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

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.

With plans for LIV Golf looming, the PGA Tour began quietly communicating with the White House and lawmakers on both sides of the fairway in the second quarter of 2021, according to revelations from lobbyists 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 multiple topics, including the “Saudi Golf League proposals.”

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

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

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

This person said the PGA Tour refused to hold the meeting because tour officials didn’t think it would lead to much course correction by the Saudis. This person declined to be named to speak freely about private conversations.

A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. “We will not comment on specific meetings,” PGA Tour spokeswoman Laura Neale told CNBC in an email Thursday.

The LIV Golf league, which reportedly saw another round of Saudi funding worth $2 billion last spring, officially started competition last month in England and will continue next week at former President Donald Trump’s golf course in Bidminster, led by NJ LIV Golf by the PGA Tour. Ex-star Greg Norman.

The league has secured contracts from some of the biggest golfers on the US PGA Tour, including Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson. Both have reportedly signed contracts with LIV Golf worth over $100 million.

Johnson and Mickelson are among golfers suspended from the PGA Tour for participating in the LIV Tour. The Department of Justice is said to be investigating whether the PGA Tour has engaged in anti-competitive behavior.

US officials have examined Saudi Arabia for years, including after the murder of Washington Post journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi. A US intelligence report said that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had approved an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi. The crown prince denied the accusations. Biden recently visited Saudi Arabia in an effort to reorient relations with the country, and has come under fire for hitting the crown prince.

The tension between the United States and Saudi Arabia has now turned to professional golf. PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan grabbed the LIV League at a recent press conference.

“We welcome good, healthy competition. The Saudi Leaf Golf is not. It’s an irrational threat and doesn’t care about return on investment or the real growth of the game,” Monahan told reporters.

The families of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks have spoken out against Trump for hosting the Saudi-funded tournament at his club in New Jersey. Fifteen of the 19 kidnapped on September 11, 2001, were from Saudi Arabia. It was where mastermind Osama bin Laden was born. The kingdom denied it was linked to the attacks. Trump Golf Course in Miami is scheduled to host another golf event at LIV in October.

Trump recently praised in a Truth Social post about LIV Golf and encouraged golfers to take the money offered from the Saudi-backed league.

“All golfers who remain ‘loyal’ to the highly disloyal PGA, in all its various forms, will pay a heavy price when MERGER comes with the inevitable LIV, and you will get nothing but ‘thanks’ from PGA officials who make millions of dollars annually.” “If you don’t take the money now, you won’t get anything after the merger,” he added..

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

Lobbying efforts on the PGA Tour on Capitol Hill led to letters from the legislator to the commissioner, even from some Trump allies.

Senator Lindsey Graham, RS.C. “I am concerned that the actions of the Saudi government, particularly in the area of ​​human rights, will come to center stage if the Saudi Golf League is formed,” he wrote to the Golf Association’s Monahan on tour last year.

Graham also described Saudi Arabia as an “important ally” and told the commissioner that “players should be aware of the complications that may come from the Saudi government-sponsored golf league.” Graham, who plays golf regularly with the former president, has remained a staunch supporter of Trump since the 2020 election.

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

In conversations with lawmakers, PGA Tour officials delivered a message similar to Monahan’s comments, in which they spoke of their concern that the LIV golf tournament is a way for the Saudi crown prince to improve his image and exercise influence in the United States, and he is one of the best known. With the command he said.

Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore, and his staff have heard from PGA Tour officials about their problems with the LIV, a spokesperson for Wyden’s office told CNBC during a phone call Wednesday. Wyden, who has been an outspoken critic of the Saudi Arabia system and the LIV Tour, briefly spoke with a PGA Tour representative about the LIV League in the halls of Congress when the golf official was visiting Capitol Hill.

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

“When American sports organizations get close to governments that help their citizens evade the American justice system, they sell their integrity for profits,” Wyden told the local Oregon newspaper in April. “Whoever takes the reins of this Saudi championship on US soil should step up and take responsibility for how they are effectively trying to purge the stains of the Saudi regime.”

Wyden with Senator Jeff Merkley, Md. Patrick Leahy, D-Fatou, and Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, later wrote to Biden before his trip to Saudi Arabia, asking “At least, put human rights at the center of your meetings.”

A spokeswoman for Merkley told CNBC that neither he nor his staff have spoken with representatives of the PGA Tour. Merkley spoke out against the tour as recently as last month, tweeting: “Saudi Arabia cannot be allowed to cover up its atrocious human rights record – including the killing of journalists – with a glamorous golf tour.” Merkley has also been a long-time critic of the Saudi Arabian government.

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

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