Sen. Blumenthal grills PGA leaders over merger with Saudi-backed LIV Tour

Sen. Richard Blumenthal grilled top golf executives Tuesday about a controversial merger between the PGA and rival Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf. It’s a deal that could have significant impacts in Connecticut.

John Craven and Associated Press

Jul 11, 2023, 11:14 PM

Updated 322 days ago

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Sen. Richard Blumenthal grilled top golf executives Tuesday about a controversial merger between the PGA and rival Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf. It’s a deal that could have significant impacts in Connecticut.
“Today's hearing is about much more than the game of golf,” he said. “It's about how a brutal, repressive regime can buy influence.”
The Saudi government has been linked to human rights abuses, including the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
At a contentious Senate subcommittee hearing, two PGA executives insisted the move is a matter of survival – and that the PGA will retain control over professional golf, despite a $1 billion investment from the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF).
“My entire concern here is to put this divisive period behind us, and for the sake of players, fans, sponsors and charities, unite the game of golf again,” PGA board member Jimmy Dunne testified.
The PIF controls $600 billion in assets — roughly 500 times what the PGA Tour is worth.
MERGER STUNNED PLAYERS
News of the merger broke just days before players arrived in Connecticut for the Travelers Championship.
Both sides had been engaged in open warfare since LIV launched in 2022, luring top golfers like Phil Mickelson away with multimillion-dollar deals. But despite multibillion-dollar backing, LIV has struggled to gain a television audience amid criticism of its ties to the Saudi royal family.
On June 6, both sides stunned players by announcing a proposed merger. They agreed to drop all lawsuits against each other and combine their commercial interests into a new for-profit company, while maintaining the tour’s nonprofit status.
Dunne insisted to senators that there is no final deal yet.
“There is no merger,” Dunne said. “There is merely an agreement to try and get to an agreement instead of a lawsuit.”
CONNECTICUT IMPACT
The LIV deal could impact Connecticut in two ways.
First, the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, one of the PGA’s most profitable events. The merger could bring top talent back to the tournament, but could also mean more competition for slots on the annual golf calendar.
Second, the families of 9/11 victims are protesting the merger. Nearly 3,000 of them are suing the Saudi government – 161 Connecticut residents died that day.
“They will come into other sports venues,” Joanne Barbara, the wife of a 9/11 victim, told News 12 in June 2022. “This is just the beginning.”
The PIF has bought its way into other sports including soccer and Formula One racing. But PGA leaders insisted they – not the Saudis – will remain in charge.
“If any person had the remotest connection to an attack on our country, and the murder of my friends, I am the last guy that would be sitting at a table with them,” said Dunne.
WASTE OF TIME?
Some Republicans called the hearing a waste of time.
“I don't see how any of this is prudent to the daily lives of American working families, who are paying twice as much for groceries and gasoline than they were two years ago,” said Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kansas).
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) accused fellow senators of hypocrisy.
“We're here today talking about golf, but we didn't have one congressional hearing over sending hundreds of millions of dollars of advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia,” he said.
But Blumenthal said the Saudi regime’s growing influence is a matter of national security. It’s also big business, especially in Connecticut.
“The Travelers Championship brings $60 million to my state annually, and millions of dollars to local charities,” Blumenthal said.
PLAYERS CENSORED?
Blumenthal pressed Dunne and PGA chief operating officer Ron Price to pledge that players would be free to criticize the Saudi regime, including its record on women’s and LGBTQ rights, if the deal is completed. Despite a “non-disparagement clause” in the proposed agreement, both said they would not recommend any restrictions on speech.
Before the hearing, Blumenthal released hundreds of documents detailing the secretive and hasty negotiations that led to last month’s framework agreement, including offering golfers Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy ownership of two LIV Golf teams. Both have vocally opposed the upstart tour.
The documents also reveal an effort to oust golf legend Greg Norman as LIV’s chief executive officer. Asked by Blumenthal whether Norman was out of a job, Price said the tour would control LIV and Norman’s job would be eliminated.
“We would no longer have a requirement for that type of position,” Price said.
Norman remains in the CEO role, although he has been largely sidelined since the deal was announced. He was invited to testify Tuesday, but declined due to a “scheduling conflict.”
PGA executives conceded the tour botched the announcement, leading many to mistakenly conclude that the tour and LIV Golf had already completed a merger.
“The rollout was very misleading and inaccurate, which is everyone’s fault,” said Dunne.


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