US Open winner Gary Woodland had lately been feeling something different in professional golf.
The players were empowered and emboldened. The executives were listening. The PGA Tour was changing. With dominance of the circuit challenged by LIV Golf, an upstart built with billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the tour felt closer to a cooperative than a dispassionate titan of professional sports.
Then came the tour’s surprise announcement on June 6 that, after pressuring players to give up Saudi money it had associated with human rights abuses, the PGA Tour and the wealth fund would join forces. None of the five players sitting on the tour board learned of the deal more than a few hours before it was made public.
“Players were being heard again over the last year,” said Woodland, who became a professional golfer in 2007, at the Los Angeles Country Club, where the US Open will conclude on Sunday. On June 6, he said, he showed that the voices of the tour players had suddenly been “thrown out the door a little bit.”
Woodland is not an outlier. In interviews and during press conferences at the Open, top players described weakening faith in a PGA Tour that they believed had recently offered them more significant agency and influence. The tour’s ability to ease the uneasy atmosphere could influence whether the deal, which faces significant skepticism inside the tour and in Washington, goes forward in the coming months.
Compared to other prominent professional sports leagues in the United States, the PGA Tour, a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, has an unusual structure.
Unlike, say, the NBA or NFL, there are no team owners and there is no union. Instead, players are independent contractors who gain eligibility for PGA Tour membership. Tour members generally have no financial guarantees; however, they are able to earn money through a variety of endorsements, but receive tour paychecks tied to their on-field performances. (When Viktor Hovland won the Memorial Tournament this month, he won $3.6 million of the event’s $20 million prize fund. Golfers who didn’t play well enough to secure a spot in the final two rounds were paid nothing.)
In exchange for access to tour events and prizes, players allow the circuit to negotiate television rights deals on their behalf, among other conditions. Even without a union, players theoretically have a say in tour operations: the 11-member board includes five player seats, and there’s a 16-player council that “advises and consults” with board members and the tour commissioner Jay Monahan. .
But when tour leaders brokered a framework agreement to reshape the sport in the most important way since the modern tour’s founding in the 1960s, the players weren’t in the room. Rory McIlroy, the world’s third-ranked golfer and tour board member, learned of the deal a week after it was signed behind closed doors at a Four Seasons hotel in San Francisco.
Adding to the confusion, the tentative agreement leaves little clarity about the future, mainly because lawyers and executives are still wrangling over the fine print that will determine much about how the sport will be organized, financed and operated.
“I think the general feeling is that a lot of people feel a bit of a betrayal from management,” said Jon Rahm, the winner of this year’s Masters Tournament.
“It’s just not easy as a player who has been involved, like many others, to wake up one day and see this bomb,” he added. “That’s why we’re all in a bit of a state of limbo because we don’t know what’s going on and how much is done and how much they can talk about.”
The sense of duplicity, some players suggested, might not be as severe had they not gained confidence in the notion that they were increasingly central to developing the path of the tour for years to come.
As Tiger Woods faded from the golf spotlight, Woodland noted, players found their sport looking for figures to help set their tone and direction.
“When I started, you just went out and played and who knows what was going on,” said Woodland, who remains close to Woods. “Almost everyone jumped on Tiger’s coattails and we just walked away.” More recently, Woodland said, “kids are starting to get a little more of their own voice, and you’re starting to see different opinions.”
With the rise of LIV Golf, players helped devise changes to the tour’s format and schedule. During a private meeting in Delaware last summer, they tried to discuss adjustments that could help stem the exodus to LIV. Monahan later stated that the Delaware meet “represents a remarkable moment for the PGA Tour and showcases the essence of what it means to be a membership organization.”
However, in the middle of last month, Monahan was in Venice for secret talks with Yasir al-Rumayyan, the governor of the Saudi wealth fund. Two board members, neither of them players, were on a trip to Italy. The men later met in San Francisco on Memorial Day to finalize the framework agreement. The circle of people who knew about the planned partnership subsequently widened, but did not include any players until June 6, when tour and Saudi officials announced the pact. Some players found out on Twitter.
The mood within the tour only worsened when it became clear that the deal had been built in extraordinary secrecy, with the players’ representatives on the council excluded from the talks.
“We got the impression that they were listening to us,” said Joel Dahmen, a professional gamer since 2010 whose public profile skyrocketed this year when he appeared on the Netflix documentary series “Full Swing.”
Dahmen, a self-described “mid-tier” guy, said he recognized that voices like his would receive low priority in tour strategic deliberations. But many golfers were stunned that even their biggest headliners stayed away from the negotiations, even as some of their colleagues said they understood it was impractical to expect tour officials to consult with all members in advance.
“If you have to consult all the players, then nothing is probably ever going to happen, and that’s the balance for any organization,” said Adam Scott, 2013 Masters winner and former World No. 1 player who chairs the Advisory Council of Tour players. “It’s like the golf club at home: they have the members’ committee, and some on that committee can influence decisions.”
“It’s a player-focused tour,” Scott added, “but it depends on where you’re sitting and how you look at things.”
PGA Tour officials were quick to quell the outrage, aware that frustrations with the organization helped set the stage for LIV to lure players away from America’s flagship men’s golf circuit. Top executives have been at the US Open, and Monahan, who went on leave last week after what the tour described only as “a medical situation,” held a contentious meeting with players hours after the deal was announced.
Players with some of the closest ties to Monahan and other executives said they had received a barrage of comments unlike any they could remember. Webb Simpson, a board member who won the 2012 US Open, said, perhaps with a dose of hyperbole, that he had probably heard more from the players since June 6 than in his 15 years as a golfer.
“We want to have unity, but we also want to trust our leaders,” Simpson said, adding that he had been calling players to hear their concerns and concerns. “I think overall they are struggling with these decisions.”
Although McIlroy has signaled his support for the deal, other players with board seats have not publicly committed.
“I told myself I’m not going to be for or against it until I know everything, and I still don’t know everything,” Simpson said.
He sounded a lot like Patrick Cantlay, another board member, who said “it seems like it’s still too early to have enough information to handle the situation well.”
The board is scheduled to meet later this month, but it’s unclear if the pact will be up for a vote by then. At the very least, board members expect a briefing that will allow them to answer more detailed questions about the future of the tour.
All players can do for now, many said, is try to imagine what the tour would look like and where they might fit into a changed ecosystem.
“Where I think I am, and a lot of other players are, is that we are going to show up at the biggest and best events where we have tee times, the ones that pay the most money, and we are going to go play until someone tells us to. We can’t play those events anymore, and then we’ll go find other events,” Dahmen said.
They are also adjusting to a prolonged period of uncertainty, grappling with the possibility that the tour could be in turmoil for another year or more. It is an unknown path for many of them, after all these years in which the circuit was the unquestionably chosen destination for many of the best golfers in the world, their family business model.
“As members or as players,” Scott said, “we haven’t had to deal with anything like this before.”