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US: PGA Tour faced 'unprecedented attack' from LIV Golf, lawmakers told

Senator challenges statements that agreement was one of equals, saying preliminary documents show Saudi Arabia would “dominate” new entity
Chief operating officer of PGA Tour Ron Price (L) and policy board member Jimmy Dunne are sworn in during Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on Capitol Hill, on 11 July 2023

The PGA Tour could not compete with the unlimited war chest of Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund, PGA officials said Tuesday, defending their surprise deal with LIV Golf in the face of criticism that the US league risked being "dominated" by Saudi Arabia.

“It’s only because of LIV that we’re sitting here today," PGA Tour chief operating officer Ron Price told a Senate subcommittee hearing, saying the tour had been forced into a surprise agreement with Saudi-backed LIV because it faced an “unprecedented attack” from the kingdom. 

“The dispute was undermining the growth of our sport and was threatening the very survival of the PGA Tour, and it was unsustainable,” he added. 

The comments did little to sway Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, who chairs the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He said the Senate's probe into the merger was about more than the game of golf but whether “a brutal, repressive regime” could take over “a cherished American institution to cleanse its public image”.

Documents obtained by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations offered new details into the deal between the PGA Tour and Saudi-backed LIV Golf.  

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According to the documents, Yasir al-Rumayyan, governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), was eager to strike a deal with the PGA months before previously reported. 

The 53-year-old Rumayyan, who is a key financial fixer for Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, contacted PGA Tour board member Jimmy Dunne in December 2022 about the possibility of an agreement using a British businessman as an intermediary.

'The guy with the money'

On Tuesday, Dunne told lawmakers he was initially sceptical about speaking with the Saudis, but British businessman Roger Devlin reached out again in April with a warning that struck at the heart of PGA fears. 

“I believe we have a window of opportunity to unify the game over the next couple of months, otherwise I fear the Saudis will double down on their investment and golf will be split asunder in perpetuity,” he told Dunne in an email.

Dunne, who would go on to play a leading role in the talks, eventually took up the offer and met with Rumayyan in London on 23-24 April. He said he walked away from talks impressed with the PIF chief.

“Unlike everyone else that is involved in LIV, he said he respected the tour. He didn’t have the attitude that a lot of the management people had," he said. 

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Dunne said he later advised PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan to only speak with Rumayyan, saying: "All of the people other than the guy with the money - we shouldn’t talk to.”

“Significant wins in litigation,” including a ruling in February that LIV was not protected by sovereign immunity, opened a path for the PGA to negotiate from a position of strength, Price said.

“Instead of losing control of the PGA Tour, an American institution and tradition, we pursued a peace that would not only end the divisive litigation battles but would also maintain the PGA Tour’s structure, mission and longstanding support for charity, he said. 

The documents were obtained as part of a Senate investigation into the deal.

Dunne and Price faced mixed reactions from lawmakers on Tuesday, as they tried to defend the deal which has come under criticism over concerns that Saudi Arabia will use the game of golf to polish over its poor human rights record and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  

Members of the families of the 9/11 victims have also opposed the deal and were present for the hearing. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is looking into the agreement for possible violations of anti-trust law. 

One of the more emotional parts of the hearing came when Dunne was pressed on Saudi Arabia’s alleged involvement in the 9/11 attacks. He noted that he had lost 66 colleagues that day and would not be pursuing a deal if he felt Saudi Arabia was involved.

“If any person had the remotest connection to an attack on our country and the murder of my friends, I am the last guy who would be sitting at a table with them,” he said.

Non-disparagement clause

The PGA officials stressed that they had reached a preliminary agreement with the Saudis, but a final deal still had to be hashed out and approved by the board.

Blumenthal challenged their statements that the agreement was one of equals, saying it was clear from the preliminary documents that Saudi Arabia would “dominate” the new entity. 

“The PGA Tour surrendered once for the Saudi investment of money. There is no assurance in this agreement that it would not do so again,” he said.

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Other lawmakers, however, appeared to side with the PGA. Republican Senator Ron Johnson said, that faced with a sovereign wealth fund that was 500 times larger than it was, the PGA had reached a “win-win” agreement.

“If you don’t offer them (the Saudis) that seat, they will keep picking off players one by one, until they destroy the game of golf at the highest level,” he said.

Although the talks are still ongoing, the documents offer interesting nuggets into each side’s thinking. In one proposed agreement, the PGA requested that LIV Golf remove its CEO, Greg Norman. Another initial proposal was for big-name golfers Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy to own LIV Golf teams and participate in at least 10 LIV Golf events. Neither made it into the final agreement.

Another proposal called for a minimum of two PGA high-profile events to be sponsored by Aramco and/or the PIF, with one of those events to be held in Saudi Arabia.

The hearing is likely to further embolden critics of Saudi Arabia. 

The PGA officials were pressed by Blumenthal on the inclusion of a non-disparagement clause in the preliminary agreement which he said set broad guidelines preventing criticism of the kingdom and Saudi officials. They refused to directly rule out whether a similar clause would be included in the final deal. 

Both Rumayyan, who is slated to serve as the chairman of PGA Tour Enterprises, and Norman, the CEO and commissioner of LIV Golf, didn't testify, citing scheduling conflicts. PGA Tour commissioner Monahan is away on medical leave.  

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