When I reported domestic violence at the hands of a PGA Tour player, the Tour executives barely acknowledged the accusation. The player has since been formally charged in two states—but is still playing.
By MaryAnn O’Neill, Founder and Managing Partner of Icon Sports Partners
The PGA Tour has recently been in the hot seat for monopolistic practices, as it is attempting to block the competing LIV Golf Invitational from making inroads to professional golf. For me, the current scrutiny means it’s time to draw attention to another very serious problem within the Tour: its handling of domestic violence allegations.
I have worked in the professional golf world for twelve years. When I became an independent contractor with the PGA Tour in 2015, I was responsible for bringing in multi-year, multimillion dollar Corporate Title sponsorships. These sponsors would pay sizable sums for naming rights to Tournaments for the PGA Tour Champions. Of the five contractors employed, I was the only one to ever close a Title sponsorship. I also brokered the entire contract for security services across all five Tours operated by the PGA Tour’s event management company, Championship Management. I was one of the few women working directly with the Tour executives at this high level; very rarely was another woman in the room, especially at the decision-making level.
Around the same time my contract started, I began dating one of the players, Tom Pernice, Jr., and things became serious quickly. He flooded me with gifts and attention, insisting on constant communication when we were apart. Alongside this new relationship, my work with the Tour was also progressing. But the honeymoon there wore off as I began to observe practices toward women that seemed archaic, even medieval. For example, one former executive at the PGA Tour Champions said during several meetings—one of which I attended—that the girlfriends and wives of players were “their responsibility.”
At the tournament for which I’d brokered the sponsorship, I was wearing a clubhouse credential issued by the corporate sponsor. When I accidentally put one of my feet in an area of the clubhouse that my badge did not grant me access to, a player’s wife took a photo and sent it to the aforementioned PGA Tour executive. I was not there with my boyfriend—who wasn’t even in the clubhouse at the time—but as an invited guest of the sponsor! Nonetheless, rather than saying a word to me, the executive instead chastised Tom and fined him $2,500. I was not allowed to correspond with anyone at the Tour about the incident; however, I did email the executive's superior. He forwarded my email to Tom and cc'd the original executive I had contacted, incensed that I had dared to communicate directly with anyone, even though it was my minor error that had prompted the disciplinary action.
Tom later told me that in a meeting they’d had about the fine, the executive said that I was a “very beautiful woman” and should simply acknowledge that, and shouldn't try to find resolutions for anything. The implied meaning here was clear: that I should not attempt to be anything more than my boyfriend’s cheerleader on the sidelines, despite my having just brokered two multi-year, multimillion-dollar deals for the PGA Tour.
Tensions arose in my relationship with Tom, too. From the outset, he had called me multiple times a day. It became customary to discuss my whereabouts when we were not together. I initially thought it was special that he cared so much; only later did I realize it had been part of a grooming process to control me. After several months, I learned to never ignore his calls, even if I were in a meeting or on an important call. He would ring incessantly until I answered. If I missed his call for any reason, I was yelled at; he would accuse me of being with other men and threaten to break up with me. Sometimes he would punish me by canceling trips or rescinding invitations.
Ten months into the relationship, I saw Tom texting his ex-wife about staying at her house. When I asked him about it, he gripped my wrists tightly and began twisting them while yelling, “Stop saying I’m lying.” I had to tell him he wasn’t lying to get him to let go. This was the first instance of his physical violence toward me. Twisting my wrists became his signature control move for the rest of the relationship.
It was around this time that the verbal abuse and overtly controlling behavior began. Tom often spoke to me as if I were a dog or a child. He would say, “Stay put,” “Shut your mouth,” or “I warned you not to say that, so you will have to accept your punishment. There are consequences to your actions.” He would constantly tell me, “You’re the worst” at anything I did, whether it was organizing the household or driving somewhere. In the rare occurrence that he’d say something complimentary, I would be startled.
Unfortunately, I also found myself becoming increasingly financially dependent on him. The Tour was consistently late in paying me—and bizarrely, when I reached out to management, they would contact Tom instead and ask him to stop me from “harassing” them. When I was offered any contract outside of the Tour, or a position that would entail physical separation from Tom, he’d say that if I didn’t decline it, the relationship would be over. He constantly offered to pay my rent and medical bills, yet threatened to pull that financial lifeline at any time if I did not act in a way that he liked. During our relationship, I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer, so the idea of my financial stability being stripped away was especially terrifying.
In May 2018, on a trip to FedEx—ironically, one of the Tour’s largest sponsors—Tom violently hit me on the arm with his phone while verbally berating me, after I deleted a picture of his ex-wife from his phone. When he stepped away, a nearby FedEx employee said to me in a hushed tone: “I don’t want to tell you what to do, but that guy is a bad guy, and you need to get as far away from him as possible.” I quietly told him that this was not the first time Tom had hit me.
