PGA Tour plans to testify at Senate hearing on LIV merger, but questions remain

PGA Tour logo during the third round of the Travelers Championship on June 24, 2017, at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Connecticut.

Fred Kfoury | Icon Sportswire | Getty Images

Key lawmakers on Wednesday invited the officials behind the proposed deal between the PGA Tour and Saudi-backed rival LIV Golf to testify at a Senate subcommittee hearing.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Sen. Ron Johnson, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s permanent subcommittee on investigations, respectively, said the panel will hold a hearing July 11 on the merger.

Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Johnson, R-Wisc., requested testimony from the tour’s commissioner, Jay Monahan, LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman and Yasir al-Rumayyan of the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund.

In a letter to Monahan on Wednesday, the senators said the subcommittee would examine the proposed deal and the Saudi fund’s “investment in golf in the United States, the future of the PIF-funded LIV Golf, the risks associated with a foreign government’s investment in American cultural institutions, and the implications of this planned agreement on professional golf in the United States going forward.”

In response to the invitation, a PGA Tour spokesperson told CNBC they “look forward to appearing before the Senate Subcommittee to answer their questions about the framework agreement we believe keeps the PGA TOUR as the leader of professional golf’s future and benefits our players, our fans, and our sport.”

The tour did not say if Monahan, who was named future commissioner of the new entity but recently went on a leave of absence as he recuperates from a medical condition, would testify. The organization has so far not specified what the medical ailment is.

The Public Investment Fund did not respond to a request for comment.

“Fans, the players, and concerned citizens have many questions about the planned agreement between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf,” Johnson, the ranking member, said in a release. “I look forward to hearing testimony from the individuals who are in the best positions to provide insight to the public regarding the current state of professional golf.”

The subcommittee on investigations has broad jurisdiction to probe everything from corporate abuses to government waste. But committee hearings are relatively rare — this one will be only the second this year — and they typically mark the early phase of a longer investigation.

This one is no exception. Earlier this month, Blumenthal announced his intention to use the committee to investigate the merger between the PGA Tour and the Saudi-backed LIV in light of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses.

He gave Norman and Monahan until June 26 to furnish hundreds of records and internal communications.

In a sign of how serious the probe could become, Blumenthal later told CBS that if the PGA Tour or LIV fails to provide the information he is seeking, he would be willing to use “any of the tools at our disposal, including subpoenas and hearings, recommendations for action and legislation.”

Blumenthal has expressed a particular interest in whether the PGA Tour deserves to keep its tax exempt nonprofit status as a business association that benefits its members.

Since the PGA Tour’s founding in 1929, it has evolved into a $1.5 billion behemoth, fueled largely by major tournament revenues, broadcast rights and licensing fees.

If LIV makes a major investment in the PGA Tour, it would ostensibly create an unprecedented situation where a foreign investor would stand to benefit from buying into an American tax exempt organization.

On Wednesday, a PGA Tour spokesperson emphasized that the U.S. group remains officially a business association, and that the tour, not LIV, will oversee any partnership.

The PGA Tour is “working toward negotiating a final agreement that is in [its members’] best interest and ensures that the tour leads any new venture,” said the representative.

Shock and scrutiny

Earlier this month, the PGA Tour announced the deal with its Saudi-backed rival that would end pending litigation between the two entities. The entities have said they would merge business operations to form a larger, soon-to-be-named enterprise chaired by Al-Rumayyan.

In the wake of the deal announcement — which came as a surprise following months of feuding and lawsuits — U.S. officials started pressing for more information about the genesis of the deal and what it means for the sport.

Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Ron Wyden of Oregon last week raised antitrust concerns, asking the Justice Department to investigate the deal. Soon after, the DOJ’s antitrust division informed the PGA Tour that it would review the proposed merger.

The proposed agreement has stirred questions across the board. The PGA Tour and LIV Golf had been trading barbs for some time, and both leagues had claimed that the other’s contracts and policies restricted golf talent and stifled proper competition.

Golfers have been divided between the two organizations, as some left the tour for the lofty paychecks doled out by LIV.

Since its launch in 2022, LIV has been mired in controversy and criticism. The Public Investment Fund is not, in fact, publicly held, as its name might suggest. It is a sovereign wealth fund controlled by the Saudi crown prince, Muhammed bin Salman.

The fund has been accused of “sportswashing,” trying to use LIV Golf to improve the image of the oil rich nation and distract from the kingdom’s history of human rights violations.