Judge rules PGA Tour can depose Saudi backers of LIV Golf
A federal judge has ruled the head of Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund, the financial backer of LIV Golf, must sit for depositions and produce documents in LIV Golf's antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour.
Lawyers for the Public Investment Fund and its governor, Yasir al-Rumayyan, had sought to quash subpoenas claiming sovereign immunity.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan van Keulen ruled late Thursday that PIF's involvement falls under the commercial activity exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act.
Her decision allows the PGA Tour to seek documents and any communication related to such matters as LIV Golf's recruiting and negotiating with players, its business plans and its involvement in the new league.
If the ruling holds, it could pull back the curtain on the PIF's business dealings.
The ruling, seen as a victory for the PGA Tour, comes one week before LIV Golf is set to begin its second season offering $25 million in prize money at its 13 events, with $50 million for the team championship finale.
Any trial in the lawsuit would not be until at least January 2024.
Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau were among 11 players who originally filed the antitrust lawsuit in August. LIV Golf joined the lawsuit, and eventually all but three players — DeChambeau, Matt Jones and Peter Uihlein — removed themselves as plaintiffs.
In her 58-page ruling, some of which was heavily redacted, van Keulen said PIF's involvement was of commercial interest to Saudi Arabia.
“It is plain that PIF is not a mere investor in LIV; it is the moving force behind the founding, funding, oversight, and operation of LIV,” she wrote in her decision. “PIF's actions are indisputably the type of actions by which a private party engages in trade and traffic or commerce.”
She also said al-Rumayyan was “personally involved in and himself carried out many of PIF's activities" related to establishing, funding and operation of the rival league.
LIV Golf has accused the PGA Tour of using monopolistic powers to squash competition.
The Saudi-backed league has 48 players that compete individually for $20 million in prize money and through four-man teams that offer an additional $5 million purse.
With bonus money involved, Dustin Johnson made $35.6 million last year in eight tournaments. Johnson, Mickelson, DeChambeau and four-time major champion Brooks Koepka were some of the biggest names to join with signing fees reported to be in the range of $150 million.
The PGA Tour has responded to LIV’s threat by created “elevated” events that offer $20 million in prize money, such as the Genesis Invitational this week in Los Angeles. Top players, led by Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, are involved in building a new model for the PGA Tour aimed at bringing the top players together more often.
The PGA Tour suspended the players for violating its membership regulations, which include requiring a release to play in overseas events. The tour does not allow players to compete in other tournaments in North America.
LIV Golf has eight events in the United States this year.
The offseason for LIV Golf included a television contract with The CW, giving its tournament a broadcast partner for U.S. markets. Previously, tournaments were available only through YouTube or live streaming.
But the league has gone through its share of shakeups from within.
Majed Al Sorour, the CEO of Golf Saudi and managing director of LIV Golf, was transitioned out of that role last month. It was one of many changes at LIV Golf during the offseason in which its chief operating officer, chief marketing officer and chief communications officer have left the circuit.
LIV Golf has announced the addition of two more players for the second season — Mito Pereira of Chile, who is No. 46 in the world ranking; and Sebastian Munoz of Colombia, who is at No. 96.