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Augusta National and U.S.G.A. Drawn Into Justice Department Antitrust Inquiry

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DORAL, Fla. — The Justice Department’s antitrust inquiry into men’s skilled golf — a sport splintered this 12 months by the emergence of a lucrative circuit financed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund — has in recent months come to incorporate the organizers of a few of the most hallowed and influential tournaments on this planet, in response to people aware of the matter.

The US Golf Association, which administers the U.S. Open, acknowledged on Wednesday that the Justice Department had contacted it in reference to an investigation. Augusta National Golf Club, which organizes the Masters Tournament, and the P.G.A. of America, which oversees the P.G.A. Championship, have also drawn the gaze of antitrust officials.

The federal inquiry is unfolding in parallel with a separate civil suit filed in California by LIV Golf, the brand new Saudi-backed series, accusing the PGA Tour, which organizes a lot of the week-to-week events in skilled golf, of attempting to muscle it out of the marketplace. Furthermore, LIV has contended that major tournament administrators, corresponding to Augusta National and the P.G.A. of America, aided within the PGA Tour’s urgent efforts to preserve its long standing because the premier circuit in men’s golf.

LIV, for example, has accused the leaders of the R&A, which runs the British Open, and Augusta National of pressuring the Asian Tour’s chief executive over support for the brand new series. LIV also said that Fred S. Ridley, the Augusta National chairman, had “personally instructed quite a lot of participants within the 2022 Masters to not play within the LIV Golf Invitational Series” and that the club’s representatives had “threatened to disinvite players from the Masters in the event that they joined LIV Golf.” (A handful of golfers, including Phil Mickelson, joined the lawsuit but later withdrew their names from it, content to let LIV Golf wage the courtroom fight.)

LIV executives have also fumed over perceived stalling by Official World Golf Rating administrators to award rating points to LIV players, who include Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Cameron Smith. The rating system’s governing board includes executives from each of the key tournament organizers, in addition to the PGA Tour.

A Quick Guide to the LIV Golf Series

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A recent series. The debut of the brand new Saudi-financed LIV Golf series has resurfaced longstanding questions on athletes’ moral obligations and their desire to compete and earn money. Here’s what to know:

What’s LIV Golf? The series is an upstart skilled golf circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Its organizers hope to position it as a player-power-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, which has been the best level of professional golf for nearly a century.

Why is the brand new series controversial? The event has created sparks inside golf for upending the traditions and strictures of how the sport is played. It has also develop into a lightning rod for human rights campaigners who accuse Saudi Arabia of using sports to launder its status.

What’s attracting the players? The LIV Golf events are the richest tournaments in golf history. The primary tournament’s total purse was $25 million, and the winner’s share was $4 million. The last-place finisher at each event was guaranteed $120,000. That’s on top of the looks fees and nine-figure signing-on payouts some players have accepted.

Ridley, Augusta National and the P.G.A. of America didn’t immediately reply to requests for comment on Wednesday, after The Wall Street Journal first reported the scope of the Justice Department’s inquiry. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department had no comment.

The united statesG.A. said it could “confirm that we have now been contacted by the Department of Justice and are fully complying” with any requests from the federal government.

“Given this can be a legal matter, we are going to refrain from further comment presently,” the usG.A. said.

The inquiry began months ago, and speculation about its scope has been pervasive ever since. The united statesG.A.’s acknowledgment of its status within the inquiry represents a shift from its approach in July, when it declined to debate even whether it had retained a law firm to handle antitrust matters.

The PGA Tour has retained the loyalty of a few of its biggest stars, including Rory McIlroy, who ascended to the world’s No. 1 rating this week, and it has unveiled plans to make its system a richer one for elite golfers. But LIV dangled signing bonuses — a few of which were reportedly price not less than $100 million — a more relaxed schedule and a special format to attract top players who’ve, up to now, been publicly unstinting of their loyalty to the brand new series.

Mickelson, who provoked international outcry this 12 months after he was quoted condemning Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record but embraced LIV Golf nevertheless since it was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates,” defended the LIV circuit on Wednesday.

Only months ago, he mused, critics were “saying that is dead within the water.” Now, he argued, LIV has grown into “a force in the sport that’s not going away, that has players of this caliber which can be moving skilled golf throughout the world.”

“It’s pretty remarkable how far LIV Golf has are available the last six, seven months,” Mickelson added in Doral, Fla., where LIV is holding the ultimate event of its 2022 season this week at a Trump family-controlled golf course. “I don’t think anybody can disagree with that.”

McIlroy has accused Mickelson of being a “propaganda” purveyor, and PGA Tour supporters have proven wanting to cite LIV Golf for its shortcomings beyond the source of its wealth: the impossibility, for now, of earning rating points; abbreviated tournaments; smaller crowds; and the absence of a television deal.

No major tournament has said definitively how it would handle potential entries by players who’ve aligned themselves with LIV Golf, but there have been signals that not less than a few of those athletes could face headwinds.

The Masters is the subsequent major tournament on the calendar and is scheduled for early April. The antitrust case is scheduled for trial in 2024.

Alan Blinder reported from Doral, and Glenn Thrush from Washington.

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