The U.S. Open winner Gary Woodland had lately sensed something different in professional golf.
Players were empowered and emboldened. Executives were listening. The PGA Tour was changing. With the circuit’s dominance 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 it had lobbied players to forsake the Saudi money it had associated with human rights abuses, the PGA Tour and the wealth fund would join forces. None of the five players who sit on the tour’s board learned of the deal more than a few hours before it became public.
“It was turning toward players being heard over the last year,” Woodland, who became a professional golfer in 2007, said at the Los Angeles Country Club, where the U.S. Open will conclude on Sunday. June 6, he said, showed that the voices of tour players had suddenly been “thrown out the door a little bit.”
Woodland is not an outlier. In interviews and during news conferences at the Open, top players described a shaken faith in a PGA Tour they believed had recently offered them more meaningful agency and greater influence. The tour’s ability to ease the restive atmosphere could influence whether the deal, which is facing significant skepticism inside the tour and in Washington, advances in the coming months.
Compared to other prominent professional sports leagues in the United States, the PGA Tour, a tax-exempt nonprofit, has an unusual structure.
Unlike in, say, the N.B.A. or the N.F.L., there are no team owners, and there is no labor union. Instead, players are independent contractors who earn eligibility for PGA Tour membership. Tour members do not generally have financial guarantees — they may, however, earn money through assorted sponsorships — but receive tour paychecks tied to their on-course performances. (When Viktor Hovland won the Memorial Tournament this month, he earned $3.6 million of the event’s $20 million prize fund. Golfers who did not play well enough to secure places in the final two rounds collected nothing.)
In return for access to tour events and purses, players allow the circuit to negotiate television rights deals on their behalf, among other conditions. Even without a labor union, players theoretically have a say in tour operations: The 11-member board includes five seats for players, and there is a 16-player council that “advises and consults” with board members and the tour’s commissioner, Jay Monahan.
But when tour leaders negotiated a framework agreement to reshape the sport in the most consequential ways since the modern tour’s founding in the 1960s, players were not in the room. Rory McIlroy, the world’s third-ranked golfer and a member of the tour’s board, learned of the deal a week after it was signed behind closed doors at a Four Seasons hotel in San Francisco.
Deepening the turmoil, the tentative deal makes little about the future clear, mostly because lawyers and executives are still haggling over the fine print that stands to determine much about how the sport will be organized, funded and operated.
“I think the general feeling is that a lot of people feel a bit of betrayal from management,” said Jon Rahm, the winner of this year’s Masters Tournament.
“It’s just not easy as a player that’s been involved, like many others, to wake up one day and see this bombshell,” 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 finalized and how much they can talk about, either.”
The sense of duplicity, some players suggested, might not be so severe had they not grown confident in the notion that they were increasingly central to developing the tour’s path for the years ahead.
As Tiger Woods receded from golf’s spotlight, Woodland observed, players found their sport searching for figures to help set its tone and direction.
“When I first started, you just went out and played and who knows what was going on,” said Woodland, who remains close to Woods. “It was pretty much everyone jumped on Tiger’s coattails and we just went.” More recently, Woodland said, “guys are starting to get a little more of their own voice, and you’re starting to see different opinions.”
Faced with the rise of LIV Golf, players had helped devise changes to the tour’s format and schedule. During a private meeting in Delaware last summer they tried to hash out adjustments that could help curb an exodus to LIV. Afterward, Monahan declared that the Delaware meeting “represents a remarkable moment for the PGA Tour and showcases the essence of what being a membership organization is all about.”
By the middle of last month, though, 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 the trip to Italy. The men later gathered in San Francisco over Memorial Day to finish up the framework deal. Afterward, the circle of people who knew about the planned partnership expanded, but did not include any players until June 6, when tour and Saudi officials announced the pact. Some players learned about it on Twitter.
The mood inside the tour only worsened as it became apparent that the deal had been constructed in extraordinary secrecy, with players’ representatives on the board shut out of the talks.
“We were given the impression that we were being heard,” said Joel Dahmen, a professional player since 2010 whose public profile soared this year when he appeared in the Netflix documentary series “Full Swing.”
Dahmen, a self-described “midlevel” guy, said he recognized that voices like his would receive only so much priority in the tour’s strategic deliberations. But many golfers were flabbergasted that even its greatest headliners were kept away from the negotiations, even as some of their colleagues said they understood that it was impractical to expect tour officials to confer with the entire membership in advance.
“If you have to consult every player, then probably nothing’s ever going to happen, and that’s the balance for any organization,” said Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters winner and former world No. 1 player who chairs the tour’s Player Advisory Council. “It’s like the golf club at home: They’ve got the members’ committee, and a few on that committee get to influence decisions.”
“It’s a player-centric tour,” Scott added, “but it depends where you’re sitting and how you look at things.”
PGA Tour officials have rushed to quell the outrage, mindful that frustrations with the organization helped prepare the ground for LIV to entice players away from what is America’s flagship men’s golf circuit. Senior executives have been at the U.S. Open, and Monahan, who began a leave of absence this past week after what the tour described only as “a medical situation,” held a contentious meeting with players hours after the deal’s announcement.
Players with some of the closest ties to Monahan and other executives said they had received a barrage of feedback unlike any they recalled. Webb Simpson, a board member who won the 2012 U.S. Open, said, perhaps with a dose of hyperbole, that he had probably heard more from players since June 6 than he had in his 15 years as a tour golfer.
“We want to have unity, but we also want to trust our leaders,” said Simpson, who added that he had been calling players to hear out their misgivings and aggravations. “I think as a whole they are struggling with these decisions.”
Although McIlroy has signaled his support for the deal, other players with board seats have been publicly noncommittal.
“I told myself I’m not going to be for it or against it until I know everything, and I still don’t know everything,” Simpson said.
He sounded much like Patrick Cantlay, another board member, who said that “it seems like it’s still too early to have enough information to have a good handle on the situation.”
The board is scheduled to meet later this month, but it is not clear whether the pact will be ready for a vote by then. At the very least, board members are expecting a briefing that might allow them to answer more detailed questions about the tour’s future.
All players can do for now, many said, is to try to imagine what the tour might look like and where they might fit into a changed ecosystem.
“Where I think I am — and a lot of other players are — is we’re going to show up at the biggest and best events that we have tee times at, the ones that pay the most money, and we’re going to go play until someone tells us we can’t play in those events anymore, and then we’ll go find other events,” Dahmen said.
They are also settling in for a protracted period of uncertainty, grappling with the possibility that the tour could be in turmoil for another year or more. It is an unfamiliar road for many of them, after all of these years in which the tour was the unquestioned destination of choice for many of the world’s top golfers, its business model familiar.
“As members or as players,” Scott said, “we haven’t had to deal with anything like this before.”