Augusta National and U.S.G.A. Drawn Into Justice Department Antitrust Inquiry

The Justice Department is investigating the PGA Tour for anticompetitive behavior in its dealings with LIV Golf, the breakaway Saudi-backed league.

DORAL, Fla. — The Justice Department’s antitrust inquiry into men’s professional golf — a sport splintered this year by the emergence of a lucrative circuit financed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund — has in recent months come to include the organizers of some of the most hallowed and influential tournaments in the world, according to people familiar with the matter.

The United States Golf Association, which administers the U.S. Open, acknowledged on Wednesday that the Justice Department had contacted it in connection with an investigation. Augusta National Golf Club, which organizes the Masters Tournament, and the P.G.A. of America, which oversees the P.G.A. Championship, have also drawn the gaze of antitrust officials.

The federal inquiry is unfolding in parallel with a separate civil suit filed in California by LIV Golf, the new Saudi-backed series, accusing the PGA Tour, which organizes most of the week-to-week events in professional golf, of trying to muscle it out of the marketplace. Moreover, LIV has contended that major tournament administrators, such as Augusta National and the P.G.A. of America, aided in the PGA Tour’s urgent efforts to preserve its long standing as the premier circuit in men’s golf.

LIV, for instance, has accused the leaders of the R&A, which runs the British Open, and Augusta National of pressuring the Asian Tour’s chief executive over support for the new series. LIV also said that Fred S. Ridley, the Augusta National chairman, had “personally instructed a number of participants in the 2022 Masters not to play in the LIV Golf Invitational Series” and that the club’s representatives had “threatened to disinvite players from the Masters if they joined LIV Golf.” (A handful of golfers, including Phil Mickelson, joined the lawsuit but later withdrew their names from it, content to let LIV Golf wage the courtroom fight.)

LIV executives have also fumed over perceived stalling by Official World Golf Ranking administrators to award ranking points to LIV players, who include Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Cameron Smith. The ranking system’s governing board includes executives from each of the major tournament organizers, as well as the PGA Tour.

Ridley, Augusta National and the P.G.A. of America did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday, after The Wall Street Journal first reported the scope of the Justice Department’s inquiry. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department had no comment.

The U.S.G.A. said it could “confirm that we have been contacted by the Department of Justice and are fully complying” with any requests from the government.

“Given this is a legal matter, we will refrain from further comment at this time,” the U.S.G.A. said.

The inquiry began months ago, and speculation about its scope has been pervasive ever since. The U.S.G.A.’s acknowledgment of its status in the inquiry represents a shift from its approach in July, when it declined to discuss even whether it had retained a law firm to handle antitrust matters.

The PGA Tour has retained the loyalty of some of its biggest stars, including Rory McIlroy, who ascended to the world’s No. 1 ranking this week, and it has unveiled plans to make its system a richer one for elite golfers. But LIV dangled signing bonuses — some of which were reportedly worth at least $100 million — a more relaxed schedule and a different format to draw top players who have, so far, been publicly unstinting in their loyalty to the new series.

Paul Childs/Action Images Via Reuters

Mickelson, who provoked international outcry this year after he was quoted condemning Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record but embraced LIV Golf nevertheless because it was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates,” defended the LIV circuit on Wednesday.

Only months ago, he mused, critics were “saying this is dead in the water.” Now, he argued, LIV has grown into “a force in the game that’s not going away, that has players of this caliber that are moving professional golf throughout the world.”

“It’s pretty remarkable how far LIV Golf has come in the last six, seven months,” Mickelson added in Doral, Fla., where LIV is holding the final event of its 2022 season this week at a Trump family-controlled golf course. “I don’t think anybody can disagree with that.”

McIlroy has accused Mickelson of being a “propaganda” purveyor, and PGA Tour supporters have proven eager to cite LIV Golf for its shortcomings beyond the source of its wealth: the impossibility, for now, of earning ranking points; abbreviated tournaments; smaller crowds; and the absence of a television deal.

No major tournament has said definitively how it will handle potential entries by players who have aligned themselves with LIV Golf, but there have been signals that at least some of those athletes could face headwinds.

The Masters is the next major tournament on the calendar and is scheduled for early April. The antitrust case is scheduled for trial in 2024.

Alan Blinder reported from Doral, and Glenn Thrush from Washington.

Source: Golf -


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