A high-ranking official has pointed the finger of blame at Patrick Cantlay for the £450 million Jon Rahm defection that has knocked the PGA Tour on to the back foot in the Saudi merger negotiations.
Rahm stunned the golf world by announcing his move to LIV Golf on Thursday night despite denying he would play for the Saudi Arabia-funded series on several occasions. The loss of the world No 3 and current Masters champion has triggered the blame game among those left at the PGA Tour, with allegations of a player power coup led by American Ryder Cup star Cantlay behind the Spaniard’s sudden change of heart.
“If Cantlay had not tried to take over the [PGA Tour] policy board, then Jay [Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner] would have made a deal with the Saudis and the Public Investment Fund [PIF] would not have felt the need to re-open that limitless wallet to sign Rahm,” the leading industry executive told Telegraph Sport.
“But the Saudis believed they were in danger of being cut out by all the US investors, which suddenly appeared and [had] been encouraged by a few of the other players on the policy board, so PIF acted.”
This tallies with a report in Sports Illustrated – the feted US magazine – that claimed during in the early stages of the negotiations between the PGA Tour and PIF, the Saudis offered a $1billion “equalisation pool for the PGA Tour players who turned down LIV offers before the framework agreement [in June]”.
However, with Cantlay leading a pros revolt, which ultimately led to the six players on the policy board gaining the final say on any deal agreed with PIF or any other investors, the Saudis sensed they could be ostracised.
And with Monahan set to meet Yasir Al-Rumayyan – the governor the $700 billion PIF and chairman of both LIV and Newcastle United – Rahm was lured as a bargaining chip ahead of fresh negotiations.
“Saudi probably didn’t think things were going their way to get an agreement,” said Paul McGinley, the former Ryder Cup captain and former DP World Tour board member. “So they have brought the chequebook back out to put things in their favour.”
McGinley expressed the hope that a deal with PIF can still be reached and he is backed in this wish by countryman Rory McIlroy. Before resigning his own position on the policy board last month, McIlroy indicated it was his desire for PIF to be involved. On Thursday, he re-emphasised his concerns about if they are kept on the outside.
“My fear is that we continue on this path where we have competing tours that it divides the eyeballs on the game,” he said. “The majority of people like the PGA Tour, but if LIV were to take a few players each and every year it’s really going to be divided – and that’s no good for anyone.
“Golf would be cannibalising itself as a sport. Having all the best golfers under the one umbrella is the best way forward. We need to get everyone back together and try to forget about what’s happened in the past. Let bygones be bygones and we all move forward together.”
McIlroy is acutely aware, however, that with the current dynamic on the policy board this scenario is in danger. In August, Monahan attempted to calm player unrest at being blindsided and, as Rahm said, “betrayed” by the framework agreement, by handing voting control to the pros, by agreeing to replace the retiring Randall Stephenson – the former AT&T CEO – with Tiger Woods. Now, with a six-five split of players to executives it would be the golfers who ultimately have the last word.
Sports Illustrated claims that Cantlay, Woods and Jordan Spieth – McIlroy’s replacement on the board – have formed an alliance which is courting US investors, including Fenway Sports and Todd Boehly, the owners of Premier League clubs Liverpool and Chelsea respectively.
But the publication has singled out Cantlay as the individual who has “seized control” and who has “somehow turned himself into arguably the most powerful person on the PGA Tour, including the commissioner”.
Focus will thus fall on the world No 5. Cantlay is no stranger to controversy. At the Ryder Cup in Rome in September he was accused of splitting the US team room by refusing to wear an official hat as a form of alleged protest against the players not being paid.
Telegraph Sport was told that week that Cantlay was casually asked by a TV interviewer why he was capless and that he pointed to a PGA of America official and said something along the lines of ‘because he’s being paid to be here and I’m not’.
Cantlay was ridiculed by the fans in Rome, before his US team-mates rallied around him, waving their hats in the air in support. This led to unseemly, and already infamous, scenes on the 18th green between McIlroy and Cantlay’s caddie, Joe LaCava, and then later in the car park.
In the wake of that dispute, McIlroy said: “My relationship with Cantlay is average at best. We don’t have a ton in common and see the world quite differently.”
McIlroy cited time issues and the necessity to concentrate on his game as the reason for quitting the policy board but his disagreements on the direction of travel on the negotiations with Cantlay have become central to a complex narrative.
Next week, Monahan will try to assure Al-Rumayyan that Sawgrass HQ still wants a deal, but as Sports Illustrated stated, “the Tour is in a worse negotiating position than it was this summer”.
Woods, Spieth and McIlroy have not responded to requests for comments, while Cantlay’s agent declined to respond when the allegations were put to him by Sports Illustrated.
Rumours swirl of LIV speaking to other big names, with US Ryder Cup player Tony Finau being repeatedly mentioned as a prospective member of Rahm’s team. The supposed peace has never seemed so flimsy.