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Backing Saudi Deal, McIlroy Reprises His Role as PGA Tour’s Backstop

Rory McIlroy is still seething, still edgy, still eager to bludgeon LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed league that he has spent much of the past year denigrating as a compromised interloper.

“I hate LIV,” McIlroy, one of the new circuit’s most fearsome critics, said on Wednesday. “Like, I hope it goes away, and I would fully expect that it does.”

He also appears begrudgingly accepting of what PGA Tour executives believe is reality, bruising and humbling as it might be: that the surest way to defang LIV is through a partnership that positions the tour to collect the kind of Saudi money it has denounced.

McIlroy’s calculation, which he detailed a day after the tour and Saudi executives blindsided the golf world with the announcement of an agreement that had been hammered out in secret, is not the final word on a pact that is still formally tentative. But his acquiescence instantly fortified the deal’s prospects, not least because McIlroy, one of the most prominent players in the world, is one of the handful who sit on the PGA Tour’s board.

Despite McIlroy’s quest to banish the burden of being one of the tour’s eminent spokesmen, he is still one of its most dependable backstops.

It is a role he has said has distracted from his game. Given the tumult into which the PGA Tour lurched this week, he might be in the gig for a while.

Beyond removing a prospective boardroom barrier, McIlroy’s endorsement of the deal — which would create a PGA Tour-controlled, Saudi-funded company to handle the business dealings of the rival circuits — means that he has effectively signed up for the task of persuading a disoriented public that the PGA Tour remains a worthy, defensible venture.

He conceded Wednesday that the tour’s lucrative shift was “hypocritical.” He confessed to a sense of betrayal, saying, “It’s hard for me to not sit up here and feel somewhat like a sacrificial lamb and feeling like I’ve put myself out there and this is what happens.” He acknowledged “ambiguity” in the deal and said he did not “understand all the intricacies of what’s going on.”

But his sales pitch for the agreement, qualified as it was, was perhaps the least muddled glimpse of the tour’s playbook for the weeks and months ahead. It may not quell the storm inside the circuit on which he staked his reputation. After all, few people take pleasure in being out of the loop, and hardly anyone inside the tour knew of its leadership’s private dealings with Yasir al-Rumayyan, the governor of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.

Although McIlroy’s guarded support does not guarantee the deal’s path, it assuredly eases it, even if, as the world’s third-ranked player, he is already finding himself trying to explain the nuances of corporate structures.

Peering a decade into the future, McIlroy predicted that the agreement would be “good for the game of professional golf.”

“There’s a lot of things still to be sort of thrashed out,” McIlroy said Wednesday in Toronto, where a tour event is scheduled to begin Thursday. “But at least it means that the litigation goes away, which has been a massive burden for everyone that’s involved with the tour and that’s playing the tour, and we can start to work toward some sort of way of unifying the game at the elite level.”

The finer points of the new partnership between the PGA Tour and the Saudis are still unclear. But once the new company is built out, the tour is expected to hold a majority of the board seats. The upshot for the Saudis, besides the promise of exclusive rights to invest in the company, is that al-Rumayyan is in line to be the company’s chairman.

The Saudi wealth fund, which is slinging cash all over global sports, effectively forced the tour’s hand — and, by extension, McIlroy’s. By Wednesday morning, not much more than a day after McIlroy had received his initial briefing about the arrangement, he said he had “come to terms” with the prospect that Saudi money would underwrite golf well into the future.

“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,” McIlroy said. “It’s very hard to keep up with people that have more money than anyone else.”

A measure of control over how Saudi money might race through golf, McIlroy and others figured, was worth something — particularly if McIlroy, as he said Wednesday, was desperate to “protect the future of the PGA Tour and protect the aspirational nature of what the PGA Tour stands for.”

“If you’re thinking about one of the biggest sovereign wealth funds in the world, would you rather have them as a partner or an enemy?” McIlroy asked. “At the end of the day, money talks, and you would rather have them as a partner.”

McIlroy, not particularly giddy about meeting a band of reporters the day after the tour’s public gut punch, said he would soon turn his attention back to golf, pounding balls on the driving range and looking for a victory ahead of next week’s U.S. Open in Los Angeles.

A win could come there, or in Toronto this weekend.

But the tumult is not over, not by a long shot, not while McIlroy’s prized tour tries to figure out what to do with the circuit he despises. Until it does, McIlroy is most likely stuck with two tests: conquering golf tournaments — and somehow defending a tour that suddenly looks a little more like the one he so often lashed.

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