The FedEx St Jude Championship in Memphis, the first of the three FedEx Cup playoff tournaments on the 2022 PGA Tour, was last night won by Will Zalatoris. What happened before the action in Memphis got underway might be hailed as a win for the PGA Tour itself. (Albeit that might ultimately prove to be a premature description.) Three professional golfers – Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford and Matt Jones – had sought to overturn a ban suspending them from the PGA Tour because they had joined LIV Golf, specifically because they wanted to play in the FedEx Cup playoff series which they had qualified for before they ‘went rogue’. “I feel like I’ve played my way and I’ve earned that right,” said Gooch. Unfortunately for him, the court did not agree. 

More on that in a moment, but you may be aware that the sporting entity formally known as LIV Golf is invariably, and disparagingly, called “the Saudi Golf League” by Jay Monahan, the commissioner of the PGA Tour. He has resolutely refused to engage in any dialogue with its representative, be they Greg Norman or anyone from the league of Saudis. I was struck that the French president, Emmanuel Macron, had meetings at the end of July with Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi president widely believed to have ordered the murder of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, on the basis that for him “to have an influence and tackle the problems that European countries and France face [regarding energy shortfalls] the only way is to talk with all of our partners”. I understand that the use of the word ‘partners’ could not be less applicable in this golfing context, but to refuse even to talk does seem high-handed at best.

However, Monahan right now will likely feel vindicated by the hardline stance he has taken. Last Tuesday evening in San Jose, Judge Beth Labson Freeman found emphatically in favour of the PGA Tour. “It appears to the court the LIV contracts negotiated by the players and consummated by the parties were based upon the players’ calculations of what they would be leaving behind and the amount the players would need to monetize to compensate for those losses. I agree with the defendants that those losses were well known to the players at the time and clearly monetized.” In other words, they knew what they were doing.

She added that “the evidence shows it seems almost without a doubt they will be earning more [with LIV Golf] than they have made and could reasonably have expected to make in a reasonable period of time [on the PGA Tour}. Therefore, I find that the plaintiffs have not established irreparable harm.” In other words, they were seeking compensation for making more money. 

LIV Golf issued a statement which said: “We are disappointed that Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford and Matt Jones won’t be allowed to play golf. No one gains by banning golfers from playing.” Of course, they are not banned from playing golf; just from doing it on the PGA Tour. And Judge Freeman had already addressed Norman’s repeated assertion that professional golfers are independent contractors. “These LIV contracts lock up players in a way the PGA Tour never imagined,” she said. “They are so restrictive.” In other words, the life of a LIV golfer is less about “free agency” than lavishly rewarded servitude. 

But – a big but – this is far from the final play in the legal process, and the matters under scrutiny in the months, maybe years, to come will be considerably more wide-ranging than the situation of three particular golfers in one particular scenario. Hey, but it’s all going to make a load of lawyers very happy!

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