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Jimmy Dunne, golf power broker, helped get PGA Tour

Apr 29, 2023

Rory McIlroy said Wednesday that he first learned about the PGA Tour's bombshell merger with Saudi-funded LIV Golf on a phone call at 6:30 a.m. the previous day.

The man on the other end of the line wasn't McIlroy's agent or a fellow player like Tiger Woods or even PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. It was Jimmy Dunne.

Dunne, 66, might be more familiar on Wall Street than he is to the average sports fan. He primarily works as the vice chairman and senior managing principal at a well-regarded investment banking firm, Piper Sandler. Yet in the world of golf, he quietly looms large.

Dunne is a member of Augusta National and the president of the exclusive Seminole Golf Club. He's played rounds with everyone from Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth to retired NFL quarterback Tom Brady. In a headline last year, after he was appointed to the PGA Tour's policy board, Golf Digest dubbed him the sport's "ultimate power broker."

MORE FROM JIMMY DUNNEPGA Tour board member explains why he got involved in LIV Golf deal

"The way Jimmy described (the PGA Tour-LIV Golf merger) was, ‘Rory, sometimes you’ve got 280 (yards) over water and you’ve just got to go for it,' " McIlroy recalled of their 6:30 a.m. conversation. "And, you know, that's what they did."

As the proverbial shockwaves from Tuesday's news continue to reverberate around golf, Monahan has largely been the one fielding questions from players and drawing the lion's share of backlash over the deal, which centers on the outsized financial investment of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund. But he noted in a news conference Tuesday that it was actually Dunne and PGA Tour board chairman Ed Herlihy who effectively served as the first point of contact for PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan.

"Because of the position I’ve been in and what we’ve been trying to do with our tour, I wanted to rely heavily on those two fine gentlemen to have that first conversation," Monahan said. "But when they came back and said it was a positive conversation and that I should have a follow-up meeting, I think that's when things started to develop."

Neither Dunne nor Herlihy immediately responded to separate interview requests made Wednesday morning through a PGA Tour spokesperson and sent to their corporate email accounts.

Dunne's role in brokering the deal was not entirely surprising, given that he carries significant sway in golf circles.

But it was surprising given his well-known past, and his previous comments about LIV Golf.

A Long Island native and Notre Dame graduate, Dunne got his foothold on Wall Street by working at Bear Stearns before leaving to co-found the investment banking firm Sandler O'Neill & Partners in 1988. The firm later took up residence on the 104th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center, where 83 of its employees reported to work on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Dunne would have been among them, but he had traveled to Bedford, New York that day in an attempt to qualify for the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship. Sixty-six of his coworkers, including his longtime friend Christopher Quackenbush, died in the attack on the south tower. Golf, quite literally, may have saved his life.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Dunne and his firm were repeatedly profiled by media outlets who spotlighted their resolve as they began to rebuild. "(Osama) Bin Laden set out to kill me and my colleagues," he told Newsday in 2002. "What would he like us to do: Build a new business, or to quit and run?"

In the years since, Dunne has drawn the letter "Q" on his golf balls to honor Quackenbush, whom he met when they were both teenagers working as caddies at a Long Island golf course.

More recently, he has alluded to his personal experience on 9/11 as something that had colored his view of LIV Golf and its Saudi backers.

"I would not be the fairest judge of Saudi involvement," Dunne told Sports Illustrated last year.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks were Saudi nationals, in addition to bin Laden. Saudi Arabia has separately been accused of wide-ranging human rights abuses, including the government's involvement in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

The PIF, which has also invested in Formula One racing and international soccer, is effectively the financial arm of the Saudi government, overseen by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

"My son gets mad at me," Dunne said in another interview late last year with golf media outlet The Fire Pit Collective. "He'll say, 'I've never heard you say one negative thing about the Saudis, even after all you've gone through.' But the fact is, I would not want to work for them."

"I've enjoyed making money," Dunne added. "And I've enjoyed feeling good about what I do."

Dunne joined PGA Tour's board less than a year ago, following the retirement of Victor Ganzi. He has openly described his appointment as a "war-time deal," in reference to the conflict between the PGA Tour and LIV, which spilled into a federal courtroom last year. (The two sides have said they will halt the litigation in the wake of Tuesday's deal.)

"I don't like it when they say they're 'growing the game,'" Dunne said of LIV in the 2022 Sports Illustrated article. "That's crap. I don't even like it when they say 'I have to do what's best for my family.' I really wonder how many of those guys, the lifestyle that they were living was so horrible that their family needed them to do this."

In a news release in mid-November announcing Dunne's appointment, Monahan praised him as "a key, trusted advisor at some of the largest, most impactful institutions in the world." Herlihy, the board chairman, said Dunne's career has featured "too many successful leadership endeavors to count."

"Everyone knows Jimmy is passionate about the PGA Tour and game of golf as a whole," Herlihy said in a statement. "But it's his proven track record as one of the leading investment bankers of his generation that makes the impact he will have as a member of the PGA Tour Policy Board impossible to overstate."

Though Dunne works in banking and Herlihy is a partner at the high-powered law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, the two men share a wealth of experience in the same area: Mergers and acquisitions.

Their relationship goes back more than a decade. A 2013 New York Times story references them driving back to New York City together after a round of golf in the Hamptons. When Dunne's firm, Sandler O'Neill, eventually merged with another group in a $485 million deal in 2019, it tapped Herlihy's firm to represent it.

Neither Dunne nor Herlihy could have foreseen the role they would one day play in fundamentally reshaping the sport of professional golf. But now, they are very much at the center of that transformation.

For evidence, look no further than Tuesday's news release. While many of the details regarding the merger are being worked out, the PGA Tour, European Tour and LIV Golf noted that they had already identified two people who will sit on the new board of directors: Dunne and Herlihy.

Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

MORE FROM JIMMY DUNNE Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.