Eds: UPDATES: Updates with statement from PGA Tour commissioner, LIV Golf, adds details. With AP Photos.
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — A federal judge in California ruled Tuesday that three golfers who joined Saudi-backed LIV Golf will not be able to compete in the PGA Tour’s postseason.
U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman made her decision in San Jose after attorneys for the sides each spoke for about an hour. Freeman said she didn’t consider the golfers faced irreparable harm because of the big money they were guaranteed by joining LIV, a key issue in the case.
“There simply is no irreparable harm in this case,” PGA Tour attorney Elliot Peters said.
The three suspended golfers were seeking a temporary restraining order, which Freeman denied. Talor Gooch, Matt Jones and Hudson Swafford claimed they should be able to play where they want to, each saying in letters last month to the PGA Tour, “I am a free agent and independent contractor.” They are among 10 players who filed an antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour last week — including Phil Mickelson.
Robert Walters, an antitrust litigator representing the golfers, noted this would be their opportunity on a big playoff stage, “effectively the Super Bowl of golf” because of its “significant income opportunities.” Freeman responded that the LIV Tour earnings potential was also great and asked whether players might have been able to wait until the conclusion of the PGA Tour season to depart for the new tour.
Walters argued there were only 48 spots and they would have filled up according to LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman, to which Freeman said she agreed with that stance but that the golfers stood to gain far more financially joining LIV than the money they might have earned on the PGA Tour.
“This is an extraordinarily attractive financial opportunity but it’s much more than that,” Walters said, saying the harm done is that “players lose intangible benefits” such as qualifications for the major tournaments as well as other marquee invitationals.
“This is the holy grail because everybody wants to compete in and prevail in major championships, but it’s not just the majors,” Walters said. He noted that the PGA Tour inferred these golfers would put a “taint” or “stench” on the tour’s image by playing, perhaps even wearing LIV Tour gear in PGA Tour tournaments.
“We’re disappointed that Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford and Matt Jones won’t be allowed to play golf. No one gains by banning golfers from playing,” LIV Golf said in a statement.
The first of three FedEx Cup playoff events begin Thursday. Two tournaments offer $15 million prize funds, and the player who wins the FedEx Cup at East Lake in Atlanta gets $18 million — thus the urgency for Freeman to rule. This case could go to trial next year, with the possibility of an injunction hearing in late September or early October, according to Peters.
Peters said lifting the suspensions of the golfers and allowing them to play would “change the status quo” for the PGA Tour and “give them a fabulous platform” to promote the LIV tour while competing in a PGA event.
“I think it’s a huge problem,” he said. “… The Commissioner needs the ability to protect the Tour. This is a very dire situation for the Tour.”
Gooch (No. 20), Jones (No. 65) and Swafford (No. 67) are among nine players who have joined LIV Golf and finished the regular season among the top 125 in the FedEx Cup standings. The other six who joined LIV Golf are not asking to play in the tour’s postseason.
PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan issued a memo to members that included: “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 FedEx Cup Playoffs, capping off an incredibly compelling season with the crowning of the FedEx Cup champion at the Tour Championship.”
AP Golf Writer Doug Ferguson contributed to this report.