Phil Mickelson and 10 other LIV golfers file antitrust lawsuit against PGA Tour

Eleven golfers at the Saudi-backed LIV Golf course — including Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau — filed a lawsuit against the PGA Tour on Wednesday challenging their suspensions, the opening bout in a legal battle that could reverberate throughout professional sports.

The team includes three players—Talor Gut, Hudson Swafford and Matt Jones—who are seeking a temporary restraining order that would allow them to play in the Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs, which begin next week. Each had qualified for the playoffs before signing to play for LIV, before being told by the PGA Tour that they were disqualified from the event due to their participation in the LIV series.

The PGA Tour has suspended players who lure their rival from extraordinary appearance fees and record prize money, citing Tour regulations that prohibit members from appearing at other events without the commissioner’s permission. Many of the LIV golfers, such as Dustin Johnson, have given up their PGA Tour memberships.

The PGA Tour said it believes these rules are appropriate and legal. People familiar with the Tour’s thinking expect the Tour to say its deal with players is similar to similar deals that are ubiquitous throughout the economy.

LIV Golf was poised to file an antitrust challenge against the PGA Tour even before it began, arguing that the PGA Tour has monopoly power in the golf market and is using that power to try to shut out a new challenger by trying to limit or increase the price of LIV access to players.

The complaint and petition for a temporary restraining order were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Ian Poulter, Abraham Ancer, Carlos Ortiz, Pat Perez, Jason Kokrak and Peter Uihlein round out the golfers putting their names to the suit, claiming the PGA Tour is trying to hurt their careers.

“The Tour’s conduct serves no other purpose than to harm players and to exclude the entry of the first meaningful competitive threat the Tour has faced in decades,” they say.

Talor Gooch acknowledges the crowd during a LIV golf event in Bedminster, NJ


Photo:

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

In their request for a temporary restraining order, Gooch, Swafford and Jones say they appealed to the PGA Tour to be allowed to play in the playoffs and that under Tour rules they should be allowed to play in the playoffs while they are being tried their appeals. He adds that the Tour breached its own disciplinary process when it told players this week they would not be allowed to play while appeals are pending.

“The purpose of this action is to eliminate the PGA Tour’s anti-competitive rules and practices that prevent these independent contractor golfers from playing when and where they choose,” the motion states.

Lawyers for the LIV players also point to the Tour’s efforts with the European Tour and the PGA Tour’s alleged efforts to coordinate with the major leagues as evidence that the body is acting illegally to cut off players’ access to the golf ecosystem.

The lawsuit also provides new details about Mickelson’s status on the tour, which has been the subject of considerable intrigue since he stopped playing following controversial comments about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record published earlier this year. The lawsuit says Mickelson was suspended from the PGA Tour in March for allegedly recruiting players to play for LIV, among other reasons, and that his appeal was denied. When he applied for reinstatement in June, the suit says, the Tour denied it based on his participation in the first LIV event that month outside of London. He said he was barred from applying for reinstatement until March 2023, which was extended to March 2024 after he played the second LIV event.

The FedEx Cup Playoffs conclude the PGA Tour season with a series of events featuring growing hype—and ever-smaller fields—culminating in the Tour Championship. The FedEx Cup is also a season-long event in which players accumulate points based on their play and top finishers earn lucrative payouts. First-time FedEx Cup winner, current World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, is in line for an $18 million prize.

The perks of playing in the playoffs are significant. The prizes and bonus money are big. Strong performances can qualify players for major leagues. They’re also some of the Tour’s premier events that draw attention to golfers and, with it, great branding opportunities.

Under current rules, the top 125 players are invited to the first FedEx Cup playoff event, the St. Jude starting next week. 70 then do the BMW Championship before a thin field of 30 competes for the Tour Championship.

However, LIV Golf’s expulsions led to questions about how these courses were managed when players in the top 125 included LIV defectors who had been suspended. To address the problem, the PGA Tour recently modified its protocols to allow players outside the top-125 to step up and take the spots of players who had dropped out.

The lawsuit filed by the golfers means the PGA Tour is now facing legal battles over its practices on multiple fronts. In addition to that lawsuit, the Justice Department has launched an antitrust investigation into whether the Tour has engaged in anticompetitive behavior, the Wall Street Journal first reported.

The tour, however, has already begun to push back, garnering support on Capitol Hill from lawmakers in both parties who are suspicious of LIV’s Saudi backers. He has previously said he expects to prevail in the Justice Department investigation, noting that he faced a similar investigation in the mid-1990s by the Federal Trade Commission and overturned it with impressive political support.

“We welcome good, healthy competition. The LIV Saudi Golf League is not that. It’s an absurd threat. someone who doesn’t care about the return on investment or the actual growth of the game,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan.

“If it’s an arms race and the only weapons here are dollar bills, the PGA Tour can’t compete. The PGA Tour, an American institution, cannot compete with a foreign monarchy spending billions of dollars in an attempt to buy the game of golf.”

The PGA Tour is expected to respond to the LIV players’ pursuit of an injunction by arguing that the players do not face a genuine emergency. they have known the situation for some time. you should not be rewarded for filing at the last minute. and that letting them in would mean other players would lose out, according to people familiar with the Tour’s thinking.

The Tour will also say they don’t have the right to play the FedEx Cup under the rules they previously agreed to after they broke those rules by playing for LIV.

The lawsuit says Phil Mickelson was suspended from the PGA Tour in March for allegedly recruiting players to play for LIV.


Photo:

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

In terms of antitrust arguments more broadly, it’s possible to argue that LIV and the golfers are seeking to “free up” the value created by the collective efforts of tour participants and that the tour doesn’t need to work with a competitor, he said. The world.

They could also argue that LIV is acting in a predatory manner, seeking to damage the Tour at the expense of all players who do not get large contracts with LIV, perhaps with the ultimate goal of cutting the Tour so that it can be run by the Public Fund Investments of Saudi Arabia.

This lawsuit is the first in the US to pit the two sides against each other, but LIV players previously secured a favorable outcome in Europe.

A handful of players successfully earned a stay with their suspensions from the Genesis Scottish Open, which is co-sanctioned by the PGA and European tours. Days before the event, a judge hearing the golfers’ complaint through a dispute resolution agency said those bans should be temporarily imposed.

Write to Louise Radnofsky at louise.radnofsky@wsj.com and Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com

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