Rory McIlroy, a strong anti-Saudi voice, now feels like 'sacrificial lamb' amid LIV Golf deal
By DOUG FERGUSON
Rory McIlroy, the strongest voice against Saudi-funded LIV Golf that caused so much disruption in golf, said Wednesday he now feels like a “sacrificial lamb" with the stunning reversal of the PGA Tour becoming partners with Saudi Arabia's enormous wealth fund.
It was McIlroy who helped lead a players-only meeting last August that reshaped the PGA Tour to fend off the challenge of LIV Golf. He has been the loudest critic, a member of the tour's policy board. And he was among the last to hear the news shortly before it broke.
“It's hard for me to not sit up here and feel somewhat like a sacrificial lamb, and feeling like I've put myself out there and this is what happens,” McIlroy said at the RBC Canadian Open, where he is the two-time defending champion.
“Again, removing myself from the situation, I see how this is better for the game of golf. There's no denying that,” he said, “But for me as an individual, yeah, there's just going to have to be conversations that are had.”
McIlroy was in the player meeting Tuesday afternoon where PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan faced heavy criticism from members who wondered why the tour is taking money from the Public Investment Fund and why they weren't made aware.
But the four-time major champion also felt resigned that Saudi Arabia was going to continue investing in golf, and that making an enemy a minority investor would help in the long run.
“I see what’s happened in other sports. I see what’s happened in other businesses,” he said. “It's very hard to keep up with people that have more money than anyone else. And again, if they want to put that money into the game of golf, then why don’t we partner with them and make sure that it’s done in the right way. And that’s sort of where my head’s at.”
McIlroy pushed back against the idea the PGA Tour is merging with LIV Golf. Still to be determined is the very future of LIV Golf, the rival league that Greg Norman runs that paid signing bonuses of $100 million or more to lure players, and then offered $25 million purses to 48-man fields with no cut over 54 holes.
The agreement - still not finalized - is for the PGA Tour, the European tour and the Public Investment Fund to merge commercial businesses. One of PIF's businesses is LIV Golf, which essentially will be under the control of the new company that still doesn't have a name.
“I still hate LIV - like, I hate LIV,” McIlroy said. “I hope it goes away. And I would fully expect that it does. And I think that’s where the distinction here is.”
Monahan is the CEO of the new company. Yasir al-Rumayyan, the PIF governor, will be the chairman. Also part of that board will be Jimmy Dunne and Ed Herlihy, the two PGA Tour board members who brought Monahan and al-Rumayyan together.
“So technically anyone that is involved with LIV now would answer to Jay,” McIlroy said.
Sports Illustrated reported that Norman, the LIV commissioner and CEO, held a 30-minute conference call with employees on Wednesday morning to assure them LIV is alive and well.
It cited a person on the call, who was not identified, quoting Norman as saying: “The spigot is now wide open for commercial sponsorships, blue-chip companies, TV networks. LIV is and will continue to be a standalone enterprise. Our business model will not change. We changed history and we’re not going anywhere.”
Monahan went on the Golf Channel ahead of the Canadian Open and referred to the agreement as “a great day, something that will bear itself out” over time.
But he conceded the “suddenness is a shock to the membership,” which he said was a setback that could only be healed by talking to the players and explaining the new direction.
“I don't expect everybody to understand it right off the bat,” Monahan said.
McIlroy said he felt the tour's future was brighter as a whole. The key point going forward is how the tour handles the return of players who defected to LIV Golf - 11 of them, including Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau, sued the tour over antitrust violations.
Those lawsuits are being dismissed as part of the agreement.
“That's where the anger comes from. And I understand that,” McIlroy said. "There still has to be consequences to actions. The people that left the PGA Tour irreparably harmed this tour, started litigation against it. We can’t just welcome them back in. That's not going to happen.
“I think that was the one thing that Jay was trying to get across yesterday is, ‘Guys, we’re not just going to bring these guys back in and pretend like nothing’s happened.’”
The division has cost McIlroy longtime friendships, such as Sergio Garcia. He said all he wanted was to protect the future of the PGA Tour, and he hopes this agreement takes care of that.
McIlroy said LIV Golf never made him an offer because he was clear from the start he wasn't going anywhere.
“Whether you like it or not, the PIF were going to keep spending the money in golf. At least the PGA Tour now controls how that money is spent,” he said. “If you’re thinking about one of the biggest sovereign wealth funds in the world, would you rather have them as a partner or an enemy? At the end of the day, money talks and you would rather have them as a partner.”
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Updated June 7, 2023