The PGA Tour sought to oust Greg Norman, the two-time British Open champion turned commissioner of the rebel LIV Golf league, as a condition of its alliance with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, according to records released by a Senate subcommittee on Dec. Tuesday.
The tour and the wealth fund ultimately did not agree to the proposal – designed as a so-called side letter to a larger framework agreement – and so far Norman remains at the top of LIV. But the deliberations reflect an animosity forged over decades of hostilities between the tour and Norman, one of the most talented players in professional golf history, who often chafed at the sport’s financial structure.
And they underline the tensions that could persist if the deal is closed.
The glimpse into negotiations between the tour and the wealth fund came as the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations began its first hearing on the arrangement, which calls for the business ventures of the tour, the wealth fund and DP World Tour to be brought into a new, for-profit company.
The plan faces considerable scrutiny in Washington, where some lawmakers have shunned the move, once willing to condemn Saudi Arabia’s record of human rights abuses for suddenly cozying up to an arm of a coercive government. In addition to congressional concerns about the wealth fund’s ties to the Saudi government, Justice Department officials are also interested in whether the deal violates federal antitrust laws and whether they should try to block it.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said in his opening statement Tuesday that his subcommittee’s hearing was about “much more than the game of golf.”
“It’s about how a brutal, repressive regime can buy influence — even take over — a beloved American institution to clean its public image,” added Blumenthal, the subcommittee chairman, referring to the kingdom’s record of killing journalists, abusing dissidents and have “supported other terrorist activities, including the 9/11 attack on our nation.”
“It’s also about hypocrisy, how huge sums of money can cause individuals and institutions to betray their own values and supporters, or perhaps reveal a lack of values from the start,” he continued. “It’s about other sports and institutions that could become victims if their leaders let it be about the money.”
The proceedings, held in a packed Capitol Hill room that previously hosted Supreme Court confirmation hearings and meetings of the 9/11 Commission, included two senior PGA Tour executives: Chief Operating Officer Ron Price and a board member who was closely involved in the negotiations that led to the tentative agreement announced on June 6.
In an opening statement, Price argued that the tour, facing the threat of competing with one of the world’s most powerful sovereign wealth funds, had no choice but to seek some degree of coexistence after months of wrangling in court and jockeying for allegiance from the world’s best players.
“It was very clear to us — and to everyone who loves the PGA Tour and the game of golf as a whole — that the dispute was undermining the growth of our sport and threatening the survival of the PGA Tour itself, and it was unsustainable,” Price said. “Even if we had significant victories in court cases, our players, our fans, our partners, our employees and the charities we support would lose.”
Tour leaders have acknowledged that with negotiations for a final deal still unfolding, board approval is no certainty. Over the weekend, one member of the board, former AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, resigned. In a letter about his exit, Stephenson said that “the construction currently being negotiated by management is not one that I can objectively evaluate or in good conscience support.”
Tour executives have been eager to show how the deal leaves them positioned to run professional golf’s day-to-day operations. The tour’s commissioner, Jay Monahan, has been named chief executive of the new company, expected to be called PGA Tour Enterprises, and the tour is expected to fill a majority of the company’s board seats.
They have been far less eager to discuss how Yasir al-Rumayyan, the wealth fund’s governor, will serve as chairman of PGA Tour Enterprises and how the framework agreement envisions sweeping investment rights for a Riyadh-based fund whose power and value have grown in recent years. year.
Neither al-Rumayyan nor Norman agreed to testify at Tuesday’s hearing, citing scheduling conflicts. But documents released by the subcommittee suggest both will be factors in an investigation that could last months.
Efforts to remove Norman were underway on May 24 when PGA Tour board chairman Edward D. Herlihy sent a proposed side letter to Michael Klein, a banker who works with the wealth fund. The proposal called for Norman, as well as a British outfit central to the development of LIV, to “cease” work on LIV within one month of “the transition of management to the PGA Tour”.
Although Norman’s longer-term fate has been uncertain – he was not part of the negotiations that led to the tentative agreement, calling into question his relevance – it was not until Tuesday that it became clear that his future had been the subject of negotiations .
LIV did not comment Tuesday, but three people with knowledge of the negotiations, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations, said the wealth fund had rejected the tour’s proposal.
The documents released by the Senate also detail the deliberations on when and how to announce the deal; Klein was among the people who said the tour and the wealth fund should not wait for a final deal to reveal their newfound peace.
And the records show how a British businessman with ties to the wealth fund and its advisers reached out to James J. Dunne III, now a tour board member and one of Tuesday’s witnesses, in December. In an email, the businessman, Roger Devlin, suggested there could be a path to a truce between the tour and the wealth fund.
Dunne, at least initially, declined to engage in any significant way.
Devlin reappeared in April, warning Dunne that there was “a window of opportunity to unify the game over the next few months” before he believed “the Saudis will double their investment and golf will be torn apart for forever.”
Although committee investigators told senators in a briefing memorandum that they did not know for sure how Devlin’s April message affected Dunne, the tour contacted board member al-Rumayyan within days.
Dunne, al-Rumayyan and a handful of others met in Britain soon after and began negotiations that included a number of ideas that did not appear in the five-page text of the framework agreement. Those concepts, outlined in a presentation titled “The Best of Both Worlds,” included Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy pledging allegiance to the tour, owning LIV teams and a “large-scale superstar” team golf event that would feature the world’s top men’s and women’s players.
Although the initial agreement between the tour and the wealth fund did not include any of these proposals, the final deal is still being hammered out, a process that could take months.
As of at least April, according to documents released by the Senate, there was even talk of a deal that included memberships for al-Rumayyan at Augusta National Golf Club and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews – two of the most prestigious golf clubs in the world, but those not controlled by the PGA Tour.