PGA Tour officials pushed to oust Greg Norman as the CEO and commissioner of the LIV Golf League during the tour’s negotiations with the DP World Tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which proposed that Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy own LIV teams, according to documents released by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
The documents released by the subcommittee, which began a hearing Tuesday regarding the planned alliance, also suggested that McIlroy met with Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in November.
McIlroy, who as a member of the PGA Tour’s policy board has a vote on whether the proposed partnership will ultimately go through, had not publicly disclosed his meeting with Al-Rumayyan.
A May 25 side letter to the framework agreement proposed by the PGA Tour called for Norman and Performance54, a London-based marketing and consultant group that took control of the LIV Golf League’s management this season, to step down once the proposed partnership is finalized. According to the subcommittee, its inquiry “has not yet revealed whether this side agreement was ever executed” by PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, DP World Tour CEO Keith Pelley and Al-Rumayyan.
Monahan’s draft of talking points for the policy board while announcing the deal noted that “Norman will be assigned to an advisory role determined by the PIF when the PGA Tour becomes the manager of the LIV Tour.”
Norman, a two-time Open winner, has told his staff and players that the LIV Golf League is a standalone entity and that he is planning to play in 2024 and beyond.
As part of its investigation, the subcommittee uncovered a series of emails sent between PGA Tour policy board chairman Ed Herlihy and board member Jimmy Dunne on May 15, with Herlihy telling Dunne, “Jimmy, I raised the idea with Jay [Monahan] of you overseeing LIV going forward. He really liked it.” Dunne replied, “You and me,” to which Herlihy responded, “Definitely.”
A LIV Golf official told ESPN that it was the league’s understanding that the side letter wasn’t signed and that PIF officials rejected the idea of removing Norman and Performance54.
Specifically asked by subcommittee chairman Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) whether Norman was out of a job, PGA Tour Chief Operating Officer Ron Price said that if the tour and the PIF complete their business deal, the tour would control LIV and Norman’s job would be eliminated.
“We would no longer have a requirement for that type of position,” Price said at the hearing.
The announced merger is being heavily scrutinized by the U.S. Senate and the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division, which was already examining the PGA Tour’s alleged monopolistic business practices. Human rights groups and survivors and families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks also have criticized the PGA Tour for doing business with the Saudi Arabian monarchy.
“Today’s hearing is about much more than the game of golf,” Blumenthal said in his opening remarks during Tuesday’s hearing. “It’s about how a brutal, repressive regime can buy influence — indeed even take over — a cherished American institution simply to cleanse its public image.”
“Today we are watching a truly bizarre spectacle, as the PGA Tour is effectively turning over the game of golf to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Terry Strada, the national chair of 9/11 Families United, said in a statement entered on the record at Tuesday’s hearing. “We know why the PGA Tour is doing it — it’s for the money. But that isn’t why the Saudis are doing it. They’re doing it as a public relations strategy to distract from their authoritarian past and present, and especially their unacknowledged culpability for supporting al Qaeda and the hijackers of September 11.
“We are here to watch representatives from the PGA Tour, who have signed on to help the Kingdom try once again to fix its reputation, this time through sportswashing. Those same PGAT representatives expect those of us who experienced our losses to ‘move on’ without so much as an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. They will stick to their Saudi talking points just like the LIV golfers did, claiming simply that golf is ‘a force for good.'”
During Tuesday’s hearing, Blumenthal introduced a 10-page summary produced by the subcommittee’s investigators that reveals new, detailed information about how the PGA Tour-LIV Golf agreement came together.
Before the agreement between the PGA Tour and PIF went public June 6, the two had been ensnared in an “acrimonious relationship.” Eleven players who were suspended by the PGA Tour for joining LIV Golf filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the tour in August, and the PGA Tour countersued LIV, and eventually PIF and Al-Rumayyan, in September.
The subcommittee memo says the first communications regarding the possibility of an agreement between the PGA Tour and the PIF occurred Dec. 8, when British businessman Roger Devlin wrote Dunne.
Devlin revealed to Dunne that Al-Rumayyan and Amanda Staveley, a “valued advisor” to Al-Rumayyan and chief executive of international private equity firm PCP Capital Partners, had invited him to “help find a solution to the issues that divide LIV and the PGA [Tour].” Devlin wrote that he had helped Staveley facilitate the PIF’s takeover of English Premier League soccer team Newcastle United.
