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Analysis: A year after PGA Tour’s surprise deal with Saudis, still no clarity on where golf is going

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DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) — PGA champion Xander Schauffele was on the 10th tee at Muirfield Village for a late Monday afternoon practice round to start the week of the Memorial. Just the sight of him was enough to bring back memories of golf then and now.

So much has changed. So little is known. And there’s still no clarity where golf is headed and how to repair such a splintered sport created by Saudi money and a secret deal.

It was a year ago at the Memorial that Schauffele was playing nine holes of the Wednesday pro-am, starting on the 10th tee. Two of his amateur partners that day were PGA Tour board members — Ed Herlihy, the board chairman, and Jimmy Dunne.

Unbeknownst to Schauffele — unbeknownst to every PGA Tour player — was that Dunne and Herlihy, along with PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, had been secretly meeting with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, the financial backers of the rival LIV Golf circuit that already had lured away some of golf’s biggest names with guaranteed riches.

The pro-am was on May 31. The famous “framework agreement” for a commercial deal among the PGA Tour, PIF and the European tour had been signed on May 30.

Most curious was when Herlihy saw a familiar face and suggested a phone call in the near future because “we have a lot of good things coming.”

Indeed.

It wasn’t until six days later that Monahan and Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the PIF governor, appeared on CNBC to announce that former enemies were now in business together. It remains one of the most stunning developments in golf — not just making the deal with the Saudis, but keeping the entire membership (and the majority of the PGA Tour board) in the dark.

That was June 6, 2023. It’s rare in golf for anything to be identified by a date.

Monahan flew from New York to the Canadian Open for a player meeting later that day and was blistered by players who wanted answers.

A year later, does anyone have them?

For all the moving parts — and there have been plenty — what often gets overlooked is one important aspect to the framework agreement. While it was never finalized by the end of 2023, the stated deadline, it did away with the antitrust lawsuit by PIF-funded LIV and the countersuit by the PGA Tour. The tour already was said to have spent close to $50 million in legal fees.

The rest of the road forward has trudged uphill (still no commercial deal with PIF).

And it has moved quickly and quirkily.

Tiger Woods was appointed to the board with no term limits. Rory McIlroy resigned from the board and then was put back into play as a non-voting member of a negotiating committee, but only after a failed attempt for him to replace Webb Simpson.

From the business side, Randall Stephenson of AT&T resigned from the board abruptly last summer over the proposed deal with the Saudis. In the last month alone, Dunne and board member Mark Flaherty resigned.

It’s a lot easier to keep track of birdies and bogeys.

There were two Senate hearings. The agreement got the attention of the Justice Department, which led to both sides in July doing away with an anti-poaching clause in the agreement. Four months later, Jon Rahm was on his way to LIV.

The new for-profit company known as PGA Tour Enterprises received interest from private equity, and the tour narrowed its list of suitors to Strategic Sports Group by the end of the year. SSG, a group of North American pro sports owners led by Fenway Sports Group, announced a $1.5 billion investment that could be twice that much.

The tour is still negotiating for PIF to become a minority investor, but it took until March before players on the PGA Tour Enterprises board even met with Al-Rumayyan.

Jordan Spieth is on the board. He replaced McIlroy, who resigned in November. Spieth said two weeks ago that any suggestions that negotiations are “in a bad place and are moving slowly” are not true.

“I think ultimately we’ll end up in a place where professional golf is maybe the best that it’s ever been. I think both sides believe that,” he said at Colonial.

Still no details. No clear road map.

It was Spieth who said in late January that with SSG as an investor, he didn’t think a deal was needed with PIF except for unification in the sport. That put him at odds with McIlroy, who wants desperately for golf’s best players to be brought back together more than four times a year at the majors.

There even is friction inside the PGA Tour — lingering bad feelings toward Monahan for going behind the players’ backs, and even which players were worth how much under a first-of-its-kind program that distributed $930 million in equity shares.

Perhaps the biggest change from a year ago is players now have a majority voice on the board. The argument has always been that while it’s their tour, the players are more skilled with a 4-iron than running a business valued to be worth upward of $10 billion.

But the bigger question is what exactly do they want? Where is golf headed, and how does it get put back together?

Schauffele made the biggest putt of his life to win the PGA Championship by one shot over Bryson DeChambeau, who reminded golf fans what they’ve been missing. He’s an entertainer. Brooks Koepka won the PGA Championship last year and was put on the Ryder Cup team with 11 players who stayed loyal to the PGA Tour.

Koepka, DeChambeau, Rahm, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson are still only available to watch on CW, the app or the network.

They are in Houston this week if anyone was wondering.

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AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf

By DOUG FERGUSON
AP Golf Writer

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