Former AT&T executive Randall Stephenson informed the policy board of his resignation Saturday, ending a 12-year run on the board. Stephenson directly cited the deal with LIV Golf as the reason for his resignation, saying that the framework agreement “is not one that I can objectively evaluate or in good conscience support, particularly in light of the U.S. intelligence report concerning Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.”
Stephenson said he planned to resign earlier, but he stayed after PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan suddenly stepped back from his role due to a health issue. Monahan is set to return next week.
“I joined this board 12 years ago to serve the best players in the world and to expand the virtues of sportsmanship instilled through the game of golf,” Stephenson wrote, via The Washington Post. “I hope, as this board moves forward, it will comprehensively rethink its governance model and keep its options open to evaluate alternative sources of capital beyond the current framework agreement.”
The PGA Tour’s policy board is made up of five directors, a PGA of America representative and five Tour players, including Rory McIlroy and Patrick Cantlay. The board met for more than five hours last week ahead of the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Michigan to discuss the merger of sorts with LIV Golf and the DP World Tour. Monahan did not attend.
“Entering the framework agreement put an end to costly litigation. Management, with input from our player directors, has now begun a new phase of negotiations to determine if the Tour can reach a definitive agreement that is in the best of interests of our players, fans, sponsors, partners, and the game overall,” the board said in a statement after that meeting, via Sports Illustrated. “That was the focus of our productive policy board meeting this afternoon, with valuable and crucial input and perspective from the membership through our player directors.”
Stephenson’s resignation latest backlash after PGA Tour-LIV Golf deal
Stephenson’s resignation is just the latest example of the backlash Monahan has faced since he announced the partnership, though it is perhaps the biggest development internally.
Monahan has received harsh criticism since he announced the deal on June 6. He held a contentious players meeting after that announcement and was reportedly called a hypocrite to his face. He has been called out for invoking the 9/11 terrorist attacks when defending the Tour over LIV Golf, too.
A pair of Tour executives are set to testify in front of a U.S. Senate committee this week, after it launched an investigation into the deal. The Justice Department is also looking into it.
The Tour sent a six-page “framework” agreement to Congress that detailed the planned partnership with LIV Golf and the DP World Tour. That document didn’t reveal much, other than the fact that the deal has a long way to go before it is finalized. It did, however, make clear that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund will be the “premier corporate sponsor” of both the PGA Tour and DP World Tour. The PIF is reportedly preparing to invest billions in the new venture.
As Stephenson mentioned in his letter, much of the criticism has been due to Saudi Arabia’s involvement. The country has been accused of “sportswashing” with its investments into teams and leagues across the world as an effort to cover up alleged human rights abuses and more, including involvement in Khashoggi’s death. United States officials believe Khashoggi, a former Washington Post journalist, was murdered in 2018 after Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved it, according to The New York Times.
It’s unclear if any other board members will follow Stephenson’s lead. Most have either kept quiet or said very little. McIlroy, who has been perhaps the largest Tour supporter in the battle between the two leagues, was even careful with his words when addressing the deal for the first time — though he did say he hates LIV Golf and felt like "a sacrificial lamb."
“I’ve come to terms with [the PIF],” McIlroy said. “I see what’s happened in other sports, I see what’s happened in other businesses, and honestly, I’ve just resigned myself to the fact that this is what’s going to happen.”