In the email, Devlin said Al-Rumayyan was prepared to “establish a substantial equalization fund” for players who remained loyal to the PGA Tour, while “[an equal] arrangement would have to be made for LIV players to be admitted to PGA [Tour] tournaments and recover World Ranking points.”
In the same email to Dunne, Devlin said he had helped arrange for McIlroy to meet with Al-Rumayyan in Dubai the previous month. McIlroy has been one of the PGA Tour’s most outspoken supporters during its battle with LIV Golf.
“It was a very cordial and constructive meeting,” Devlin wrote. “His Excellency has great ambitions to support, grow and [modernize] the sport and is clearly well equipped to fund these goals. He has been frustrated by his inability to engage constructively with the PGA [Tour]. Rory made it clear that in accepting the meeting he was speaking only for himself, although he believes his views are broadly shared by Tiger and the other top players — he also [emphasized] he was seeking no personal financial gain, he was simply trying to unify the game.”
Dunne initially declined to meet, and Devlin warned him Jan. 3 that “the Saudi position is hardening, as they are confident LIV will prevail over the long term if only because of almost limitless financial resources.” PGA Tour officials said in documents that the Saudis were prepared to spend another $5 billion on LIV Golf.
Devlin attempted to revive the discussion in April, sending an email to Dunne that said, “I believe we have a window of opportunity to unify the game over the next couple of months, otherwise I fear the Saudis will double down on their investment and golf will be split asunder in perpetuity.”
The committee memo says it is unclear why Dunne changed his mind, but on April 18, Dunne initiated contact with Al-Rumayyan over WhatsApp. The two agreed to meet in person April 23-24 in London to discuss a potential deal. Herlihy also attended, along with Staveley, another PCP Capital Partners executive and “other PIF representatives,” according to the subcommittee memo.
Two days after the London meetings, PCP Capital Partners “provided a slide show presentation” to Dunne and Herlihy titled, “The Best of Both Worlds.” It contained proposals for a potential long-term agreement between the PIF and the PGA Tour, including McIlroy and Woods each owning a LIV Golf team and participating in at least 10 LIV Golf events.
According to a PGA Tour official, the tour quickly rejected the idea of Woods and McIlroy owning LIV Golf teams.
Woods’ agent declined comment when reached by ESPN on Tuesday. A LIV Golf spokesperson and McIlroy’s agent didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The proposal included LIV Golf players having their PGA Tour memberships restored and receiving Official World Golf Ranking points, including retroactively for their results in LIV Golf events the past two seasons. It also called for LIV Golf players to have “unfettered access” to the four major championships and to have their eligibility for the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup reinstated.
PIF also proposed the idea of a large-scale “superstar LIV-style team global event” that would include players from the PGA Tour, LIV Golf and DP World Tour. Captains would draft players for their four-man teams on live TV, and the event might include national teams “to increase Ryder Cup-level of interest.” The qualifying event would be held in Saudi Arabia, with the final in Dubai. TV revenue would flow to LIV Golf.
The original proposal from the PIF also called for the formation of a “global golf investment fund” with seed money from both parties, but to be managed by the PIF. Al-Rumayyan would be the director of the International Golf Federation and would receive membership to Augusta National Golf Club and the R&A, according to the proposal.
Dunne, Herlihy and Monahan met with Al-Rumayyan, Staveley and several others May 11-12 in Venice, and again in San Francisco for three days starting May 28. The San Francisco meeting included Pelley and PGA Tour executive John Wolf.
“Knowledge of these negotiations appears to have been restricted to a very small number of people,” the subcommittee memo states, quoting Staveley in an email dated April 26 that “[confidentiality] is critical at this important time.”
PGA Tour executive vice president Laura Neal joined the core group June 5-6 in New York for one more meeting with Al-Rumayyan, PIF senior director Kevin Foster and a representative of global consulting firm Teneo.
The subcommittee memo states, “it is unclear the extent to which professional golf players had any knowledge of the negotiations” and unclear “when top PGA Tour officials, like PGA Tour Chief Operating Officer Ron Price, were first made aware or had knowledge of the ongoing negotiations.”
