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PGA Tour defends Saudi deal in Senate as emails show plan’s origins

PGA TOUR COO Ron Price and Jimmy Dunne of the tour's policy board are sworn in before a Senate hearing. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
10 min

PGA Tour officials defended their shocking partnership with the Saudi Public Investment Fund during a Senate investigative subcommittee hearing Tuesday. But even as the hearing underscored the fragility of that relationship, a trove of documents released by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations showed the parties discussing several dramatic proposals that would significantly alter the pro golf landscape.

Among the proposals that were floated: a global “World Golf Series” team event that would conclude in Saudi Arabia; LIV Golf continuing to operate as an independent circuit with its schedule confined to the fall season; Greg Norman being sidelined and removed from his role as LIV Golf chief executive; Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy being given ownership of LIV Golf teams and participating in events; two elevated PGA Tour events branded by the PIF or Saudi oil company Aramco; and a membership to Augusta National Golf Club for Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of the PIF who is poised to be among the most powerful men in professional golf if the partnership is finalized.

Tour executives made clear in the hearing that the sides still have wrinkles to work out, including the fates of LIV Golf and Norman, and the exact size of the massive Saudi investment that tour officials say will help stabilize the fractured world of pro golf.

“There is no merger. There is no deal. There is simply an agreement to try to get to an agreement and settle lawsuits,” said Jimmy Dunne, the PGA Tour policy board member who helped broker the arrangement.

Dunne acknowledged that the parties did a poor job of explaining their deal, calling the initial rollout “very misleading and inaccurate.” While the sides have until the end of the year to craft a final agreement and formalize the alliance, the documents released during the subcommittee’s hearing provide the fullest picture to date of what the key stakeholders hoped to get out of the partnership.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), chair of the subcommittee, was the most pointed lawmaker in his questioning of the PGA Tour representatives — Dunne and Ron Price, the tour’s chief operating officer — urging them “to avoid the sellout that this deal appears to be” and warning that accepting Saudi money could have unforeseen consequences.

The tour’s witnesses could not say how big the potential Saudi investment might amount to, but it would probably be “north of $1 billion,” Price said. Blumenthal warned that figure “is just the beginning.”

“Looking at it from the future standpoint, you’re not out of the woods,” he said toward the end of the nearly three-hour hearing. “They’re going to continue to have this kind of bucket full of money and they’re going to continue to wield the influence that they do … and whatever the good intention and rhetoric is now, you still have to reach a deal. My hope is that you will resist those buckets full of money.”

The tour officials noted that a final agreement is not imminent and the sides continue to negotiate. Dunne said the subcommittee’s probe is adding layers of complications to what is already a delicate negotiation process. “There’s an issue about sometimes too many cooks in the kitchen. Well, in this case, everyone in the world is in the kitchen. So it’s going to be difficult,” he said, “but we’re going to work hard at it.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, said the Senate probe is premature and the sides should be allowed to hammer out final details without lawmakers peering over their shoulders. He sympathized with the tour, saying it struck an agreement to stave off an existential threat and the result, he said, was a deal that benefits both parties.

“For the time being, I would recommend we give these guys the space to negotiate something,” he said. “I think their motivations are pure. They’re trying to preserve this game, they’re trying to do right by their players, they’re trying to do right by this country. Give them the space to negotiate a deal. And then if we have a problem with it, we can come back and look at it later.”

As the hearing began, Blumenthal shared a 10-page summary document plus an additional 265 pages of supplementary emails, messages and other communications that were submitted to the subcommittee by the PGA Tour and LIV Golf in advance of the hearing. The documents provided new insight into the discussions that led to the tour and the Saudi PIF moving past their bitter differences and striking an alliance to unify professional golf under a single umbrella, with the goal of forming a new for-profit entity that would oversee the commercial interests of the PGA Tour, LIV Golf and the Europe-based DP World Tour.

The documents also show several iterations of the framework the sides hammered out and seem to suggest the parties are open to LIV Golf — the breakaway circuit that precipitated golf’s civil war — coexisting alongside the PGA Tour. The communications do not lay out parameters for the LIV golfers to return to the PGA Tour. One initial proposal noted that Al-Rumayyan recognizes “the merits of compensating those PGA players who have remained loyal to the Tour and he would undertake to establish a substantial Equalisation Fund for their benefit.”

Emails reveal that the first overture was made to the tour by an intermediary, Roger Devlin, a British businessman who reached out to Dunne in December. He wrote: “While the parties may appear far apart right now I do believe there is a common desire among the leading players and shared by [Al-Rumayyan] to bring the sport back together in time to impact the 2024 schedule.”

