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PGA Tour agrees to merge with its Saudi-backed rival, LIV Golf

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The two biggest organizations in pro golf are merging.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The PGA Tour has run big tournaments for generations, but it faced a challenge from an upstart with a lot of money. That would be the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV tour. That's L-I-V, pronounced, as we said, LIV, like live large, which the tour did, offering eye-popping paychecks to attract players from the PGA.

INSKEEP: Zach Helfand of The New Yorker joins us now with the latest. Good morning.

ZACH HELFAND: Good morning.

INSKEEP: These two tours were fighting. Why did they merge?

HELFAND: So this was something that came as a big surprise to almost everyone involved. Even some of the star players didn't know that this was coming. But it's also one of those things that, from a business standpoint, a lot of people, with the benefit of hindsight, could say, oh, yeah, we could see why this happened. The Saudis wanted a golf tour. They wanted power and prestige, and they had a lot of money. And the PGA Tour was always happy to take a lot of money, and they had a golf tour to offer and they had power and prestige to offer. So each side really had what the other wanted.

INSKEEP: I want to understand. Is this a merger of equals or is it a takeover?

HELFAND: That's a good question. It depends how you view it. They're establishing a new entity which will oversee LIV. There's a question of whether LIV will live on. And it will also oversee the PGA Tour. The PGA Tour gets - it's probably going to be about $3 billion from the Saudis, and they get to retain voting rights control over the board of directors. But the head of the Saudi Public Investment Fund gets to be the chairman of the board.

INSKEEP: Ah, OK. So a Saudi choice to be chairman, but the PGA Tour forces have the majority of the board seats. That's what you're saying?

HELFAND: Yeah, it's kind of a power-sharing agreement. The PGA Tour retains more control, though, with the voting rights.

INSKEEP: So I have to ask about the reputation of Saudi Arabia and human rights abuses there, which golfers have noted. Phil Mickelson, one of the biggest stars, said last year that he viewed LIV as a Saudi vehicle to improve the reputation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, conceal his poor record on human rights. How are pro golfers answering those kinds of accusations now that they've joined forces with the Saudis?

HELFAND: They're happy to gloss over it once they are part of the Saudi outfit. So it's one of those things that I don't know that most golfers really care that much about. Some of them do. A lot of them use it if it's convenient. I think the reputation-laundering aspect of this has been a little bit overblown. From the people I've talked to who know MBS or speak to MBS, he knows that a golf league isn't going to wash away the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, for example. But they're using it as a business and as an economic tool. They want to transform their economy, become a tourist destination, get one up over the Emiratis, who also have golf interests. And this really serves that need.

INSKEEP: So we'll see a lot more pro golfers in Saudi Arabia, is what you're telling me.

HELFAND: Very likely.

INSKEEP: Zach Helfand of The New Yorker, thanks very much.

HELFAND: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOUDKICKER'S "EXPLORE, BE CURIOUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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