehow expects us to believe the opposite, which is why we intend to make our case clearly and vigorously.”
In a statement to Yahoo Finance, LIV Golf said: “The players are right to have brought this action to challenge the PGA Tour’s anti-competitive rules and to vindicate their rights as independent contractors to play where and when they choose. Despite the PGA Tour’s effort to stifle competition, we think golfers should be allowed to play golf.”
LIV golfers Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford, and Matt Jones are seeking a temporary restraining order to play in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs that begin next week.
Fellow LIV players Ian Poulter, Abraham Ancer, Carlos Ortiz, Pat Perez, Jason Kokrak, and Peter Uihlein are also plaintiffs in the suit, which comes less than a month after the Department of Justice (DOJ) initiated an antitrust investigation into the PGA Tour.
The discourse between the PGA Tour and its suspended members has grown as more players have joined the LIV Golf tour, citing . Sources with knowledge of the situation have told Yahoo Finance the Tour views LIV as a competitive threat and is trying to improve its own product to compete with it.
Tensions continue to rise between the PGA Tour and suspended members as more players join LIV Golf, which provides increased compensation and a more relaxed playing style. The PGA Tour has become increasingly aggressive in terms of rhetoric and actions related to the upstart tour.
“Fundamentally, these suspended players — who are now Saudi Golf League employees — have walked away from the TOUR and now want back in,” Monahan wrote to members. “With the Saudi Golf League on hiatus, they’re trying to use lawyers to force their way into competition alongside our members in good standing.”
The PGA Tour defines itself as "the world's premier membership organization for touring professional golfers," which differentiates the sport from other American-based leagues such as the NFL or the NBA.
Each year, the PGA requires members to sign a membership renewal. Part of that agreement relinquishes each player’s media rights and their ability to play in other golf tournaments to the discretion of the PGA Tour.
In the filing, the plaintiffs take issue with the legality of such a practice. The players position themselves as “independent contractors,” and reference the phrase “monopoly” 34 times. They allege the Tour is trying to cause “harm” towards them for leaving for a competitor.
Operating a monopoly itself isn’t illegal, however. A key phrase in Monahan’s note — the reference of “business partners” — will be crucial if the case continues through court, a source with knowledge of the case told Yahoo Finance.
Since part of the PGA Tour’s business pitch to media partners and brand sponsors revolves around group media rights, the PGA Tour believes Tour members golfing professionally outside the Tour would detrimentally impact the financial value for its partners.
LIV, however, doesn’t see the competition as that black and white. The league, which has garnered a reported $2 billion in funding, publicly touts a desire to work with the PGA Tour.
“We're very much open to any conversations with the PGA Tour around what the future would look like,” LIV Golf COO and President Atul Khosla told Yahoo Finance recently. “We feel like there is space for both products in the golf ecosystem. We're not looking to host events that are against marquee PGA events, definitely not against any of the majors. We're looking forward to working within that ecosystem jointly with them. Very much open to trying to build that relationship and figuring out how that could work down the road.”
That hasn’t played out in reality during LIV’s first season, though. The first LIV event happened during the PGA Tour’s Canadian Open, and conflicts have emerged since. LIV plans to expand next year to 14 tournaments, potentially causing further scheduling conflicts.
With players leaving for the league potentially impacting the long-term product of the Tour, Monahan sent a clear message to members on how the PGA Tour will combat this complaint.
“I also encourage you to speak out publicly on this issue, if you are so inclined,” Monahan wrote. “This is your TOUR, built on the foundation that we work together for the good and growth of the organization … and then you reap the rewards. … It seems your former colleagues have forgotten one important aspect of that equation.”
Josh is a reporter and producer for Yahoo Finance.