Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and nine other players who defected to Saudi-funded LIV Golf filed an antitrust lawsuit Wednesday against the PGA Tour, the first step in a legal fight that could define the limits of where players can compete.
The suit, filed in US District Court in San Francisco, claims the PGA Tour has used monopoly power to try to crush competition and has wrongfully suspended players.
A separate motion has been filed seeking a temporary restraining order to allow Talor Gooch, Matt Jones and Hudson Swafford to play in the FedEx Cup playoffs, the PGA Tour’s postseason, which begins next week.
The suit also revealed that PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan suspended Mickelson for two months in March for his role in recruiting players for LIV Golf. He said Mickelson’s request for reinstatement in June was denied because he played in one LIV Golf event and that he was suspended until March 2024 for playing in another.
Monahan responded to the lawsuit with a terse memo to his players in which he referred to “11 of his former colleagues” suing the tour and went on to refer to LIV Golf as the “Saudi Golf League”.
Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is the main source of the money that pays outrageous signing bonuses and provides $25 million purses for 48-man camps. Several players are in their 40s and are no longer ranked in the top 50 in the world.
Monahan said the players knew the consequences of signing up for the rival league.
“We have been preparing to protect our membership and contest this latest attempt to disrupt our tour, and you should have confidence in the legal merits of our position,” Monahan wrote.
“Essentially, these suspended players, who are now employees of the Saudi Golf League, have left the tour and now they want to come back. It is an attempt to use the platform of the tour to promote itself and take advantage of its benefits and efforts.”
LIV Golf said in a statement: “Players are right to bring this action to challenge the PGA’s anti-competitive rules and assert their rights as independent contractors to play where and when they want. Despite the PGA Tour’s effort to stifle competition, we believe golfers should be able to play golf.”
Its CEO, Greg Norman, has said that LIV Golf would be willing to financially support any legal matter. Last month, four players from the European tour won a temporary stay from a UK judge that allowed them to play at the Scottish Open.
Mickelson reportedly signed a deal worth $200 million to join the Saudi-funded company, with DeChambeau in the $150 million range. And those are just signing bonuses. Seventeen players have already won more than $1 million in three or fewer tournaments.
The PGA Tour denied releases for players to compete in LIV events and suspended them as soon as they put a ball into play. Some players, including Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and Sergio Garcia, have opted out of their PGA Tour membership.
At the heart of the lawsuit are allegations that the PGA Tour is using its power as golf’s strongest circuit to intimidate players and anyone else who might become involved with LIV Golf. He accused the tour of intimidating a tent seller and technology company, among others, with whom LIV Golf was trying to do business to launch its series.
He also claims that the tour’s threats to ban players ultimately forced LIV Golf to pay more in signing bonuses to get the players it wanted and forced the rival league to change its kickoff plans to just eight events this year. LIV Golf announced a 14-tournament schedule for next year.
“The Tour’s conduct has substantially diminished and impaired the entry of promoters who could significantly threaten the PGA Tour’s monopoly, which has gone unchallenged for decades,” the lawsuit states.
The tour has remained steadfast in its belief that it is a membership organization with regulations that players choose to accept. That includes a code of conduct and the requirement to play at least 15 tournaments a year to maintain full membership.
Players are typically allowed three pitches a year to play overseas events that take place the same week as a PGA Tour tournament. The tour does not allow releases for conflicting events in North America.
Two LIV Golf events have been held in the US, first in Oregon last month and then last week at Trump National in New Jersey. Three more this year are scheduled for courses near Boston, Chicago and Miami.
Monahan has been blunt in his comments on LIV Golf, referring in June to the tour not being able to compete with “a foreign monarchy that is spending billions of dollars in an attempt to buy the game of golf.”
“We welcome some healthy and good competition. LIV Saudi Golf League is not that,” he said. “It’s an irrational threat, not caring about the return on investment or the true growth of the game.”