PGA Tour nixed league that would have squashed Saudi rivals

Chatter about an impending Saudi-backed golf league led by front man Greg Norman — an overt affront to the fiefdom of the PGA Tour — has raised not only anticipation and varied, impassioned opinions around the sport but the collective blood pressure of the PGA Tour executives at its headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

There’s little question that the Saudi league — which has not been officially announced as it continues to attempt to sign up the game’s top players amid PGA Tour threats that those who join could be banned from its events — is a threat to the PGA Tour.

The Post has learned exclusively, though, that the PGA Tour was presented an alternative league opportunity in recent months that would squash the threat of the Saudi league and its controversial endless supply of “sports washing’’ money.

But, according to three independent sources with intimate knowledge of the proceedings, the PGA Tour squashed the alternative concept.

“A player-driven opportunity was brought to the PGA Tour that was financially backed with one of most respected people in finance who already has a long-term relationship with the PGA Tour,’’ one of the sources told The Post.

PGA Tour
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan walks with Kevin Na.
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The concept, which was presented to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan in October, consisted of an eight-event team series featuring the top players in the sport that would be blended in with the PGA Tour’s existing schedule. Six of the events would have $20 million purses and the other two would have $50 million purses.

According to one of the sources, the financial backer of the group, who is a part of the legalized gambling element to the sport, committed to invest $500 million up front to get the concept started and another $500 million to come as the concept gained footing.

The sources said “after months of work’’ they’d mapped out all of the details about how the concept would work in conjunction with the existing PGA Tour schedule.

“We made it feasible,’’ one source said. “All of the logistical issues — TV contracts, ownership of events, scheduling, FedEx Cup stuff, points for the tournaments — were worked out. It was going to happen. There was no reason for it not to happen.’’

The hook to the proposal that snagged the PGA Tour like a tuft of Oakmont U.S. Open rough to a 6-iron, was that the league would be half-owned by the players and half-owned by the financial investor.

The PGA Tour would receive some financial benefits, but not have ownership in the eight-event series. Seemingly of most importance, the PGA Tour would rid itself of the migraine headache created by the Saudi threat and keep the team concept closer to being in-house.

After Monahan took in the information at the meeting — “Jay was seemingly on board as we were dealing with all the intricacies of it,’’ according to one of the people involved in the presentation — he brought it to the chairman of the PGA Tour’s Policy Board, Ed Herlihy.

Greg Norman
Getty Images for SiriusXM

On Oct. 30, according to one of the sources, it was shot down by Herlihy, a powerful corporate attorney, who told the investor: “If it’s not 100 percent owned and controlled by the PGA Tour, it will be viewed as hostile.’’

That single sentence uttered by Herlihy left those involved — a group that includes four of the world’s top players who have been on board with this since it was presented to Monahan — stunned.

“The Tour could have ended all threat of the Saudi league had they done this,’’ one of the sources said. “This would be a collaborative effort. It was all worked out … until [Herlihy] shut it down in one sentence. It undermines everything the Tour has been saying about who they are — that this is owned by the players, this is run by the players. That is complete BS.’’

Text messages to the PGA Tour by The Post went unanswered on Sunday.

The PGA Tour is a 501c company, which means it’s nonprofit and exempt from paying federal taxes.

“That response [by Herlihy] is in direct contradiction to their statement to Congress,’’ one of the sources said. “Saying they work with the players to create benefits and opportunities for their players. That simply isn’t true and is proven here through their actions.’’

Also of note is that Herlihy is one of the most powerful members at Augusta National, creating the specter of potential collusion and/or conflict of interest should the club opt to ban players involved in non-PGA Tour-sanctioned events from playing in the Masters — even if they were qualified.

The issue this group has with the concept being so quickly shot down is what it sees as the PGA Tour’s insistence on ownership and control.

“This concept never even got to the players,’’ one of the sources said. “They never even heard it, they never got to discuss it, they never voted on it.’’

Part of the proposed plan was for the investor to buy a handful of the PGA Tour events that have historically struggled to attract big-name fields. This group proposed to buy the struggling events and turn them into team events with guarantees of the top players competing against each other.

Harold Varner III celebrates winning the Saudi International in February.
Getty Images

“So, ultimately it would have gotten the top players to play more events,’’ one source said.

One of the sources said that when the financial backer told Monahan, “Jay, I believe this Saudi league is going to happen and this would be a great way to thwart it off,’’ Monahan replied, “I don’t believe it’s going to happen.’’

Though a number of players this past week — including Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson on Sunday — publicly pledged their allegiance to the PGA Tour, if you listen to the many reports that have been percolating about the Saudi league with many top players taking sides, Monahan’s strategy may be a gamble.

One of the sources said the group was “far along’’ with the process, adding, “It was a concept that had been worked through for weeks with those involved, including Monahan. And it got shot down by Ed Herlihy in one sentence. That should raise questions about who’s running the Tour. That quote is the whole essence of the mindset of the PGA Tour.’’

A fear now — call it an anticipation — amongst those who proposed the concept to Monahan is that the PGA Tour is going to take their concept and create its own league owned and controlled by the PGA Tour — just the way Herlihy stated the intention to be.

That will be a fascinating development to watch in the coming months.

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