Price was aware of the deal at least two days before it was signed, according to a document released by the subcommittee, which shows Price telling Monahan the “sole reason” for “separating the regulatory and commercial bodies is to accommodate the PIF investment” because legally “we cannot issue equity through the PGA TOUR given our non-stock and 501(c)(6) status.”
The PGA Tour has publicly announced it intends to retain its 501(c)(6) tax-exempt status, meaning it does not have to pay taxes like a commercial enterprise. The subcommittee memo notes, however, that since it is “unclear” what assets will remain with the PGA Tour, it is also unclear whether it should “appropriately be designated tax exempt.”
Blumenthal told Price and Dunne they still have a chance to stand up against sportswashing, against the Saudi monarch, and to stand up for America.
“There is something that stinks about this path that you’re on right now because it is a surrender and it is all about the money and that’s the reason for the backlash that you see,” the senator said.
The subcommittee memo notes that the framework agreement “came together in just a few weeks,” with eight drafts exchanged between May 16 and May 30, the day the agreement was signed.
In the executed framework agreement, which combines the commercial activities of the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and PIF in a new for-profit enterprise called “NewCo,” the PGA Tour will control the majority interest in the new entity regardless of the size of the PIF’s investment. The PIF will make an initial investment into NewCo and have the right of first refusal to make additional ones. Monahan will serve as CEO of the new entity, and Al-Rumayyan will be chairman.
In his prepared statement to the subcommittee Tuesday, Dunne emphasized that the PGA Tour will control “all strategic and operational matters related to competition” in golf under the agreement. Dunne said that although Al-Rumayyan will serve as chairman of NewCo’s board, he has only one vote and will not “take any actions on behalf of the entity that do not have support from the full board, and we made sure that the Tour will appoint a majority of the board members.”
Price said during Tuesday’s hearing that there have been discussions that the PIF would contribute more than $1 billion to NewCo.
“To emphasize, the Tour will have full decision-making authority,” Dunne said. “These safeguards were very important to us. We could not, and would not, have reached even this initial framework agreement without all of these strong safeguards against inappropriate control over the game of golf by the PIF.”
The global team event was dropped in the final draft, as was a “chart indicating the structure of the new entity and its relationship to PGA Tour, PIF, and LIV Golf,” according to the memo. But PIF added a “broad non-disparagement clause” to the final draft the night before the agreement was signed.
The subcommittee memo notes there is confusion about if and when Monahan informed McIlroy and Woods about the agreement. A June 2 email released by the subcommittee shows that Monahan hoped to meet with the two golfers in person before the deal was announced June 6. But other documents released by the subcommittee show that Monahan was scheduled to call Woods and McIlroy on June 6, “when he was also scheduled to call other major sponsors and broadcast partners following the deal’s announcement,” according to the memo.
Subcommittee investigators found that the PIF “provides little public transparency into its investments” and “has historically disclosed very limited information” about its international investments. The documents released by the subcommittee give a rare window into the Saudi investment strategy and how it intersects with American sports, showing how the PIF has grown its fund managing assets from $84 billion in 2014 to nearly $700 billion today.
“Significant information” remains to be uncovered about the PGA-PIF negotiations, subcommittee investigators stated, including “the precise amount of funding to be put forward by PIF” and which assets will be placed into any new commercial entity.
The framework agreement between the PIF and the PGA Tour must be approved by the PGA Tour’s 10-member policy board, which includes Herlihy and Dunne as well as McIlroy and four other PGA Tour players.
One of the other independent directors, former AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, resigned Saturday, telling the board in his resignation letter that he had “serious concerns” about the PGA Tour’s partnership with the PIF, which he could not “objectively evaluate or in good conscience support, particularly in light of the U.S. intelligence report concerning Jamal Khashoggi.”
Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, was assassinated in 2018 by agents of the Saudi government, according to U.S. and United Nations intelligence reports.
Stephenson told the board he wanted to resign right after the deal was brokered in June but ultimately waited until Monahan announced Friday he will be returning to his post July 17 after taking a leave of absence June 13 for unspecified health reasons.
Monahan, Al-Rumayyan and Norman all declined to participate in Tuesday’s Senate hearing.
The Associated Press contributed to this report