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Pro golfers push back against the PGA Tour with antitrust lawsuit

Retaliation against players that stray from the PGA Tour have prompted golfers to fight back against the monopoly the Tour has created.

(CN) — A group of professional golfers filed an anti-lawsuit against the PGA Tour Wednesday, including six-time Majors champion Phil Mickelson.

The 11 golfers allege that the PGA Tour is actively attempting to eliminate the Saudi Arabia backed LIV Golf to maintain their monopoly on the professional golf world. The lawsuit claims that the PGA Tour has prevented competitors access to the golfers that would be critical to the success of any competing tours, while also harming the golfers, who are still independent contractors, chances for any outside prospects.

“The Tour has denied them income-earning opportunities, attacked their goodwill and reputation, interfered with their businesses, attacked their business partners, threatened them with egregious punishment — including threats to deny them from participating in golf’s marquee events, even when they have earned placement or exemptions to participate in those tournaments — and unlawfully prevented them from exercising their independent contractor rights,” attorneys for the golfers wrote in the complaint.  

Three of the named plaintiffs, Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford and Matt Jones, have been banned from playing in the Tour’s upcoming FedEx Cup, despite having qualified for those spots beforehand. The lawsuit claims that the ban is retaliation for the players’ support for LIV Golf and asks for a temporary restraining order to allow them to participate in next week’s playoffs.

"The players are right to have brought this action to challenge the PGA’s anti-competitive rules and to vindicate their rights as independent contractors to play where and when they choose," LIV Golf said in a statement. "Despite the PGA Tour’s effort to stifle competition, we think golfers should be allowed to play golf.”

In June, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan announced potential lifetime bans for PGA Tour players participating or supporting LIV Golf events. Mickelson, Gooch, Swafford and Jones, along with fellow plaintiffs Bryson Dechambeau, Abraham Ancer, Carlos Ortiz, Ian Poulter, Pat Perez, Jason Kokrak, and Peter Uihlein have all been subject to suspensions and other sanctions for their association with LIV Golf.  

“We have been preparing to protect our membership and contest this latest attempt to disrupt our tour, and you should be confident in the legal merits of our position,” Monahan wrote in a memo to PGA players.

The PGA Tour, founded in the 1960s by legendary players like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus has since become the preeminent golf tour in North America and even around the world. Participation in the Tour is seen as essential for elite golfers, as it offers the best chance to earn the Official World Golf Ranking points necessary to qualify for events like the U.S. Open and the Masters. International golfers that qualify for the PGA Tour will invariably opt to join the Tour rather than continue with their local tours. Golfing with the PGA Tour has afforded the players the largest monetary awards and opportunities for more sponsorships and endorsements.

The lawsuit therefore argues that by banning and suspending players who participate in outside tours, they have effectively been precluded from qualification from the Majors and the Ryder Cup, events that are not sponsored by the PGA Tour.

In addition to bans and suspensions, the lawsuit reports that the PGA Tour has changed rules and regulations that have no real effect on the competition or consumers but are only meant to prevent competition. Media rights and conflicting event regulations provisions have disallowed players to compete in any broadcasted event outside of PGA Tour events or events in the same week as a PGA Tour event.

The lawsuit argues that since essentially all golf events are broadcast and the Tour has loaded its own schedule with events every week, the PGA Tour has effectively deprived players the opportunity to freely do their job.

LIV Golf, founded in 2021 with the intention of rebranding the sport of golf with a more exciting, fan-friendly format, is not without its own share of controversy. Many have critiqued its backing by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. Critics have called the tour and the Saudi’s recent purchase of Newcastle United in England an effort to ‘sportswash’ the nation’s checkered reputation, and divert attention away from past atrocities, particularly from the 2018 murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi.

The PGA Tour had made significant efforts toward stifling the nascent LIV Golf leading up their launch of the LIV Golf League, which would have consisted of several PGA Tour players, including Mickelson. The PGA Tour instituted programs to increase winnings, continued to threaten lifetime bans and collaborated with the European Tour to strongarm the Asia Tour into never entering any partnership with LIV Golf.

LIV Golf was forced to scrap the League but continued to face opposition from the PGA Tour during its LIV Golf Invitational Series. Several who participated in the invitational subsequently resigned from the PGA Tour.

Not all players are such staunch defenders of the new tour. Tiger Woods reportedly turned down a $700-800 million deal from LIV Golf, NPR reported. NPR also notes that none of the top 20 players in golf have jumped ship to LIV Golf and remain loyal to the PGA Tour.

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