PGA commissioner Jay Monahan went unnoticed in Venice last month. Hopefully, he thought as he breakfasted near the Palazzo Ducale, his confidential talks in Italy with Yasir al-Rumayyan, governor of Saudi Arabia’s $700 billion sovereign wealth fund, would remain secret. .
A leak would jeopardize what only a few insiders knew: that the PGA Tour was considering doing business with al-Rumayyan’s LIV Golf league, after a months-long clash between the two groups as much for the soul of golf as for his future.
That’s when Formula 1 CEO Stefano Domenicali appeared. He was in town for the same wedding that had brought al-Rumayyan to Venice. If the motorsports executive caught a glimpse of the PGA Tour leader, he would be sure to link the presences of Monahan and al-Rumayyan, and golf’s biggest secret could be exposed. All Monahan could do, he later recounted, was try to dodge Domenicali’s gaze.
But Domenicali never seemed to notice. What would ultimately amount to seven weeks of clandestine meetings and stealth calls remained under wraps until last Tuesday’s stunning announcement: The PGA Tour, a dominant force in elite men’s golf for decades, planned to join forces with those of LIV, the newcomer who had provoked a debate on the morality of Saudi money in sport.
The deal marked a singular moment in the history of professional golf. The “civil war” that had disrupted and defined the once distinguished sport – for example, Monahan publicly asked if PGA Tour players had ever felt compelled to apologize for playing on his tour – was abruptly put on hold. The reputation of the circuit was now tarnished and many of its faithful were furious, but its coffers were overflowing.
The deal, although not yet done, was also a step forward for Saudi Arabia’s golf ambitions. The culmination of a years-old project called “Project Wedge”, the deal gives al-Rumayyan, one of the kingdom’s most powerful managers, a seat in the sport’s most influential halls.
For a country that yearns for greater global visibility, an economy based on something other than oil, and a distraction from its human rights abuses, the deal is another step in its rapprochement with the West.
This account is based on interviews with nine people who had knowledge of the negotiations. Most of them spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the preparations for an extraordinary transaction – one so confidential that most of golf’s prominent bankers, lawyers and broadcast partners were not even told. that it was under discussion.
It wasn’t until last spring that golf’s most influential partners began to believe a deal could happen this year. There seemed to be several obvious arguments, some much more than others, that caused the two sides to enter into secret talks.
LIV had attracted some of golf’s most talented and profitable stars, including Brooks Koepka and Phil Mickelson, with deals that sometimes promised them $100 million or more. The league’s television deal, however, was meager, and its lawyers had acknowledged that its revenue was “virtually zero”. California federal judges have added to LIV’s turmoil by showing reluctance to shield the Saudi Investment Fund from the kind of scrutiny it has typically avoided in other US court battles.
But the PGA Tour, a tax-exempt nonprofit with an aging audience and a well-established reputation, was in greater peril. As part of a federal antitrust investigation, Justice Department investigators were asking about heavy-handed tactics the tour used to discourage player defections and whether tour executives were too close to other powerful players. golf organizations, such as Augusta National Golf Club, host of the Masters Tournament.
Worse still, the Tour’s efforts to retain players, including increasing purses by tens of millions of dollars, were straining its finances. The circuit’s television deals had been done before he faced one of the wealthiest rivals around. The circuit’s legal costs had also reached more than $40 million a year, more than 20 times more than at the start of the decade, when it fought fights some of which could last at least until 2026.
Monahan had predicted such an outcome.
“If this is an arms race and the only weapons are banknotes, the PGA Tour cannot be competitive,” he said last June.
At the end of the year, the PGA Tour announced that a trading veteran, James J. Dunne III, would join its board of directors, and some people involved in the Investment Fund wondered if he would not one day appear as an emissary.
This happened on April 18, when a WhatsApp message appeared on al-Rumayyan’s phone. The tone with one of the world’s most influential financiers, often referred to as “Your Excellency” and close associate of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, was surprisingly relaxed.
