Inside the PGA Tour's Washington Lobbying Effort Against the Saudi-Funded LIV Golf League

Jonathan Ferrey | LIV Golf | Getty Images
  • The PGA Tour has been speaking behind the scenes with White House officials and congressional lawmakers about its concerns with LIV Golf, a rival league funded by Saudi Arabia.
  • As plans for LIV Golf were coming together, the PGA Tour quietly started reaching out to the White House and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in the second quarter of 2021.

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

As plans for LIV Golf were coming together, the PGA Tour quietly started reaching out to the White House and lawmakers from 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 the firm DLA Piper to lobby lawmakers on their behalf for multiple topics, including "Saudi Golf League proposals."

The PGA Tour shelled out $120,000 in the second quarter of 2022, which spans from April to June 30, according to the most recent filing. Records show that's the most the PGA Tour has spent on lobbying in a given time period since it spent the same amount in the first half of 2004 to seek federal appropriations and grants for a charity golf program for young people, according to a filing.

The tour lobbied President Joe Biden's Executive Office as recently as the second quarter this year, the latest filing says.

Lobbying efforts last year prompted Biden advisors to propose a sit-down meeting between a PGA Tour representative and Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S., Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, to discuss the Saudi-financed golf league, according to one of the people with knowledge of the effort.

The PGA Tour declined to have the meeting because tour officials didn't believe it would result in much of a course correction by the Saudis, this 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. Laura Neal, a spokeswoman for the PGA Tour, told CNBC in an email on Thursday "we are not going to comment on the specific meetings."

The LIV Golf league, which reportedly saw another $2 billion round of Saudi funding this past spring, officially started competition last month in England and will continue next week at former President Donald Trump's golf course in Bedminster, N.J. LIV Golf is led by former PGA Tour star Greg Norman.

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

Johnson and Mickelson are among the golfers who are suspended from the PGA Tour for participating in the LIV league. The Department of Justice is reportedly investigating whether the PGA Tour engaged in anticompetitive behavior.

U.S. officials have scrutinized the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for years, including after the murder of Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. A U.S. intelligence report says Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi. The crown prince has denied the accusations. Biden recently visited Saudi Arabia to try to reorient relations with the country, and was criticized for fist bumping the crown prince.

The tension between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has now boiled over into professional golf. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan ripped the LIV league at a recent press conference.

"We welcome good, healthy competition. The LIV Saudi Golf League is not that. It's an irrational threat, one not concerned with the return on investment or true growth of the game," Monahan told reporters.

Families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks spoke out against Trump for hosting the Saudi-funded tournament at his New Jersey club. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, were from Saudi Arabia. Mastermind Osama bin Laden was born there. The Kingdom has denied it was connected 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 post about LIV Golf and encouraged golfers to take the money being offered from the Saudi-backed league.

"All of those golfers that remain 'loyal' to the very disloyal PGA, in all of its different forms, will pay a big price when the inevitable MERGER with LIV comes, and you get nothing but a big 'thank you' from PGA officials who are making Millions of Dollars a year," Trump said in his post. "If you don't take the money now, you will get nothing after the merger takes place," he added.

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

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

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. wrote to the PGA Tour's Monahan 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 come from a golf league sponsored by the Saudi government." Graham, who regularly plays golf with the former president, has remained a vocal Trump supporter 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 remarks, speaking of their concern that the LIV Golf league is a way for the Saudi crown prince to improve his image and wield influence in the United States, one of the people familiar with the matter said.

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

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

"When U.S. sports institutions cozy up to governments helping their nationals evade the American justice system, they're selling out their integrity for profits," Wyden told a local Oregon newspaper in April. "Whoever is calling the shots for this Saudi-affiliated tournament on U.S. soil needs to step up and take responsibility for how they are effectively trying to cleanse the stains of the Saudi regime."

Wyden, along with Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., later cosigned 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 spokeswoman for Merkley told CNBC neither he nor his staff have spoken with PGA Tour representatives. Merkley has spoken out against the tour as recently as last month, tweeting "Saudi Arabia cannot be allowed to cover up their egregious human rights record — including the murder of journalists — with a flashy golf tour." Merkley has also been a longtime critic of Saudi Arabia's government.

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

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