Saudi Arabia sought central role in professional golf

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Saudi Arabia set out proposals to make its upstart team golf league the culmination of the PGA Tour and give ownership stakes to star players Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy as its sovereign wealth fund sought control of the sport, newly released documents show.

Correspondence published by the US Senate on Tuesday as part of its hearing into last month’s surprise agreement between the PGA Tour and Saudi-funded LIV Golf show how the Saudis tempered their ambitions as the two sides moved quickly from bitter litigation to prospective partners while keeping top tour players and board members in the dark.

PGA board member Jimmy Dunne told the Senate subcommittee on investigations that the framework agreement and follow-on negotiations were the best way to preserve the sport’s independence. A takeover of golf by the Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund “is the last thing we want”, Dunne said. “My fear is if we don’t get this agreement, [the PIF] have a management team that wants to destroy the tour.”

The two sides are still hashing out the terms of a planned union that would have wide ramifications for the sport of professional golf, its hundreds of players, sponsors and media partners.

The trove of emails, documents and instant messages included an April proposal sent to PGA representatives by PCP Capital Partners, the private equity firm helmed by Amanda Staveley working on behalf of the PIF.

It included suggestions that Woods and McIlroy — longtime LIV holdouts — could be won over by awarding them their own LIV teams, and a proposal for a unified golf circuit that would include jointly-held media rights. The PIF also sought benefits for its governor Yasir al-Rumayyan, including membership at two of the world’s most exclusive golf clubs, the US’s Augusta National and The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews in Scotland.

One of the suggestions put forward by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund was to award Tiger Woods, left, and Rory McIlroy their own LIV Golf teams © Paul Ellis/Ryan Lim/AFP/Getty Images

“Evidently, there’s a real opportunity to build something truly remarkable, preferably under one roof,” Staveley wrote in an email to Dunne in April.

At the hearing, Tour chief operating officer Ron Price and Dunne told the senators that the framework agreement was designed to end the litigation while also keeping the PGA Tour in charge of competition and the administration of tournaments. “We would not move to a definitive agreement unless the PGA is in complete control”, Price said.

People familiar with the continuing negotiations cautioned that the Senate documents “included proposals that PIF/LIV or their representatives made to the PGA Tour, which were quickly rejected . . . most of it is not pertinent to ongoing agreement talks” between the PGA and the PIF.

The framework revealed thus far drew criticism from Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic senator from Connecticut and subcommittee chair. He asked the PGA leadership to commit to protecting players who were reluctant to lend their fame to an organisation closely associated with the Saudi Arabian regime.

“I can only emphasise to you that your players like Tiger Woods gave up hundreds of millions of dollars” by refusing to join LIV Golf and staying loyal to the PGA, Blumenthal said. “They stood strong. I hope the PGA Tour would as well.”

Representatives for Woods and McIlroy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The correspondence also gave a glimpse of how the PIF envisioned managing the rollout of the framework agreement to maximise its acceptance. They proposed seeking “supporting statements” from Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the US National Football League.

No such statements have been shared publicly, and a person familiar with the planning said the idea of enlisting Goodell was never acted upon. A spokesman for the NFL declined to comment.

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