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PGA-LIV merger shocks golf world ahead of Canadian Open

Jay Monahan Jay Monahan - Getty Images

On the eve of the RBC Canadian Open, news of a merger between the PGA Tour, European Tour and LIV Golf shocked the golf world — including one of Canada’s best players.

“Nothing like finding out through Twitter that we’re merging with a tour that we said we’d never do that with,” Mackenzie Hughes, a PGA golfer of Dundas, Ont., wrote on Twitter.

It’s the second straight year the Saudi Arabian-funded LIV Golf will be at the centre of discussion at Canada’s lone PGA Tour event.

Last year, the breakaway tour held its first event during the same weekend as the Canadian Open and poached some of the PGA’s best golfers with enormous signing bonuses, including Dustin Johnson, then the face of the Canadian tournament.

At the time, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan slammed LIV Golf, which came under heavy criticism as the latest example of "sportswashing" due to Saudi Arabia’s long-standing history of human rights abuses.

Now the tours are merging. The agreement combines the Public Investment Fund's golf-related commercial businesses and rights — including LIV Golf — with those of the PGA and European tours. The new, for-profit entity has not been named. The PGA, however, will retain its not-for-profit, tax-exempt status.

Hughes wasn't the only golfer caught off guard by the decision.

“I feel betrayed, and will not ... be able to trust anyone within the corporate structure of the PGA Tour for a very long time,” Wesley Bryan tweeted.

The Canadian Open starts Thursday at Toronto's Oakdale Golf and Country Club. Golf Canada did not immediately respond for comment.

Adam Ali, a professor at Western University whose current research focuses on the role of sport for international development, says news of the merger isn’t overly surprising.

The Saudi regime benefits by further legitimizing itself in the global sports landscape — as it has with soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer to the Saudi Professional League — and the PGA Tour gets a massive influx of money, he says.

Ali said much of the criticism directed at the PGA will centre on the Saudi regime's human rights violations and its discrimination of women and the LGBTQ community, but the United States has issues of its own.

“We also can't ignore the ways in which the rights of women, whether it be abortion rights, trans folk, queer people, gender non-conforming individuals are under attack in a fairly profound way as well in the United States,” he said, citing the Human Rights Campaign’s declaration of a national state of emergency for LGBTQ people in the United States on Tuesday.

“It seems like citing this kind of criticism is wielded only when Saudi interests don't align with the interests of a Western sport organization, but when they do the critiques aren't as apparent.”

Western University lecturer Colin McDougall, an expert on sports management marketing who has written about LIV, said having a rival tour netted some positive results for PGA players from a business perspective. He used the PGA’s decision to help players with expenses — something the tour didn’t do before LIV arrived — as an example.

Now with the loss of a market competitor, McDougall isn’t sure it’ll ultimately benefit the players.

“For the Canadian market, I would say try to imagine Rogers, Bell and Telus merging together into one for-profit communications offering,” he said. “Reverting back to what I would characterize now as a global monopoly … I think people will see the amount of money that the players are making and think that it's significant and high, but the proportional amount of money that is going to the players versus the amount that's being accrued by the operator, I think will go down.

“I don't see this new sort of unified structure as being one that is delivering a commensurate amount of compensation to the people who are creating its value.”

The field for this year’s Canadian Open — which doesn’t include any LIV players — is already set. The effect this merger will have on the event going forward is not yet clear.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2023.