GOLF

Inside the PGA Tour’s lobbying effort against Saudi-funded LIV Golf

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(L-R) Saudi Golf Federation CEO Majed Al Sorour and LIV Golf CEO and Commissioner Greg Norman applaud during the trophy presentation ceremony on day three of the LIV Golf Invitational – Portland at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club on July 2, 2022 in Northern Plains, Oregon.

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Jonathan Ferry | LIV Golf | Getty Images

Since last year, the PGA Tour has spoken behind the scenes with White House officials and congressional lawmakers about its concerns about LIV Golf, a rival league funded by Saudi Arabia.

As plans for LIV Golf materialized, the PGA Tour began quietly reaching out to the White House and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the second quarter of 2021, according to lobbying disclosure reports and people familiar with the matter. .

Since last year, the PGA Tour has paid $360,000 to DLA Piper to lobby lawmakers on their behalf on several issues, including “Saudi Golf League proposals”.

The PGA Tour shelled out $120,000 in the second quarter of 2022, which runs from April through June 30, according to the latest filing. Records show that’s the most the PGA Tour has spent on lobbying in any given period since it spent the same amount in the first half of 2004 seeking federal appropriations and grants for a youth charity golf program , according to a filing.

The tour lobbied President Joe Biden’s executive office as recently as the second quarter of this year, according to the latest filing.

Lobbying efforts last year prompted Biden advisers to propose a meeting between a PGA Tour representative and Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, to discuss the golf league funded by Saudi Arabia, according to one of the people with knowledge. effort.

The PGA Tour declined to have the meeting because tour officials did not believe it would result in a big course correction by the Saudis, the person said. This person declined to be named in order to speak freely about private conversations.

A White House spokesperson did not return a request for comment. PGA Tour spokesperson Laura Neal told CNBC in an email Thursday “we’re not going to comment on specific meetings.”

The LIV golf league, which reportedly received another $2 billion in Saudi funding last spring, officially began competition last month in England and will continue next week at former President Donald Trump’s golf course. in Bedminster, NJ LIV Golf is run by former PGA Tour star Greg Norman.

The league has secured contracts from some of America’s biggest golfers on the PGA Tour, including Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson. Each is said to have signed contracts with LIV Golf worth over $100 million.

Johnson and Mickelson are among golfers suspended from the PGA Tour for playing in the LIV league. The Department of Justice is reportedly investigating whether the PGA Tour engaged in anti-competitive behavior.

US officials have scrutinized the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for years, especially after the murder of Washington Post journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi. A US intelligence report says Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has approved an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi. The crown prince has denied the charges. Biden recently visited Saudi Arabia in an attempt to reorient relations with the country and has come under fire for banging the crown prince.

The tension between the United States and Saudi Arabia has now turned into professional golf. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan tore into league LIV during a recent press conference.

“We welcome good and healthy competition. The LIV Saudi Golf League is not that. .

Families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks have spoken out against Trump for hosting the Saudi-funded tournament at his New Jersey club. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers of September 11, 2001 were from Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden’s brain was born there. The Kingdom has denied it was linked to the attacks. Trump’s golf course in Miami is set to host another LIV golf event in October.

Trump recently raved in a Truth Social article about LIV Golf and encouraged golfers to take the money offered by the Saudi-backed league.

“All of those golfers who remain ‘faithful’ to the very treacherous PGA, in all its various guises, will pay a heavy price when the inevitable MERGER with LIV arrives, and you’ll get nothing but a big ‘thank you’ PGA officials who earn millions of dollars a year,” Trump said in his message. “If you don’t take the money now, you won’t get anything after the merger,” he added..

There is no indication that the PGA Tour and LIV will merge, contrary to Trump’s claims.

The PGA Tour’s lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill have resulted in letters from lawmakers to the commissioner, even from some Trump allies.

Senator Lindsey Graham, RS.C. wrote to Monahan of the PGA Tour last year, saying: “I am concerned that the actions of the Saudi government, particularly in the area of ​​human rights, will become center stage if the Saudi golf league is formed.”

Graham also called Saudi Arabia a “valuable ally” and told the commissioner that “players should be aware of the complications that would arise from a Saudi government-sponsored golf league.” Graham, who regularly plays golf with the former president, has remained a strong Trump supporter since the 2020 election.

A spokesperson for Graham did not respond to a request for comment.

In conversations with lawmakers, PGA Tour officials delivered a message similar to Monahan’s remarks, expressing concern that the LIV golf league is a way for the Saudi crown prince to improve his image and boost his image. wield influence in the United States, one of the people familiar with the matter said.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and his team heard from PGA Tour officials about their issues with LIV, a spokesperson for Wyden’s office told CNBC in a phone call Wednesday. Wyden, who has been an outspoken critic of the Saudi regime and the LIV tour, briefly spoke to a representative of the LIV league’s PGA Tour in the halls of Congress when the golf official was visiting Capitol Hill, the aide said. .

These conversations between PGA Tour officials, Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and his office came after Wyden spoke publicly in April against the Saudi-backed golf tournament that held one of its events in June in Portland, Ore.

“When American sports institutions approach governments to help their nationals evade the American justice system, they are selling their integrity for profit,” Wyden told a local Oregon newspaper in April. “Whoever makes the decisions for this Saudi-affiliated tournament on American soil must step up and take responsibility for how effectively they try to clean up the Saudi regime’s stains.”

Wyden, with Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., then co-signed a letter to Biden ahead of his trip to Saudi Arabia, asking, “at a minimum, put human rights at the center of your meetings.” .

A Merkley spokeswoman told CNBC that neither he nor his team have spoken to PGA Tour representatives. Merkley spoke out against the tour just last month, tweeting “Saudi Arabia cannot be allowed to cover up its egregious human rights record – including the killing of journalists – with a flashy golf tour.” Merkley is also a longtime critic of the Saudi government.

A spokesperson for Leahy said he and his team have not met with PGA Tour officials. Representatives for Blumenthal did not respond to a request for comment.

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