PGA-LIV merger hangs over Canadian Open. What’s behind the controversy?

Click to play video: '‘Stabbed in the back’: PGA Tour-LIV Golf deal shocks fans, players'
‘Stabbed in the back’: PGA Tour-LIV Golf deal shocks fans, players
WATCH - 'Stabbed in the back': PGA Tour-LIV Golf deal shocks fans, players

The air is thick over the RBC Canadian Open in Toronto, and wildfire smoke isn’t solely responsible.

Some of the world’s best golfers participating in the premier Canadian event, which started Thursday, are also having to deal with the fallout of the newly-announced LIV Golf and PGA Tour merger.

The deal between the rival golf leagues shook the sporting world when it was announced Tuesday; the leagues have been engaged in bitter battles for two years.

It was nearly a year ago when LIV Golf teed off its opening event – overlapping with the PGA’s Canadian Open – and despite the merger, there remain more questions than answers.

Here’s what we know about the merger between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf:

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What is the PGA Tour and LIV Golf?

The non-profit PGA Tour is the world’s premier membership organization for touring professional golfers. It co-sanctions tournaments on the PGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions, Korn Ferry Tour, PGA Tour Latinoamérica and PGA Tour Canada.

The modern-day PGA Tour was formed in 1968 when a subset of touring professionals broke away from the PGA of America.

Click to play video: 'Corey Conners, the Canadian standout at PGA Championships'
Corey Conners, the Canadian standout at PGA Championships

Founded in 2021, LIV Golf was meant to challenge men’s golf’s traditional power structure, offering huge guaranteed contracts to some of the biggest names in the sport.

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LIV Golf, which features 54-hole events with no cuts instead of the traditional 72-hole format, lured big-name players away from rival circuits with massive sums of prize money for every golfer.

Why was there controversy between the two leagues?

LIV Golf is run by former pro golfer Greg Norman and is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which critics have accused of being a vehicle for the country to try to improve its reputation abroad.

Much of the backlash centres around the alleged involvement of the Saudi Arabian government in human rights violations, including the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Last June, several former world No. 1’s or major champions announced that they were leaving the PGA Tour for LIV Golf.

Click to play video: 'Phil Mickelson reiterates desire to keep PGA Tour membership amidst LIV golf controversy'
Phil Mickelson reiterates desire to keep PGA Tour membership amidst LIV golf controversy

Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Sergio Garcia, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Lee Westwood were some of those marquee golfers to jump ship.

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Many of those who accepted lucrative signing bonuses to join LIV cited their desire to play fewer events and spend more time with their families. Koepka and Johnson’s signing bonuses were reported to be in the US$150 million range.

The PGA Tour lashed out. It banned players who participated in LIV events. The tour raised prize money at elite events to US$20 million – the same purse for LIV’s individual competition.

Dustin Johnson hits from the third tee during the second round of the LIV Golf Team Championship at Trump National Doral Golf Club, Oct. 29, 2022, in Doral, Fla. Lynne Sladky/AP file photo

LIV defectors Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau were among 11 players who filed an antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour last August. LIV joined as plaintiffs, and the PGA Tour countersued.

“These players have made their choice for their own financial-based reasons,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said in a memo to his membership last June. “But they can’t demand the same PGA Tour membership benefits, considerations, opportunities and platform as you.”

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Click to play video: 'UN calls for international role on Khashoggi inquiry'
UN calls for international role on Khashoggi inquiry

Monahan struck a different tone on Tuesday.

“As time went on, circumstances changed. I don’t think it was right or sustainable to have this tension in our sport,” he said in a conference call after a meeting with players.

“I recognize everything I’ve said in the past. I recognize people will call me a hypocrite.”

“Any time I’ve said anything, I’ve said it with the information I had, and I said it with someone trying to compete with our tour and our players.”

How will the merger work?

As part of the deal merging the PGA Tour, European Tour and LIV, all sides are dropping all lawsuits immediately.

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A deal price was not announced, but a new company will be created with the PGA Tour as the majority owner.

The new company, however, will operate for profit and Saudi Arabia’s PIF will take a large minority stake in the combined entity.

The exact stake will depend on how much it will invest – an amount expected to be in the billions. PGA Tour and PIF will negotiate how much money the new company should start off with.

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Regulators and politicians could try to torpedo the deal. The U.S. Department of Justice had already been looking at the dispute between the PGA Tour and LIV as part of a broad antitrust probe into professional golf.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which reviews deals for potential national security risks, may scrutinize the transaction given PIF’s involvement. Some U.S. lawmakers have said they are opposed to the deal because of Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record.

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However, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the deal was not a “governmental concern.”

Reaction to merger mixed

Monahan had said that a deal between the PGA Tour and PIF would never happen out of respect for the victims of 9/11. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, were from Saudi Arabia. However, the kingdom has long denied a role in the attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

Advocacy groups 9/11 Families United and Democracy for the Arab World Now, which was founded by Khashoggi, were among the organizations that denounced the deal.

Click to play video: 'Khashoggi called Canada, Saudi Arabia human rights spat ‘unneeded’ in Global News interview'
Khashoggi called Canada, Saudi Arabia human rights spat ‘unneeded’ in Global News interview

Rory McIlroy, who has been the most outspoken defender of the PGA Tour, said he felt like a “sacrificial lamb” when asked about the merger.

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“You’ve galvanized everyone against something and that thing that you galvanized everyone against you’ve now partnered with,” he said Wednesday.

“So, yeah, of course I understand (the upset). It is hypocritical. It sounds hypocritical.

“Whether you like it or not, the PIF and the Saudis want to spend money in the game of golf. They want to do this and they weren’t going to stop. So how can we get that money into the game, but use it the right way?”

Rory McIlroy hits his tee shot on the 11th hole during the Canadian Open Pro-Am in Toronto on June 7, 2023. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Mickelson, whose public image took a hit in February 2022 when the author of an unauthorized biography on him released excerpts in which he said he was willing to look past Saudi Arabia’s human rights record to gain leverage with the PGA Tour, tweeted “awesome day today” on Tuesday.

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Former U.S. president Donald Trump, who owns three courses that are part of LIV Golf’s 14-event schedule in 2023, celebrated the deal in a Truth social post using all caps.

“Great news from LIV Golf. A big, beautiful, and glamorous deal for the wonderful world of golf. Congrats to all!!!,” he wrote.

(From left to right) Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, former U.S. president Donald Trump, Greg Norman, LIV Golf CEO and Majed Al-Sorour, CEO of Golf Saudi, watch the start of the second round of the Bedminster Invitational LIV Golf tournament in Bedminster, N.J., July 30, 2022. Seth Wenig/ap

Many questions still hang in the air, and it’s unclear if golfers who left for LIV will be able to rejoin the PGA Tour.

“There still has to be consequences to actions. The people that left the PGA Tour irreparably harmed this Tour, started litigation against it,” McIlroy said.

In the meantime, McIlroy will try to capture his third straight Canadian Open championship, which is taking place at the Oakdale Golf and Country Club in North York, Ont., until Sunday.

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— with files from The Associated Press and Reuters

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