The Capitol Hill meeting room has been booked, the senators’ calendars cleared. But less than two weeks before a Senate subcommittee wants to hold a hearing about the PGA Tour’s planned venture with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the panel’s ambitions for high-profile witnesses are encountering significant resistance.
There is almost no prospect that the wealth fund’s governor, Yasir al-Rumayyan, will voluntarily go before Congress, on July 11 or ever. The PGA Tour’s commissioner, Jay Monahan, is on medical leave. And LIV Golf, a Saudi-financed league, is balking at sending Greg Norman, who won two British Opens in the decades before he became the circuit’s commissioner and lightning rod, to speak to the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
The dispute over witnesses, only weeks into the panel’s examination of the deal, suggests that the inquiry could be turbulent. Lawmakers are especially frustrated by LIV’s offer to send Gary Davidson, its acting chief operating officer, to the hearing instead of Norman.
“We have requested testimony from Greg Norman, and unless there is a reasonable explanation for his absence — which we have not yet been provided — Greg Norman is who we expect to appear,” Maria McElwain, the communications director for Senator Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, said in a statement.
LIV declined to comment on Friday, but a person familiar with the circuit’s thinking, who requested anonymity to discuss private negotiations with Congress, said the league believed that Davidson was more steeped in its day-to-day operations and the potential ramifications of the deal that has rocked golf since it was announced on June 6. Norman and Davidson were not involved in the secret talks that led to the deal.
Under the structure envisioned in a five-page framework agreement signed behind closed doors on May 30, the business operations of the PGA Tour, LIV and the European Tour, known as the DP World Tour — such as television rights and sponsorships — would be brought into a new for-profit company. The plan calls for the PGA Tour to control a majority of the board’s seats, for Monahan to be the company’s chief executive, and for the tour to maintain authority over many professional golf tournaments.
But Saudi Arabia’s wealth fund would have extensive investment rights, and al-Rumayyan is positioned to become the company’s chairman, assuring the Saudis of significant sway over men’s professional golf if the deal closes.
The planned venture has drawn weeks of scorn and skepticism from Washington, where lawmakers have fumed over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, much as the tour did before it looked to go into business with the wealth fund. Some lawmakers have threatened to strip the tour of its tax-exempt status, and the Justice Department’s antitrust regulators could spend months scrutinizing the deal before deciding whether they will try to block it.
And, hewing to the congressional pastime of publicly haranguing sports executives over issues such as steroids and the rights of college athletes, the Senate quickly scheduled a hearing to examine the deal, even though the most substantial details, like the valuations of assets, may not be resolved for months.
In letters last week, though, Blumenthal and Ron Johnson, a senator from Wisconsin who is the senior Republican on the subcommittee, invited Norman, Monahan and al-Rumayyan to appear and be prepared to “discuss the circumstances and terms” of the agreement, as well as “the anticipated role” of the wealth fund in professional golf in the United States.
The senators, who have not subpoenaed any executives, had hoped to firm up the witness list by the middle of this week, but on Friday their panel was still bargaining with the tour, the wealth fund and LIV.
The hearing, if it happens, will be among the most significant opportunities to date for golf executives to ease concerns about the planned transaction. But the proceeding, like any appearance before Congress, carries risks. A single misstep could intensify the public firestorm or, perhaps more troublingly for the deal’s supporters, encourage government officials to take an even more exacting look at the pact. (Antitrust experts, for instance, have predicted that Monahan’s assertion on June 6 that the deal will “take the competitor off of the board” will intensify the Justice Department’s scrutiny.)
Norman, in particular, has a history of drawing criticism. Last year, for instance, he played down Saudi responsibility for the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, saying, “Look, we’ve all made mistakes.” In recent months, he has made relatively few public comments, and he and his representatives have declined interview requests from The New York Times.
But when Blumenthal and Johnson wrote to him on June 21, they said the subcommittee “respectfully requests that you appear in-person to testify.” LIV executives said Norman would be traveling abroad at the time, and they privately objected to the commissioner being subjected to congressional inquiry without his PGA Tour counterpart enduring the same scrutiny, which seems likely given Monahan’s medical leave.
Monahan’s indefinite absence has complicated the tour’s representation at the hearing. The two executives named to lead the tour on an interim basis, Tyler Dennis and Ron Price, were not involved in the deal talks.
Al-Rumayyan, however, was. But his appearance on Capitol Hill was never considered probable. One of Saudi Arabia’s most influential figures, he rarely gives interviews outside of tightly controlled settings, and lawyers representing him and the Saudi government waged an aggressive fight to keep him from being deposed in golf-related litigation in the United States. (The litigation was dropped as a part of the tentative deal — one of the few binding components of the framework agreement — and al-Rumayyan never gave sworn testimony.)
The wealth fund declined to comment on Friday. The tour, in a statement, said it was “cooperating with the subcommittee’s requests for information and having productive conversations with them about who will represent the PGA Tour on July 11th.”
It added, “We look forward to answering their questions about the framework agreement that keeps the PGA Tour as the leader of professional golf’s future and benefits our players, our fans and our sport.”
The wealth fund and the tour are deploying armies of lobbyists, lawyers and political fixers to try to smooth the deal’s path. Before going on leave to recuperate from a “medical situation” that the tour has declined to describe, Monahan wrote to lawmakers to defend the agreement. He also complained that Congress had not given the tour enough support to withstand a Saudi “attempt to take over the game of golf in the United States,” as he put it.
“We were largely left on our own to fend off the attacks, ostensibly due to the United States’ complex geopolitical alliance with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Monahan wrote.
It is not clear whether the Senate panel will escalate its efforts to secure testimony from Norman, or any of the other witnesses they requested, especially before the July 11 hearing. Most lawmakers are away from Washington for the Senate’s Independence Day break, and few are expected to return to Capitol Hill until the week of the hearing.
The hearing’s current timing, though, could be fortuitous for golf leaders. Public attention will turn the following week to the British Open, which will be played at Royal Liverpool. Cameron Smith, who joined LIV not long after his victory last July on the Old Course at St. Andrews, will try to defend his title at golf’s last major tournament of the year.