The PGA Tour’s tentative deal with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund included only a handful of binding commitments — such as a nondisparagement agreement and a pledge to dismiss acrimonious litigation — leaving many of the most consequential details about the future of men’s professional golf to be negotiated by the end of the year.
The five-page framework agreement, which The New York Times obtained, has fueled a sustained furor since it was abruptly announced on June 6 by the tour and the wealth fund, the financial force behind the renegade LIV Golf circuit. But a review of the agreement points to the rushed nature of the secret, seven-week talks that led to the deal and the complex path that remains ahead for the new venture, a potential triumph for Saudi Arabia’s quest to gain power and influence in sports and, its critics say, to distract from its reputation as a human rights abuser.
Most crucially, the tour and the wealth fund must still come to terms on the values of the assets that each will contribute to their planned partnership. Bankers and lawyers have spent recent weeks beginning the valuation process, but the framework agreement includes no substantive details of projected figures or even the size of an anticipated cash investment from the wealth fund.
Instead, much of the agreement focuses on the basic structure of the new company that is to house what the accord describes as all of the “commercial businesses/rights” of the PGA Tour and the European Tour, now known as the DP World Tour.
The wealth fund is expected to contribute its “golf-related investments and assets,” including the LIV circuit that split the sport, and will have the first opportunity to invest in the new company. The tentative agreement says that the PGA Tour is to maintain “at all times a controlling voting interest” in the new company, but that Yasir al-Rumayyan, the wealth fund’s governor, will serve as the chairman of the new joint entity. Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner who recently went on leave because of an unspecified “medical situation,” is in line to become its chief executive.
The new company, according to the agreement, could pursue “targeted mergers and acquisitions to globalize the sport” and may look to incorporate “innovations from LIV,” such as the team golf concept that the league has championed since it debuted last year.
Those provisions, though, are not binding until the tour and the wealth fund strike a final agreement. Instead, the only ironclad caveats of the agreement involve seeking the dismissal of litigation, a mandate fulfilled on June 16; a ban on recruiting players to rival circuits; a deadline of Dec. 31 to sign final accords, absent a mutual extension; and confidentiality and nondisparagement clauses.
The effective gag agreement appears far-reaching and prohibits the tour and the wealth fund from “any defamatory or disparaging remarks, comments or statements” about the other side and any “ultimate beneficial owners” — a phrase that could be interpreted to include the Saudi government, which the tour had previously condemned for its human rights record.
“I recognize everything that I’ve said in the past and in my prior positions,” Monahan, a leading architect of the deal, said this month. “I recognize that people are going to call me a hypocrite. 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.”
Saudi officials have denied that their investments in sports, which include efforts in soccer, Formula 1 racing and boxing, are intended to sanitize the kingdom’s reputation. Instead, they have depicted those investments as a glossy component of a sweeping effort to diversify the country’s economy under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto leader who is also the wealth fund’s chairman.
Al-Rumayyan, the wealth fund’s governor, signed the agreement on behalf of the Saudis, with no evidence of direct involvement by Greg Norman, LIV’s commissioner.
Monahan and Keith Pelley, the DP World Tour’s chief executive, effectively represented the golf establishment when they signed the deal behind closed doors in San Francisco on May 30. It was sprung upon almost the entire golf industry, including most of the PGA Tour’s board, a week later.
The board, which has been considering the deal that it was largely shut out of negotiating, is expected to discuss the pact’s initial terms during a meeting in Detroit on Tuesday. The 11-member board is not believed to be planning a vote yet because the final nuances of the accord may not be hammered out for months.
The deal faces scrutiny well beyond the tour’s board. In Washington, Justice Department officials and congressional investigators are preparing to pore over the details of the accord, which antitrust regulators could ultimately try to block. The tour shared a copy of the agreement with a Senate subcommittee on Monday evening, just more than two weeks before a hearing on Capitol Hill that many expect to become contentious.
But tour executives concluded in recent months that the new economic order that LIV’s swift rise provoked — swelling legal bills, larger prize purses, a diluted product with the world’s most marketable players competing against one another only four times a year at golf’s major tournaments — was unsustainable. They sought a détente with the Saudis and found a receptive audience in and around the wealth fund, where some officials were frustrated by a series of legal setbacks connected to LIV and uneven success in gaining traction in the crucial American sports market.
The second paragraph of the framework nodded toward the turmoil, with the tour and the wealth fund saying they were interested in “ending divisions.” Some elements of the deal amounted to olive branches. In one section, for instance, the two sides agreed to “cooperate in good faith and use best efforts” to bring secure Official World Golf Ranking accreditation for LIV events.
The fate of LIV, which sapped the PGA Tour of some of its star players after offering exorbitant contracts and prize purses, is not included in a binding part of the deal. Instead, the new company, if it comes to pass, is expected to “undertake a full and objective empirical data-driven evaluation of LIV and its prospects and potential.”
The framework does not outline any financial penalties if the deal does not ultimately progress, but it says the tour and the wealth fund “can revert to operating their respective businesses” if the agreement collapses.