“Yasir,” Mr. Dunne began, introducing himself and asking to arrange a call and “hopefully” a visit. He signed the message with the same casualness: “Jimmy”.
The approach, as upbeat and spontaneous as men’s professional golf had become tense, led to a conversation within hours. Dunne and al-Rumayyan soon found a point of agreement that would shape the negotiations: neither man insisted on a confidentiality agreement.
London was neutral ground, just hours from the birthplace of golf in Scotland. The pair decided to meet there less than a week later, joined by PGA Tour Chairman Edward D. Herlihy.
Herlihy was no ordinary board member; more than half a century after graduating from law school, he was a partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen
In a meeting, then over dinner and over a cigar, Dunne, Herlihy and al-Rumayyan discussed their approach to golf and their own lives, testing whether their budding relationship would hold up at the same time. hours of one-on-one conversations.
Dunne’s personal history made him unlikely to come into contact with al-Rumayyan. More than a third of its investment bank employees perished in the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. That Tuesday, Mr. Dunne was out of the office playing golf. More than 20 years later, after years of supporting the families of the victims, he met with a senior official from a country that many still accuse of having played a role in the attacks. But, according to him, al-Rumayyan and his allies should not be blamed.
“If anyone can find someone who was unequivocally involved, I’ll kill them myself,” Dunne told Golf Channel last week.
The day after their dinner, al-Rumayyan and Herlihy defeated Dunne and Brian Gillespie, an investment fund lawyer, in a game at Beaverbrook Golf Club.
At one point, before the pair went their separate ways after lunch, Herlihy said he thought it was essential that professional golf be unified. It was another clear sign that the Tour was open to an armistice with the Investment Fund that had plunged it, and golf as a whole, into chaos and acrimony.
“Let’s see how that might work,” he replied.
PGA Tour representatives then told Monahan he needed to meet his Saudi rival.
Al-Rumayyan was due to travel to Venice in mid-May to attend the wedding of the daughter of billionaire Formula 1 titan Lawrence Stroll. The lagoon islands aren’t exactly full of golf courses, but all agreed that Venice would be the place where al-Rumayyan and Monahan would first meet.
The American group arrived late, their plane having had to be diverted to Farnborough, England. After a series of boat rides, Monahan finally greeted al-Rumayyan and the Saudi leader’s wife and daughters, before the pair settled in for a private session lasting around two hours.
In the evening, al-Rumayyan went to the wedding, a prestigious event attended by movie stars and world-class athletes. The Americans, who were preparing for serious negotiations the next day with al-Rumayyan, met for dinner. The trip was also to include a meal with al-Rumayyan’s family and some of his closest lieutenants.
For the PGA negotiators, the meetings in Italy were the most important of the conversations that would continue via video conferences, phone calls and meetings in San Francisco and New York for less than a month.
A deal was near, the terms of which were detailed on many pages of legalese, with the new company known simply as “NewCo”. Some negotiators were still nervous. They were certain that a leak before the deal was signed would cause an uproar: how could the PGA Tour consider accepting the Saudi money it had denounced?
What changed ? Monahan would say after the deal was made public, “I looked at where we were at then, and it was a good time to have a conversation. »
“I recognize that people will call me a hypocrite,” he added. Every time I’ve said something, I’ve said it with the information I had at the time, and I’ve said it as someone trying to be competitive for the PGA Tour and our players. I accept these criticisms. But circumstances change. »
In the early hours of May 30, after a marathon of negotiations, a dozen people gathered behind closed doors at a Four Seasons hotel to sign the deal and raise a toast.
On Tuesday morning, after a session in New York to finalize the implementation of the deal, Monahan and al-Rumayyan sat next to each other for a television interview. Around the same time, the cellphones of gamers around the world lit up with the news.
Monahan quickly flew to Toronto to face a gathering of golfers he described as “intense” and “passionate”.
Dunne and al-Rumayyan retired to Long Island’s Deepdale Golf Club for another round.
Al-Rumayyan again won.