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Rory McIlroy has 'mixed emotions' on PGA Tour deal with Saudi Public Investment Fund

TORONTO — Once again, Rory McIlroy found himself in the eye of the storm.
Rory McIlroy speaks to the media regarding the new business relationship with Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund during the Canadian Open in Toronto on Wednesday, June 7, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO — Once again, Rory McIlroy found himself in the eye of the storm.

McIlroy has been the most outspoken defender of the PGA Tour over the past year, serving as the voice of mainstream men's professional golf as it fought LIV Golf in the headlines and in courtrooms. 

But on Tuesday the PGA Tour announced a deal had been struck with Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, LIV Golf's owner, to create a worldwide men's golf tour along with the European-based DP World Tour.

The 34-year-old McIlroy spoke with media at the RBC Canadian Open on Wednesday, where he is seeking a third consecutive title. In his 20-minute news conference he only faced one question about repeating as Canada's national men's golf champion.

"It's hard for me to not sit up here and feel somewhat like a sacrificial lamb and feeling like I've put myself out there and this is what happens," said McIlroy at Oakdale Golf and Country Club in Toronto's northwest corner.

Founded in 2021, LIV Golf was meant to challenge men's golf's traditional power structure, offering huge guaranteed contracts to some of the biggest names in the sport. Events were team-based and supposed to have a more lively atmosphere than the staid PGA Tour.

Last June, several former world No. 1s or major champions announced that they were moving from the PGA Tour to LIV Golf. Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcis, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Lee Westwood were some of those marquee golfers to jump ship, playing in the first-ever LIV event running in direct opposition to the 2022 Canadian Open.

McIlroy was sharply critical of LIV Golf ahead of last year's Canadian Open, and again found himself in the spotlight after the news that the PGA Tour would now be working with PIF.

"I feel bad for RBC and the Canadian Open," he said. "To think about what went on this time last year and then the bombshell that was dropped. 

"I feel bad because (RBC) being such a great partner and having this stuff dropped on you two years in a row is very unfair."

Mackenzie Hughes of Dundas, Ont., also disliked the timing. 

Most Canadians on the PGA Tour consider it a fifth major and Hughes was frustrated that the third-oldest national golf championship in the world was being disrupted after the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the 2020 and 2021 Canadian Opens and then the inaugural LIV Golf event distracted fans and media from the only PGA Tour tournament north of the border.

"There's no doubt that the timing of it was less than ideal. Back-to-back years," said Hughes, who noted that PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan had told players that the timing couldn't be avoided. "It does distract you. I mean, I'm answering a question now about something that's not really pertaining to this week or this championship. 

"But once we get through today and we get going tomorrow, I think that the focus will be on the RBC Canadian Open and that's where it should be."

Yasir bin Othman Al-Rumayyan, the governor of Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund, will join the PGA Tour board of directors and lead the new business venture as chairman, though the PGA Tour will have a majority stake.

As part of the deal merging the PGA Tour and European tour with Saudi Arabia's golf interests, the sides immediately dropped all lawsuits involving LIV Golf. McIlroy applauded that move, noting that the litigation was onerous for all involved.

But many questions still hang in the air.

It's not clear how golfers like Johnson and Brooks Koepka will be able to rejoin the PGA Tour. They earned bans after defecting for signing bonuses reported to be in the US$150 million range.

"There still has to be consequences to actions," said McIlroy. "The people that left the PGA Tour irreparably harmed this Tour, started litigation against it. 

"We can't just welcome them back in. That's not going to happen."

It's also not apparent if LIV tournaments — potentially rebranded as team events — will be added to the PGA Tour's calendar or the DP World Tour's schedule.

Aaron Cockerill of Stony Mountain, Man., is the only Canadian on the DP World Tour. Cockerill is playing in the Canadian Open this week as a sponsor's exemption. He said that he hasn't gotten much detail on what's next for the European-based circuit.

"No idea what it means for us," said Cockerill by the practice green. "We got a couple of emails from (the DP World Tour) but not a lot is really being said in there. 

"I have no idea what it's going to mean or what's going to happen, honestly. So we'll just see what happens."

Healing the rift that LIV Golf and the new deal have created is another issue. Both golfers and fans were sharply divided by the emergence of the upstart tour — Monahan said that a deal between the PGA Tour and PIF would never happen out of respect for the victims of 9/11 — and there's no clear path forward to bridging that gap.

"You've galvanized everyone against something and that thing that you galvanized everyone against you've now partnered with," said McIlroy. "So, yeah, of course I understand (fan upset). It is hypocritical. It sounds hypocritical.

"Whether you like it or not, the PIF and the Saudis want to spend money in the game of golf. They want to do this and they weren't going to stop. So how can we get that money into the game, but use it the right way?"

A meeting between players and Monahan on Tuesday about the new arrangement was reportedly heated. Corey Conners of Listowel, Ont., the top ranked Canadian on the PGA Tour, said that it was shocking news that left him caught off guard.

"To be honest, I haven't digested much of it. This being such a big week at the RBC Canadian Open, my focus is really on that," said Conners, who is No. 27 on the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup standings. "What I will say is I do have a lot of faith in the leadership of the PGA Tour. I know there's a lot of smart people working for us that will make the right decisions. 

"Right away some players may not necessarily agree with the decision, but I certainly have faith that it's going to be a positive direction for the PGA Tour and I have a lot of faith in our leadership."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press