Rules, hypocrisy and the law
When the PGA Tour recently refused to grant releases to the players who wanted to compete in the first of the LIV series, the organisation threw down a gauntlet which now seems likely to be taken up by legal teams.
The fact that the powers that be (no doubt after consultation with their lawyers) decided to forbid any member of their Tour from making the trip to London for the first of Greg Norman’s limited field, big money events, was a shock. I’m sure none of the players that applied expected this, and how these players will react is going to be interesting.
On the eve of the season’s second major championship, this issue has threatened to overshadow the build-up to the battle for the Wannamaker trophy, and the eventual outcome of this spat could have far-reaching consequences.
It was recently reported that at least 19 of the top 100 players (six of whom are currently ranked in the top 50), had committed to play in the Saudi-funded event, these numbers pending releases being granted. We must assume that these players were expecting to have their releases to be a formality. After all, in February this year there were no shortage of PGA Tour players competing in the Saudi International. The likes of Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Xander Schauffele, Tommy Fleetwood, Tony Finau, Cameron Smith and eventual winner Harold Varner III were among the big names that had been allowed to play – in fact 21 of the world’s top 50 had received releases.
Why now are they being refused the right to play? If there was a genuine reason for refusing to allow players to compete for Saudi money (in addition to the lucrative appearance fees), the Tour should surely have laid down the rules a while ago. Besides the Saudi Women’s event played in Saudi Arabia in March this year, part of the European Women’s Tour, the Formula 1 Grand Prix is held in the kingdom as are other international events. So much for the moral issue of refusing Saudi money because of the alleged “sports washing.”
There is another side to this, and the PGA Tour believes that unless it can guarantee its sponsors strong fields it will lose revenue. It has argued that their players, when they join the Tour, sign agreements that they will abide by the rules, which include the release clause. But simply agreeing to abide by the rules doesn’t mean that the rules are legal. Professionals are independent contractors, and there is legal argument suggesting that the Tour cannot prevent their players from earning money wherever they can. A tour player must play in a minimum of 15 events to retain membership, so it must be queried why, if they play in the required number of tournaments on their home tour, they cannot then choose to take advantage of rich pickings in other events that do not form part of the PGA Tour.
It is suspicious that the Tour’s decision to refuse releases came at the time that Greg Norman announced that an additional $2 billion has been secured to beef up the planned LIV series – perhaps the Tour believes that it is going to be hopelessly outgunned when it comes to spending money on purses. Unsurprisingly, Norman, who has had a rocky relationship with the PGA Tour going back decades, has maintained that the tour is out of order in refusing releases. “The Tour is intent on perpetuating its illegal monopoly of what should be a free and open market. The Tour’s action is anti-golfer, anti-fan and anti-competitive,” said Norman. He also went on to say that in the light of the Tour’s non-profit status, its mission is to purportedly to promote the common interests of professional tournament golfers. He has a point.
The next instalment in this saga will involve the Tour’s reaction when players decide to play in LIV tournament without the releases, and this is bound to happen. Sergio Garcia, in his recent ill-considered rant after a bad ruling, as much as said that he is going to play for the Saudi money, and Lee Westwood has also committed to playing in the LIV events. If the Tour indeed bans these and other players that tee it up at the Centurion Golf Club on June 9 things will get interesting.
And so to next week’s big event – the PGA Championship where the strongest field in golf this year will compete at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After careful consideration and spending some time studying the form, I have decided that this race is just too close to call, and an upset could well be on the cards. One thing is for certain, if Phil Mickelson does come out of hiding to defend his title, he is going to have to run the media gauntlet – and particularly as defending champion, he will not be able to avoid some uncomfortable questions.
Guaranteed he is going to be grilled over the revelations in the soon to be released book, an (unauthorised) biography written by Alan Shipnuck. According to a source with direct access to government documents from the Mickelson insider trading investigation, the reigning PGA Champion suffered $40 million in gambling losses over a four-year period. It is well-documented that Mickelson loves a wager, but this sort of money, even for someone who is quite wealthy, does seem like a lot. Little wonder Mickelson was first in line to sign up for the Saudi bonanza.
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