Opinion: The LIV-PGA merger exposes stunning leadership hypocrisy

File photo/Seth Wenig/The Associated Press / PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan speaks during a news conference before the start of the Travelers Championship golf tournament at TPC River Highlands on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, in Cromwell, Conn. On Tuesday, the PGA Tour and European tour agreed to a merger with Saudi Arabia's golf interests.

Back in July 2021, the families of those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, 2001, were outraged by the arrival of a Saudi-backed golf tournament at the New Jersey golf course owned by Donald Trump, just 50 miles from the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

The families pointed out that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi nationals. Trump, who was playing in the tournament with his son Eric, merely rubbed salt into their wounds by saying, falsely, that "nobody has gotten to the bottom of 9/11." Also playing that cozy day in Bedminster: the chief banker to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

U.S. intelligence concluded that MBS ordered the torture and killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The Saudis have long denied it.

Despite protests from families of 9/11 victims, the LIV golf league (the name "LIV" comes from the Roman numerals for 54, the number of holes played at LIV events) grew more successful, buoyed in part by the game's surge in popularity during the COVID-19 crisis. Golfers from all over the world were offered obscene sums of upfront money (or appearance fees) to participate, and the Professional Golfers' Association went on the attack to protect its turf.

By 2022, the PGA was denying permission for players to participate and threatening disciplinary action if they did, even as its golfers said they were independent contractors who preferred some of the LIV tournament rules that they saw as more empowering, and lucrative, for players even beyond the top tier. And before LIV came along, the players said, the PGA routinely had issued waivers.

All just business, you might say. But Jay Monahan, the head of the PGA, didn't hesitate to lambaste the Saudi human rights record and support outraged 9/11 families.

About a year ago, at the Canadian Open, Monahan said: "I have two families that are close to me that lost loved ones," adding, "My heart goes out to them, and I would ask that any player that has left, or that would ever consider leaving, have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?"

"Life is all about meaning and purpose," Monahan said, "and we're an organization with meaning and purpose."

What hypocrisy. On Tuesday, in news that stunned the golf world, the PGA Tour and LIV Golf announced they had agreed to a merger, ending their costly rivalry in favor of a complex structure of assured mutual profitability. Monahan, reportedly will get to run the new operation as chief executive, while Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund, will be chairman.

Where does your heart go now, Commissioner Monahan? What exactly has changed in the last year when it comes to Saudi Arabia and human rights?

Unsurprisingly, the 9/11 families were furious at the merger, pointing to the bill of goods they had been served by Monahan and the PGA. They had been used as pawns, and on Tuesday, the scales dropped from their eyes.

"The PGA and Monahan appear to have become just more paid Saudi shills," Terry Strada, the chair of 9/11 Families United, said in a statement, "taking billions of dollars to cleanse the Saudi reputation so that Americans and the world will forget how the Kingdom spent their billions of dollars before 9/11 to fund terrorism, spread their vitriolic hatred of Americans, and finance al Qaeda and the murder of our loved ones."


The Saudi role in the international business community, which includes sports, is open to debate, as is whether the country's involvement with international golf could be a positive for all concerned. A case could be made that there was plenty of air between the actions of the 9/11 hijackers and the nation itself and that boycotts and freeze-outs are counterproductive.

Still, there is no argument whatsoever to be made for Monahan suddenly dropping his moral posturing when Saudi cash started to flow his way, and it appeared he would be able to retain his power. All he had to do was swallow his scruples.

That pivot was unconscionable. Even cynical politicians were blown away by the brazenness of it all.

"So weird. PGA officials were in my office just months ago talking about how the Saudis' human rights record should disqualify them from having a stake in a major American sport," U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., tweeted Tuesday. "I guess maybe their concerns weren't really about human rights?"

We guess you are correct, Senator. The evidence shows the PGA's concerns were always about money, power and the maintenance of a good, old-fashioned monopoly.

What a sad week for healthy competition, American sport and the beautiful game of golf. Not to mention ethical consistency. Is this what golf's leadership really wants to teach the next generation of players and fans?

The Chicago Tribune