The dispute over the present and future of global professional golf reaches the inside of an American courtroom for the first time Tuesday as three banned golfers seek emergency judicial help with getting a tee time into the PGA Tour’s lucrative playoff bonanza.
Controversy over the new Saudi-backed LIV Tour has consumed the highest levels of the sport in recent months. A ruling in favor of the PGA Tour or its rebellious players who’ve joined the LIV circuit will have an immediate impact on what’s likely to prove to be many years of contentious litigation.
The main lawsuit filed by 11 golfers, including Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson, drew international attention when it surfaced last week. They alleged the PGA Tour violates antitrust laws by prohibiting its members from realizing playing opportunities beyond the umbrella of the Florida-based organization that’s been the dominant force in professional golf for decades.
“As part of its carefully orchestrated plan to defeat competition, the [PGA] Tour has threatened lifetime bans on players who play in a single LIV Golf event,” the players’ lawsuit alleges. “It has backed up these threats by imposing unprecedented suspensions on players that threaten irreparable harm to the players and their ability to pursue their profession.”
At issue Tuesday is an emergency request by three banned players — Hudson Swafford, Talor Gooch and Matt Jones — who would otherwise be eligible to tee it up Thursday in Memphis for the PGA Tour’s season-ending playoff opener. Approximately $100 million in prize money and bonuses are available and exemptions into prestigious tournaments next year, including the Masters and U.S. Open.
“The only reason [these three players] are being denied this opportunity is because they are the targets of the Tour’s unlawful scheme to defeat its new competitor,” lawyers for the golfers argued to the court in their filing asking for a temporary restraining order that would force the PGA Tour to add them back into the upcoming playoffs.
PGA TOUR WON’T ALLOW LIV GOLFERS WHO QUALIFIED FOR FEDEX CUP PLAYOFFS AT FIRST PLAYOFF EVENT
U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman was assigned to the case and will preside over Tuesday’s hearing from her San Jose, California, courtroom.
In its response to the court, the PGA Tour says its players must agree to all of its regulations, including prohibitions on playing in outside events and control over media rights. They argue allowing Swafford, Gooch and Jones back into the fold will harm all of the other members who’ve followed the rules.
“The antitrust laws do not allow the Plaintiffs to have their cake and eat it too,” the Tour responded Monday.
While defending itself against accusations of being an illegal monopoly that forbids its members from easily plying their trade elsewhere, the PGA Tour also used its response to the court for a direct attack against LIV and its foreign backers.
“LIV is not a rational economic actor, competing fairly to start a golf tour. It is prepared to lose billions of dollars to leverage [golfers] and the sport of golf to ‘sportswash’ the Saudi government’s deplorable reputation for human rights abuses,” the Tour said.
Protests by families of 9/11 victims and others have targeted the three LIV events that have already been held this summer.