The PGA Tour is currently under investigation by the US Department of Justice regarding anticompetitive behaviour towards the Saudi-backed LIV Golf league, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.
Louise Radnofsky and Andrew Beaton write that “players’ agents have received inquiries from the DOJ’s antitrust division involving both the PGA Tour’s bylaws governing players’ participation in other golf events, and the PGA Tour’s actions in recent months relating to LIV Golf, according to a person familiar with those inquiries”.
A PGA Tour spokesperson confirmed to the Wall Street Journal that the tour was aware of the investigation. “This was not unexpected,” a tour spokesperson told Golf Digest. “We went through this in 1994 and we are confident in a similar outcome.”
One of the provisions in the PGA Tour Player Handbook and Tournament Regulations is that each PGA Tour member acknowledges the commissioner, the tour’s policy board and the appeals committee have the authority to permanently ban a member from playing in a tour co-sponsored, approved or co-ordinated tournaments if the member violates its regulations. The handbook also provides that a player ceases to be a member of the PGA Tour if, in the judgment of the policy board, the member commits a serious breach of the Tournament Regulations, the PGA Tour’s Code of Ethics, or otherwise conducts himself in a manner unbecoming of a professional golfer.
One such regulation generally prohibits tour players from playing in events when there is a PGA Tour-approved or sponsored event taking place at the same time. Per the handbook, players who reach the 15-event minimum (which members must meet as a condition of their membership voting rights) are eligible for three conflicting-event releases per season, which is why so many tour players were allowed to play in the Saudi Invitational earlier this year. However, the regulations also state such requests can be denied.
The tour is adamant they have the legal authority to issue disciplinary measures, and LIV Golf chief executive Greg Norman has openly expressed his desires for players to challenge that authority. Norman additionally telegraphed his litigation threats in an open letter to the tour.
“Surely you jest,” Norman asserted in a February letter. “And surely, your lawyers at the PGA Tour must be holding their breath… for decades, I have fought for the rights of players to enjoy a career in which they are rewarded fully and properly for their efforts. They are one-in-a-million athletes. Yet for decades, the tour has put its own financial ambitions ahead of the players, and every player on the tour knows it. The tour is the players’ tour not your administration’s tour. Why do you call the crown jewel in all tournaments outside the Majors ‘The Players Championship’ and not ‘The Administration’s Championship?’
“But when you try to bluff and intimidate players by bullying and threatening them, you are guilty of going too far, being unfair, and you likely are in violation of the law.”
Players who have jumped to LIV Golf have been suspended by the PGA Tour, although the length of the suspensions has not been publicly announced. The DP World Tour also suspended and fined its members who played without permission in LIV Golf events, but only for three tournaments – the Genesis Scottish Open, the Barbasol Championship and the Barracuda Championship, all co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour. A sports tribunal in the UK granted a temporary stay of the DP World Tour’s suspension pending full appeals review.
There has been a general acknowledgement that the battle between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf would likely spill over into the legal system. This is not the first time the tour has faced antitrust claims. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission concluded after a four-year investigation in the early 1990s that the tour had violated antitrust laws – partially due to a rule stipulating permission for a conflicting-event release, which the tour has invoked this year to suspend those who have defected to LIV Golf – and recommended federal action. But no action was ultimately taken, a circumstance credited to the work of then-tour commissioner Tim Finchem (a lawyer himself who worked in US President Jimmy Carter’s administration) and the tour’s lobbying mastery. Coincidentally, this clashed with Norman’s first try to challenge the PGA Tour through his attempt to launch the World Tour.
PHOTO: Michael Reaves