Republican senators at a congressional hearing rushed to defend a controversial deal that would give Saudi Arabia unprecedented influence over professional golf.
At Tuesday’s hearing on the planned merger between the PGA Tour and the Saudi-controlled LIV Golf, GOP lawmakers offered a variety of arguments to challenge scrutiny of the interim deal and defend Saudi Arabia ― from saying the PGA Tour is making the best of a bad situation to claiming it is inappropriate for Congress to probe the merger.
Republicans largely ignored revelations about the PGA Tour’s approach to negotiations, the scale of Saudi influence over the proposed new golf behemoth, and concerns that the Saudis’ increased sway will stifle criticism of the repressive kingdom.
Unveiled in a shock announcement last month, the deal would combine the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, an alternative launched in 2021 by Saudi Arabia’s state-owned Public Investment Fund. The PGA Tour had previously spent nearly two years attacking LIV as a group of sellouts besmirched by their reliance on Saudi money, and the two golf organizations were fighting court battles.
Now the PGA Tour says joining forces with the Saudis will allow it to maintain overall control of the game ― and Republican lawmakers seem determined to echo that assertion.
Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) practically begged the witnesses at the hearing, PGA Tour officials Jimmy Dunne and Ron Price, to say the agreement actually represents a loss for the Saudis.
“Who is losing out on money and who’s losing out on power in this deal?” Marshall asked Price, the PGA Tour’s chief operating officer. A visibly bewildered Price repeated his talking points about his association facing difficult choices and maintaining overall dominance of the sport.
Marshall turned to Dunne, a PGA Tour board member, with the same question. Dunne said attorneys would lose money and golf would be the ultimate beneficiary. Marshall asked him again: “Who’s gaining from this financially, and with power?”
Dunne paused and thought. “The PGA Tour definitely stays intact and becomes more powerful,” he eventually said, adding that he also sees benefits for the Saudi PIF.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) brought the point home later in the hearing.
“I’ll answer Senator Marshall’s question,” Johnson said. “You’ve achieved ― in a really bad situation, between a rock and a hard place ― you carved out a win-win situation.”
As the top Republican on the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations, which hosted the hearing, Johnson had extensive time to offer remarks. He largely used that time to bolster the PGA Tour representatives sitting before him, calling their motivations “pure” and saying they faced a serious threat given Saudi resources and the rise of LIV.
Johnson sought to justify their arguments, in one instance saying he believed the deal had been negotiated in such intense secrecy so it would not be scuttled by greedy attorneys seeking to prolong the spat.
Johnson also defended a clause in the agreement that bars the PGA Tour from criticizing the Saudis.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who chairs the subcommittee, repeatedly highlighted that point as a sign the Saudis will ultimately try to silence dissent among anyone connected to professional golf. But Johnson said the clause is standard, and argued that legislators should allow the PGA Tour and the Saudi fund to finalize their agreement before judging it.
“I don’t see the PGA as doing anything wrong here,” Johnson said. “Anyone who drives a car or uses oil-based products has helped fill the coffers of the Saudi Public Investment fund.”
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) echoed Johnson’s sympathy toward the witnesses. “I can’t imagine doing what you’re doing, trying to negotiate a deal when you have cameras in front of you,” Scott said. “I think that’s pretty frustrating for you guys.”
He used his time to invite the PGA Tour officials to describe how they benefit America’s economy.
During Marshall’s second opportunity for questions, the Kansas senator told Dunne he could feel his “compassion” toward the game of golf, and asked where it came from.
Even the Republican Party’s most frequent critic of the Saudis, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), declined to challenge a major Saudi role in a high-profile American sport.
“The Saudis have demonstrated a relentless pattern of malign behavior ... Nevertheless, I see no constitutional power that suggests Congress should involve itself in golf,” Paul said.
Tuesday’s hiring revealed striking information about the yet-to-be-finalized deal that the GOP drumbeat couldn’t drown out.
The Saudi fund is discussing investing “north of $1 billion” into the new golf entity, Price testified. That would represent a major stake relative to the current annual $1.5 billion business of the PGA Tour, and the hints in the interim agreement of more future Saudi investment could give Riyadh even greater heft.
Documents released Tuesday by the committee show that the Saudis and their allies initiated discussions about the merger and pushed the PGA Tour to quickly agree to terms within a few months. Interlocutor Roger Devlin wrote to Dunne on April 14: “I believe we have a window of opportunity to unify the game over the next couple of months, otherwise I fear the Saudis will doubledown [sic] on their investment and golf will be split asunder in perpetuity.”
The hearing underscored that the PGA Tour still may not be sure what exactly it signed up for.
Dunne told senators that he prioritized negotiation with PIF chief Yasir Al-Rumayyan, repeatedly calling him “the man with the money.” But according to experts on Saudi Arabia and reporting on the PIF, the true decision-maker for the fund is its chairman, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ― whom U.S. intelligence blames for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and who launched the ongoing Saudi military campaign in Yemen.
Blumenthal made it clear that Tuesday’s session represented just an initial step in an ongoing investigation, given the stakes of the issue.
“If we’re going to be selling out to countries that can throw around hundreds of billions of dollars, we’re going to lose not just financially ― we’re gonna lose in terms of our democracy and freedom,” Blumenthal said.