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PGA Tour says U.S. golf would likely struggle without Saudi cash infusion

PGA officials grilled over LIV Golf merger
PGA officials grilled over LIV Golf merger 02:02

Joining forces with Saudi-backed LIV Golf is the best way to keep the PGA Tour from losing more money and prominent players, two PGA officials told lawmakers during a congressional hearing. 

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations heard testimony Tuesday from Jimmy Dunne and Ron Price — both of whom have played a role so far in brokering a deal with LIV Golf. Dunne, a member of the PGA Tour's governing board, told lawmakers that he joined the organization in January — at a time when players were leaving the Tour for LIV Golf and both organizations were in court over a 2022 lawsuit filed by LIV Golf alleging an illegal monopoly. 

Dunne said he felt continuing the court battle would hurt professional golf so he decided to contact Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of LIV Golf's parent company the Public Investment Fund (PIF).

"My concern was that, if it all continued — expensive legal fights, every day wondering which player was going to leave next, a fanbase tired of hearing about it, sponsors nervous — golf as we know it would be damaged forever," Dunne said. 

Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin held the hearing in Washington after other lawmakers launched a probe into the PGA Tour's plan. Senators also asked Greg Norman, LIV Golf's CEO, and Al-Rumayyan to attend the hearing but they weren't present. 

Blumenthal says all tools, including subpoenas and hearings, are on the table in PGA-LIV merger 05:23

Dunne said his conversation with Al-Rumayyan led to the official announcement last month of the PGA Tour looking to form a new for-profit golfing league with financial backing from PIF. Had the PGA Tour done nothing, LIV Golf would have eventually lured away all of professional golf's greatest stars, Dunne said. 

"The PGA Tour is really not that big in terms of players, so if they take five players a year, in five years, they can gut us," he told lawmakers. 

Holding the purse strings

The deal between the PGA and PIF drew criticism from players and human rights critics, as well as from survivors and family members of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Critics described Saudi Arabia's investment as "sportswashing," or using sports and games to rehabilitate a tarnished image.

Some players also said they felt blindsided and expressed concern about the future of the sport if the tours join forces.

"I still hate LIV," PGA golfer Rory McIlroy said in a press conference last month. "I hope it goes away, and I would fully expect that it does."

What is sportswashing? Understanding criticism of Saudi Arabia's investment in sports 06:22

To some extent, what's at stake is control over a multi-billion dollar sports competition made internationally famous by Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Sam Snead and other greats. The PGA Tour brought in roughly $1.6 billion in revenue in 2021 and 2022, according to the non-profit's financial records. Price, the PGA Tour's chief operating officer, told lawmakers that revenue will reach $2.1 billion this year. 

Dunne told lawmakers that both parties are still negotiating a final deal on a new golfing league and those discussions are mostly private. 

"What I can tell you is that the Tour will continue to manage the game," he said. "The Tour will appoint a majority of the board of directors."

Blumenthal said it's admirable that the PGA Tour wants to maintain control of golf tournaments, but he's concerned that PIF would still "hold the purse strings" of the league. Blumenthal asked Price how much money PIF would contribute to the new golfing league and he said "north of $1 billion." 

Muzzling players?

During Tuesday's hearing, Blumenthal's office released a rough draft of the PGA-PIF agreement. Tucked within those documents is a clause that lawmakers said muzzles PGA Tour players from saying anything negative about PIF or Saudi Arabia. 

Dunne and Price said they would not send PGA Tour leadership any agreement that blocks players from speaking freely. 

"I really understand Senator Blumenthal's concern about not having them take over — that's the last thing in the world we want, but I think through this agreement, we can get a win-win situation," Dunne said.  

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