Former professional golfer Greg Norman, whose LIV Golf Investments is the driving force behind the proposed Saudi Golf League, on Thursday sent a letter to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan in which he said Monahan cannot ban players who sign on to the breakaway circuit.
“Surely you jest,” Norman wrote to begin the letter. “And surely, your lawyers at the PGA Tour must be holding their breath.”
In October, Norman was named CEO of LIV Golf Investments, which has received hundreds of millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund to operate golf tournaments on the Asian Tour. LIV Golf Investments also is attempting to start a Saudi-backed golf circuit (also referred to as the Super Golf League) that would directly compete with the PGA Tour by siphoning off its best players for no-cut, limited-field events with large prize pools.
Monahan has said any player who signs with the Saudi Golf League would be permanently banned from the PGA Tour. But in his letter, Norman asserted the PGA Tour has no legal right to do that because the golfers are considered independent contractors.
“Simply put, you can’t ban players from playing golf,” Norman wrote. “Players have the right and the freedom to play where we like. I know for a fact that many PGA players were and still are interested in playing for a new league, in additionto playing for the Tour. What is wrong with that?”
To back up his assertion, Norman cites an article published Monday on InsideSources by Alden Abbott, the former general counsel of the Federal Trade Commission.
“Let’s be clear: A lifetime ban is never going to happen,” Abbott wrote. “PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan is no doubt being advised by high-priced lawyers who — if they are worth even a fraction of their lofty rates — have surely advised him of the legal consequences that will blow up in the PGA Tour’s face if it imposes lifetime bans on independent contractors who choose to associate with a competitor.
“Most notably, imposing a lifetime ban on players would trigger a slam-dunk antitrust lawsuit by Norman’s upstart league, the players, or even federal antitrust enforcers who have made it a priority to protect workers’ ability to ply their trade for whomever they please without interference from corporate giants.”
The PGA Tour Player Handbook says any player who competes under PGA Tour auspices acknowledges the right of the commissioner and the appeals committee to “fine and suspend the member from tournament play, and/or ... fine and permanently bar the member from play in PGA Tour cosponsored, approved or coordinated tournaments” if the golfer violates tour regulations.
PGA Tour golfers must receive permission to compete in events that take place at the same time as PGA Tour tournaments, though most veteran pros are allowed to do so three times per season. But the handbook also says the commissioner can deny requests to compete in conflicting events “if he determines that such a release would cause PGA Tour to be in violation of a contractual commitment to a tournament sponsor, or would otherwise significantly and unreasonably harm PGA Tour and such sponsors.”
Other legal observers have said the line between employee and independent contractor is not as stark as Norman and Abbott contend.
“I do not believe [the tour is violating antitrust laws], since the player has other options to compete, which is the basis for the ban itself,” sports-law attorney Darren Heitner told Golf Digest this month. “The PGA Tour is a nonprofit organization that has the right to exclude individuals from its ranks as long as it abides by its own policies, provides no preferential treatment and does not act in a discriminatory manner.”
The PGA Tour’s rule about the players needing permission to compete in conflicting events has survived a legal fight already. In 1994, antitrust lawyers at the FTC tried to get the federal government to nullify the rule — and another one that said players needed to get permission before appearing on television programs not sanctioned by the PGA Tour — because they created possible “unfair methods of competition.”
But then-commissioner Tim Finchem, who served in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, went on a lobbying offensive, challenging the FTC conclusions in news releases and media interviews and enlisting 26 members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, to write letters to the FTC pleading the tour’s case.
The issue even came up during the 1995 Senate confirmation hearing for Robert Pitofsky, who was President Bill Clinton’s nominee to head the FTC.
Finchem’s lobbying worked. On Sept. 1, 1995, the FTC announced that its commissioners had voted, 4-0, to reject the staff antitrust lawyers’ recommendation to take legal action against the tour.
Norman, a two-time British Open champion, has been down this path before, too. In 1994, he and the Fox television network attempted to launch a competing circuit called the World Golf Tour, which annually would feature eight tournaments in the United States and abroad. Like Monahan, Finchem threatened to ban any player who took part.
Eventually, to Norman’s chagrin, the PGA Tour joined with other circuits around the world to create the World Golf Championships, where the sport’s best players would compete in smaller-field, no-cut events for large prize pools. WGC tournaments remain on the golf schedule to this day.
Norman accused Finchem of stealing his idea.
“I told him I was irritated with him,” Norman said in 1996 after confronting Finchem in a hotel lobby soon after the WGC’s creation was announced. “I’ve had it up to here with Tim Finchem. It’s the end of the rope for me. He hung me out to dry.”
This time around, Norman doesn’t sound as though he’s going to back down.
“Commissioner - this is just the beginning,” he wrote in his letter Thursday. “It certainly is not the end.”
PGA — Kurt Kitayama came into the Honda Classic with 25 previous appearances on the PGA Tour, most of them ending by missing the cut.
He’s on track to do a bit better this week in the Honda Classic.
Kitayama — ranked No. 289 in the world — was nearly flawless at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., shooting a 6-under 64 to take a one-shot lead over Daniel Berger, Chris Kirk and Rory Sabbatini. It was Kitayama’s best score in 69 rounds on the PGA Tour, fueled by a career-best run of four consecutive birdies on his second nine.
And he qualifies as a surprise leader, considering even he didn’t expect a start like this.
“Maybe not a start like that, but I felt like I’ve been playing well, and I’ve started to figure out my putting to kind of find this kind of round,” said Kitayama, a California native and former UNLV player who has missed cuts 64% of the time — 16 out of 25 — in tour events.
Berger also was bogey-free, and missed an 8-foot birdie try on the par-5 18th to settle for 65.
Peter Uihlein and Danny Willett were among the group at 67. Brooks Koepka, a Palm Beach County native basically playing a home game this week, was in a group at 68. And Joaquin Niemann, the Genesis last week at Riviera in Los Angeles, was 4 under through 12 before giving it all back and settling for an even-par 70.
“I didn’t do anything to really deserve to be 4 or 5 under,” Koepka said. “That’s a great score here. Just kind of ho-hummed it around.”
Kitayama started on the back nine, opened with three consecutive birdies, then had the run of four consecutive birdies — capped by rolling in a 20-footer from just off the green on the par-4 6th, his 15th hole of the day.
“Conditions of the course are perfect,” Kitayama said. “It’s just really tough.”
He made it look easy. So did Sabbatini and Berger.
Sabbatini, the 2011 Honda winner, had a bogey-free round of 65 with four birdies on the back nine. It was the first time Sabbatini played PGA National as a pro without making a single bogey.
“I’m very well aware of it,” Sabbatini said.
Berger — whose back has been iffy in recent weeks — was 5 under through 11, then finished with seven consecutive pars.
“It’s nice to get off to a good start,” said Berger, who grew up playing junior golf at PGA National.
Neither Kitayama nor Sabbatini is a bomber; Kitayama entered the week tied for 74th in driving distance on tour, Sabbatini tied for 172nd. That makes PGA National to their liking, considering it’s not a course that gets overpowered.
“I’m getting to that point in my game where I think I’ve gotten past where I feel like, I hate to say it, truly competitive out here,” the 45-year-old Sabbatini said. “There’s too many guys out here that have much more firepower, so I’ve just got to kind of pick and choose my way around the golf course. To me, it’s become more of a chess game and less about throwing some darts out there.”