Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 11, 2022

The Opening Round Goes To The PGA Tour

It is no secret that far too many of us now treat facts as fully fungible.  Such folks subscribe to the ethos voiced in the climactic scene of the 2007 movie “Shooter,” in which the late Ned Beatty, playing a very bad guy, proclaims “the truth is what I say it is.”  By this logic, if one simply maintains sufficient conviction and a straight face, even the most preposterous utterance will be accepted at face value by at least some listeners.  Robert Walters, the attorney for Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford, and Matt Jones, the three LIV Golf players who this week asked a court to force the PGA Tour to allow them to tee it up in the FedEx Cup Playoffs, appears to be an adherent of this perspective.  That at least is the logical conclusion one draws from Walters’ decision, during Tuesday’s oral arguments on the golfers’ petition for a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the PGA Tour, to describe his clients as “these three poor kids.”

U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman did not respond to that characterization with a sympathetic nod, an encouraging sign that she remains tethered to reality.  At age 30, Gooch is the youngest of the three, with Swafford his senior by four years, and Jones the elder of the group at 42.  They are not kids, at least by anyone’s definition other than their attorney’s.  As for their purported poverty, the trio’s winnings as PGA Tour members exceeded $36 million, a number that does not include the untold amount each pocketed from various endorsement deals.  Most fans would happily exist in such an impoverished state.

Perhaps the movie is instructive beyond Beatty’s memorable line, for his character meets a well-deserved demise very soon after making it.  In similar fashion, upon the conclusion of the dueling presentations by counsel for the LIV players and the PGA Tour, Judge Freeman wasted no time in denying the requested order, meaning the Tour did not have to shuffle the already announced tee times for the first round of the FedEx St. Jude Championship to make room for three late entrants.  But it was not until her full written opinion was released Thursday that it became clear just how thoroughly unpersuaded the judge was by LIV Golf’s arguments. 

One of several bars that must be cleared to win a temporary restraining order is establishing that failure to grant it will result in irreparable harm to the requesting party.  On Tuesday, Judge Freeman said Gooch, Swafford and Jones hadn’t met that test, because the contracts they signed with the Saudi sportswashing venture had taken into account, and compensated them for, any financial losses from no longer being able to play on the PGA Tour.

Her 14-page written opinion went into greater detail and was often dismissive of LIV’s claims.  “Plaintiffs have not even shown that they have been harmed – let alone irreparably,” Freeman wrote.  She later added, “In fact, the evidence shows almost without a doubt that they will be earning significantly more money with LIV Golf than they could reasonably have expected to make through TOUR play over the same time period.”  Freeman at several points turned LIV Golf’s aggressive marketing against it.  The Greg Norman led series has styled itself as the future of the sport, offering more entertainment for fans on the course and an improved experience for those watching from home.  The judge cited those claims in rejecting the golfers’ contention that they stood to lose sponsorships and status without access to PGA Tour events, writing that the assertion “is undermined by TRO Plaintiffs’ evidence that LIV Golf offers a refreshing new ‘extremely fan-friendly’ business model that will lead to ‘an improved broadcast output and entertainment experience’ compared to the staid old golf world built by PGA TOUR.  If LIV Golf is elite golf’s future, what do TRO Plaintiffs care about the dust-collecting trophies of a bygone era?”

Freeman’s decision was a decisive win for the PGA Tour, so much so that it may have shocked at least a few of the players who defected, especially if they relied on Norman’s assurances that the Tour had no power to ban them.  As text messages between Norman and Sergio Garcia that were released this week made clear, Norman has been full of his usual hubris.  In one exchange last February, Garcia wrote, “Hi Sharky! It’s official, the Tour has told our managers this week that whoever signs with the League, is ban from the Tour for life! I don’t know how are we gonna get enough good players to join the League under this conditions.”  Norman responded, “They cannot ban you for one day let alone life. It is a shallow threat.  Ask them to put it in writing to you or any other player.  I bet they don’t.”  As all golf fans know, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan did, banning every player who has swung a club at a LIV Golf event.  In the first legal test of his actions, the “threat” proved quite substantial.

Still, this is only round one.  The main event is the antitrust suit against the PGA Tour, filed by eleven former members now on the LIV payroll.  Judge Freeman will preside over that case as well, though in this week’s ruling she included a passing note that was surely welcome news at Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra.  She wrote, “The court acknowledges that (the players) raise significant antitrust issues that are facially appealing.  But the (Tour) has responded with preliminary evidence and argument potentially exposing fundamental flaws in plaintiff’s claims,” adding “These complex issues are best resolved on a more developed record.”

That record won’t be created for at least a year, as Freeman offered dates in the fall of 2023 as the earliest time that the antitrust suit could go to trial.  For a case like this that’s considered extremely fast timing, as fans were reminded when the judge also noted that the alternative to that schedule was a trial sometime in 2025.  Between now and then some additional notable names will doubtless succumb to the lure of the Saudi checkbook.  Recent Open Championship winner Cameron Smith is widely reported to just be waiting until the end of the FedEx Cup Playoffs to announce his defection, although presumptive PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Cameron Young is said to be less likely to accept fat paydays for playing 54-hole exhibitions after this week’s court decision.

With so much time until the main antitrust suit even starts – keep in mind the eventual trial and subsequent appeals could add years to the timeline – the real power rests, as it always has, with the bodies that control the four majors.  Whatever plans some LIV golfers had to blithely skip back over to the PGA Tour whenever they wanted are gone, with any possible revival years down the road.  But if access to the Masters, PGA Championship, U.S. Open, and Open Championship remains, the combination of life changing major victories and life changing Saudi money is sure to appeal to some.  Before the PGA Tour and LIV Golf next meet in court, organizers of each of the four men’s majors will have the chance to decide who they will welcome into their 2023 fields.      

For now, all that is certain is that on Thursday, the first of this year’s three FedEx Cup Playoff events got underway at TPC Southwind in Memphis.  The three poor kids were not in the field.  Safe to say, they were not missed.

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