A US judge has denied a request from three professional golfers to play in a PGA Tour event this week in Memphis, Tennessee, after they defected earlier this summer to the LIV Golf circuit, a start-up league backed by the Saudi Arabia sovereign wealth fund.
The golfers are among 11 who last week sued the PGA Tour, alleging that the top US golf league had violated antitrust laws by expelling them as punishment for joining the new organisation.
Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford and Matt Jones additionally asked the federal judge in San Jose, California, to issue a temporary restraining order allowing them to play in the first event of the PGA Tour playoffs, which begin on Thursday. They argued they would face “irreparable harm” if they were not allowed to tee off while the main case winds its way through the court.
The players’ lawyers in court described the upcoming tournament as part of the “Super Bowl” postseason of the PGA Tour, whose spoils included the ranking points needed to play in the four annual Grand Slam championships, including the Masters and British Open.
The LIV Tour has not been yet awarded world golf ranking points, leaving most of its players with few chances to compete in the four major events unless they are granted access to the PGA Tour or Europe’s DP World Tour.
The LIV Tour has shaken up professional golf as multiple star players have joined the league, which boasts massive tournament purses and guaranteed contracts from the billions that the Saudi fund has dedicated to the project.
LIV’s critics have, however, accused it of “sportswashing”, using its cash to improve the country’s controversial reputation on the world stage, including alleged human rights abuses.
The PGA Tour has argued that it has the exclusive right to its members’ allegiance as that arrangement allows it to maximise media rights deals, which then flow into player prize money. In court papers, the PGA Tour accused Gooch, Swafford and Jones of wanting to take the LIV riches and keep a toe in the PGA Tour, even as they undermined it: “The antitrust laws do not allow Plaintiffs to have their cake and eat it too.”
“With today’s news, our players, fans and partners can now focus on what really matters over the next three weeks: the best players in the world competing in the FedExCup Playoffs,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said in a statement.
The judge separately said the trial for the main case would begin in September 2023.
The LIV Tour’s fourth event is scheduled for Boston in September after the PGA Tour playoffs have completed later this month.