This employee then asked if I wanted to call the police. I said no, and that I might call them from my phone later. But as I walked outside to grab my phone, I saw that it was locked in the car. I went back inside and asked Tom if I could have the keys to the car to get my phone. He took his keys out and hit the lock button to taunt me that I was locked out of the car. The employee, witnessing all of this, quietly asked another customer if I could use his phone to call the police. Fearful of Tom’s retaliation, I declined to do so.
The next day, I asked Tom whether he was going to apologize. He responded that if I hadn’t been “such a little bitch,” he wouldn’t have needed to hit me in the first place. This denigration pushed me over the edge, so I filed a police report. I called the PGA Tour’s Head of Player Relations and told him every detail of what had happened at the FedEx store, and that I had also filed a police report in Alabama, where the incident took place. He reported it to another executive, who failed to do anything—not even report the incident to the Tour’s Director of Security, despite my express request that this director investigate it. I think the executives were relieved when I dropped it, and they hoped to sweep it under the rug.
In March 2020, the Tour canceled my final payment, citing the pandemic. This further deepened my financial dependence on Tom. And later that year, when I was offered a full-time six-figure salary with a global company, Tom threatened to end the relationship should I take the work. In September 2020, I flew from Boston to Los Angeles to visit him with the intention of ending the relationship myself. After hearing that I wanted to break up, he said he had never loved me more, begged me to stay, and declared that he wanted to have sex. He grabbed my arm and said, “I’ll have sex with you. I’ll have sex with you out of anger.” He then threw me onto the couch.
In complete shock, I attempted to get up and asked him to get off of me, but he kept pushing me back. When he realized how afraid I was, he pulled me up from the couch and walked me to the master bedroom. I remember shaking uncontrollably, so much so that I needed help walking. I lay on the bed as Tom got on top of me and had sex. After he finished, he got dressed and said, “Get out of my house.” I documented this in a civil complaint that I filed against Tom in Texas.
At this point, I stayed with Tom mostly for financial reasons, but I felt increasingly like a hostage. Several months later, in May 2021, we had another argument in the car. He was already in a bad mood because he hadn’t been playing well. As I plugged our destination into the GPS, we got into a fight when I asked him about a long phone call he’d had with his ex-wife. He hit me several times with a closed fist on my upper thigh as he was driving 85 mph and swerving all over the highway. It was painful to walk for the next week.
As we drove back to the hotel from the course a few days later, I said something Tom didn’t like. He turned to me and asked if I wanted him to hit me again, and then told me to shut my mouth. I was silent in fear—I knew from the last time that he would indeed hit me again. After a couple of minutes, I asked him how he would feel if his son-in-law hit his daughter. He responded that if she were being out of line and if her husband felt he needed to do it, he would have no problem with it.
Eventually, I realized that I couldn’t live like this anymore, and that I needed help extricating myself from this vicious cycle. I provided the Tour with recordings of Tom admitting to abuse; he was suspended and told not to contact me or to financially retaliate against me. His suspension was only for 30 days, and he did not comply with the Tour’s counsel, instead reversing several charges I had made to his credit card and claiming that they were unauthorized. He claims that he was actually my victim---but this is merely a classic case of "deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender," a tactic employed by many abusers.
The PGA Tour is one of the few professional sports organizations that does not have a clear policy for addressing domestic violence. The NFL, for instance, has a two-strike policy by which athletes are expelled from the league for at least one year after two allegations of domestic violence or abuse. In contrast, the Tour merely scolds players under a blanket term of “conduct unbecoming of a professional,” and this extremely vague guideline is unevenly enforced.
In my opinion, the Tour treated me as Tom’s property. The organization is in dire need of a culture overhaul. While its executives chat about how beautiful some women are, they can’t be bothered to pay a high-performing female contractor on time. They are quick to chastise someone for allegedly stepping foot in the wrong part of the clubhouse, yet they refuse to investigate domestic abuse within their own community of players. And as they allow a man charged with domestic violence to continue to play golf, they punish other players for trying to realize their economic and athletic potential at other Tournaments, such as LIV.
Tom has not apologized to me for any of his behavior; instead, he has claimed on numerous occasions that I “made” him act in the ways that he did. I really don’t know whether someone like Tom, a 62-year-old man with a lifetime of baggage and ego, can ever change. But I do hope that the Tour will.
As of the time of publication, Pernice, Jr. did not respond to our request for comment.
A Tour spokeswoman responded: Regarding the items about Ms. O’Neill serving as a contractor for the PGA TOUR, Ms. O’Neill was involved in one title sponsorship, in which a third party was responsible for providing payment for her services, which is standard operating procedure within the TOUR’s business model. The PGA TOUR was not a part of that financial arrangement.
On the remainder of your inquiry, while will do not disclose specific disciplinary action and will not comment on this instance in detail, it is important to note that the PGA TOUR takes allegations of domestic violence very seriously. In matters involving potential criminal activity, we immediately offer assistance in bringing forward the complaint to the appropriate authorities for further investigation and action. We also take appropriate action based upon our own investigation, including - but not limited to - suspension from tournament play as well as resources and treatment, such as mandatory counseling. Furthermore, we may take further action based upon any findings by law enforcement and/or the outcome of any criminal proceedings.