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Alan Blinder’s plans blew up around 10 a.m. last Tuesday.
Mr. Blinder, who covers golf for The New York Times, had just settled in at his home office when he received a heads-up from a source with some gobsmacking news: The PGA Tour and LIV Golf, the insurgent league bankrolled by billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, had agreed to a partnership, suspending a bitter and costly struggle for supremacy of men’s professional golf.
“I shouted down the hall to my wife that LIV and the PGA Tour were joining forces, and that I probably wouldn’t be around for dinner,” Mr. Blinder said in an interview. “And then I got to work.” He barely left his desk for the next 13 hours.
Below, Mr. Blinder shares how he pivoted from shock to covering the news, the implications of the deal beyond sports and the questions he still has heading in to the U.S. Open, which begins today at the Los Angeles Country Club. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How surprised were you?
It was one of those things that people thought was a distinct possibility at some point in the future, but all the reporting we had done, all the signals were that the tour and LIV were preparing to fight each other in court for the foreseeable future. There was a monstrous case in a federal court in California involving contract interference and antitrust law. And suddenly that was all set to vanish.
Who was the first person you called?
My editors, to tell them that their day was about to get blown up, too. We published an article reporting the news less than 10 minutes after I told my editors, and that soon grew into live coverage. Once the news was published, I tried to figure out, in detail, what on earth had happened and what it meant. Because the announcement was steeped in legalese and jargon, I spent the rest of the day on the phone with sources and experts both inside and outside of golf just trying to understand what this framework agreement meant.
Why is this happening now?
The most significant factor is that the PGA Tour was under increasing financial strain. I’m not saying the tour was going to go broke tomorrow, but I think the tour realized it was in an exceptionally expensive fight that was not going to get any easier. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has gobs of money, but it wasn’t entirely smooth sailing from its perspective, either. LIV had faced some pretty significant setbacks in court.
Who stands to benefit the most from the deal?
It depends on your perspective. The PGA Tour is arguing that it’s going to have a majority of the board seats and its commissioner, Jay Monahan, as the new company’s C.E.O. Its supporters are insistent that they still control the game of golf, that they are the majority stakeholder in this endeavor. But the Saudis have significant influence. The governor of Saudi Arabia’s wealth fund, Yasir al-Rumayyan, is going to be this new entity’s chairman, and the Saudis have extensive rights to invest in this partnership. How this actually looks going forward remains to be seen.
Will we see a loosening of PGA Tour standards to align more with the LIV Golf version of the game, which includes music at events, looser dress codes and no cuts of golfers?
The PGA Tour is saying that it still has control over all the competition and play. We’re not expecting the overarching rules of golf to change, in part because the tour doesn’t control them. Could you see some elements of LIV borrowed and integrated into the PGA Tour? Perhaps. The PGA Tour is trying to appeal to a younger audience and broaden the appeal of the game.
There have been vows from Washington to slow or stop the deal — or, at least, make it very uncomfortable for golf executives. What are the odds that lawmakers will succeed in blocking the deal?
A lot of experts expect the Justice Department to go to court to try to either block the deal or insist upon changes. This is also somewhat unusual because it’s not like this deal was announced last week and suddenly the Justice Department was intrigued by pro golf. Their antitrust folks had already spent months and months and months looking at professional golf. So they have a bit of a head start if they really want to scrutinize this deal.
Why should people who don’t follow golf care?
This is a golf story, but it’s a story that could play out in other sports going forward. Is it possible that we will see Saudi Arabia or other wealthy states try to make their mark on other sports?
This is not just a story of sports, or business, or geopolitics. It’s a story that includes all of those different threads and more. We had a big article in Monday’s paper that had four bylines on it, and only two of them were the bylines of sportswriters.
What are the biggest questions you have going forward?
Beyond tour memberships and where you play, how does golf kind of take a breath after all this tumult? The golf industry is a pretty small world. A lot of people know one another well and have known one another for a long time, so they’ve really been shaken up over the last year. So one of the big questions is, when do all these wounds get patched up?