At LIV Golf — and its effort to forge an alliance — and potentially consume the PGA Tour.
“It’s called sportswashing,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said at a hearing this week.
He suggests the Saudis may try to mend their image on the global stage by merging with the PGA Tour.
Blumenthal leads the Senate’s panel on “Permanent Investigations.” He’s outraged that Saudi-backed LIV Golf may blend with the PGA Tour. He worries about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. The Saudis have jailed dissidents and continue fostering a war in Yemen. Concerns linger about Saudi Arabia’s ties to the 9/11 hijackers. That’s to say nothing of the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
So, Blumenthal launched a formal probe.
“Today’s hearing is about much more than the game of golf,” said Blumenthal. “It is about how a brutal, repressive regime can buy influence — indeed even take over — a cherished American institution simply to cleanse its public image.”
But the framework deal inflamed old concerns about the Saudis dating back to one of the most ignominious dates in American history. Especially as big-name golfers sprinted toward big salaries offered by LIV Golf.
“You had (PGA Tour Commissioner) Jay Monahan on national TV last year at the Canadian Open talking about PGA Tour guys have never had to apologize for working with a regime that’s tied to 9/11,” said Mark Harris, who follows golf for Outkick.
That could be an issue. Or would golfers teeing up under the new golf organization be muted when it comes to talking about Saudi Arabia?
Blumenthal posed that very question at the hearing. Witnesses from the PGA Tour said there was no such inhibition. But Blumenthal wasn’t convinced.
Optics are paramount in politics. And the PGA Tour may encounter some of the worst optics in recent memory on Capitol Hill at this week’s hearing.
A cadre of families who lost loved ones on 9/11 filled the hearing room in the Hart Senate Office Building, protesting the potential golf realignment.
“Why would you partner with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia?” asked Terry Strada, head of 9/11 Families United.
Strada lost her husband Tom in the North Tower on 9/11, four days after she gave birth to their third child.
Tom Strada was a scratch golfer. Strada says the possible merger would tarnish the game for her.
“I doubt I would remain a fan of golf. I do think it would be very difficult,” Strada said, doubting she would watch a tournament on TV.
The 9/11 families hold particular contempt for PGA Tour board member Jimmy Dunne. Dunne was one of the PGA Tour’s witnesses at the hearing this week. Dunne helped broker the framework between the PGA Tour and the Saudis.
On 9/11, Dunne worked for the bond trading firm Sandler O’Neill & Partners. Its headquarters was on the 104th Floor of the South Tower. The firm lost 66 employees that day.
Dunne was playing golf on 9/11, attempting to qualify for the U.S. Mid-Amateur Open.
Dunne was emotional as he talked about the terrorist attacks at the hearing.
“Anyone remotely involved. Anyone tangentially involved. Anyone who profited. We should pursue them with extreme prejudice. To the full extent. To the complete capacity,” said Dunne. “For this crime, it’s death.”
But Dunne helped seal the arrangement with LIV Golf. Hence, the enmity by others who lost loved ones on 9/11.
“Mr. Dunne is a complete betrayal to the 9/11 community,” Strada steamed. “He knows that the kingdom is culpable for murdering 3,000 people on 9/11. Why would he ever go to them and ask them for help?”
Dunne testified that LIV Golf could “gut” the professional tour in just five years by just poaching five players a year and promising prodigious paydays.
Dunne told senators LIV Golf posed an existential threat to the PGA Tour.
“LIV put us on fire,” said Dunne, noting that the Saudis “got a lot of money. I mean a lot.”
So what suddenly changed for the PGA Tour?
“I think you need to know some sort of timeline here,” Mark Harris of Outkick said. “When exactly did this flip?”
The PGA Tour and LIV Golf shocked the world with their announcement following mysterious, secret talks. One document released by Blumenthal’s panel indicated “the earliest known outreach regarding the possibility of an agreement between the PGA Tour and PIF (the Saudis Public Investment Fund) occurred on December 8, 2022.”
Meantime, the PGA Tour publicly railed against LIV Golf as talks unfolded behind the scenes.
“How many players did you notify in advance of reaching the agreement?” Blumenthal asked PGA Tour CEO Ron Price.
“I don’t believe any players were on it,” Price replied.
Blumenthal was stunned.
“Not a single player was notified? You’re a membership organization. Your members are the players. You don’t exist without the players. But you didn’t tell a single one of them about the negotiations, let alone what the result would be before you announced it publicly?” an incredulous Blumenthal countered.
Blumenthal also asked Price if players felt “blindsided and betrayed.”
Price responded that players “are beginning to understand exactly why we had to do it and how this will be beneficial.”
None of that satisfied Blumenthal.
“The PGA Tour has already shown that it is seemingly willing to reverse itself totally for the money,” said Blumenthal.
But not all senators believed this agreement was as nefarious as Blumenthal suggested it may be.
“It would be grossly unfair to expect the PGA Tour to bear the full burden of holding Saudi Arabia accountable,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., the top Republican on the panel.
“Many of you said that the LIV organization is the Saudi’s way of sportswashing,” said Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan. “What was China when they hosted the Olympics but a few years ago? Sportswashing?”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., questioned why Blumenthal convened a hearing at all.
“I see a certain illegitimacy to the whole proceeding today,” observed Paul. “We have a show trial basically of a private organization, which I think is inappropriate.”
This isn’t the last we’ve heard of the investigation. Some lawmakers rattled around the possibility of revoking the PGA Tour’s tax-exempt status. There could be other hearings.
Blumenthal still wants to hear from Jay Monahan, who is out on medical leave.
He noted that the Saudis don’t “get to take over the sport.”