Senators to demand answers from PGA Tour, with further hearings likely

According to the documents, the sides didn’t meet in person until an April introduction in London, followed by a meeting in Venice on May 11. They met again at the end of May in San Francisco, where the basic framework was agreed to and signed.

In the interim, they batted proposals back and forth. On April 26, the Saudi representatives shared a slide show, titled “The Best of Both Worlds,” in which they proposed Woods’s and McIlroy’s involvement with LIV. And in May, the sides exchanged language that would oust both Norman and Performance54, the golf management company that helps run LIV, from all operations.

None of that was included in the basic agreement that was signed May 30. It was not clear from the documents if any of those proposals are still under consideration by the PGA Tour and the PIF. Two people familiar with the negotiations said PIF officials rejected the proposal to remove Norman.

Price made clear to the subcommittee Tuesday that because the PGA Tour would manage any potential LIV Golf events, “it would make no sense” to have Norman leading LIV.

“If we reach a definitive agreement, we would not have a requirement for that type of position,” Price said.

The subcommittee’s probe is one of two congressional inquiries into the deal, and lawmakers say public pressure can influence how the tour and the PIF proceed. Even if the tour’s policy board signs off on a final agreement, the Justice Department could nullify it if it finds the agreement violates federal antitrust laws.

“The regulators are certainly taking a look at it,” Price told the subcommittee. “We believe it should not violate the antitrust rules, but we intend to fully cooperate with that investigation.”

Price and Dunne repeatedly told lawmakers that the tour isn’t simply turning over control of professional golf to a foreign entity.

“We do not have an agreement now. We only have a framework agreement. We will not move to a definitive agreement unless the PGA Tour is in complete control of the new entity,” Price said, “which will be a PGA Tour subsidiary controlled by the PGA Tour board and operated for the benefit of all of our constituents, our players, our fans, our sponsors and our charity. If that’s not where we end up, we will not even recommend approval.”

Blumenthal pushed back on the tour executives, saying the PIF money inherently gives control to the Saudis.

“There is something that stinks about this path that you’re on right now,” he said, “because it is a surrender and it is all about the money. And that’s the reason for the backlash that you’ve seen. The equity ownership interest that the Saudis will have — and that’s a term from this agreement — gives them financial dominance. They control the purse strings.”

While the basic framework between the parties is vague on the future of LIV Golf, that topic merited plenty of discussion during negotiations, according to the documents released Tuesday. On May 15, Ed Herlihy, chair of the tour’s policy board, said in an email to Dunne that he had “raised the idea” to Jay Monahan, the tour commissioner, “of you overseeing LIV going forward. He really liked it.” Dunne replied to Herlihy, “You and me.”

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And Price sent Monahan talking points May 28 to address some lingering PIF concerns, including the future of LIV. Price pointed out that “LIV Golf is important to PIF, but PIF, as a minority owner, has no decision-making authority . . . with respect to LIV’s future.” He noted that the PGA Tour would effectively be majority owners of LIV and the breakaway circuit’s fate would ultimately be determined by the executive board of the new for-profit company — “where PIF has a strong influence.”

The documents reveal deliberations on how to announce the deal — including planned phone calls to Woods and McIlroy — that underscored the secrecy behind the negotiations. Michael Klein, a New York banker and longtime PIF adviser, suggested announcing the news in a “brief, softball segment” with CNBC, as Monahan and Al-Rumayyan ultimately did June 6.

“The worst thing we can do is have naysayers lead the chorus,” Klein wrote in an email to Dunne.

Since announcing the partnership, the PGA Tour has received pushback from several directions. Tour players said they were blindsided, and lawmakers have promised to probe the genesis of the deal while scrutinizing the tour’s tax-exempt status. Al-Rumayyan missed the hearing, citing a scheduling conflict, which left the tour officials to address lawmakers’ concerns over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Seated in the gallery were the families of 9/11 victims, who have expressed outrage over the tour’s about-face and surprising alliance with the Saudis.

The tour long had reservations about the Saudi threat, and the subcommittee’s report includes a February 2022 email from Norman to Monahan in which Norman chastises the PGA Tour for threatening bans on players who try to play for LIV.

“Players have the right and the freedom to play where we like,” Norman wrote. “I know for a fact that many PGA players were and still are interested in playing for a new league, in addition to playing for the Tour. What is wrong with that?”

He closed the email with a warning: “this is just the beginning. It certainly is not the end.”