Sometimes executives and players defend themselves or patiently absorb hours of anger. They did apologize or ask for help occasionally. They shifted blame or used celebrities and a childhood memory as a charm offensive. In other cases, they lied, obfuscated, or simply said little at all.
The PGA Tour leaders, who are expected to appear before a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday to discuss their circuit’s surprise alliance with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, have a list of time- and pressure-tested options to take on the sport’s intriguing congress. The tactics they resort to will likely do much to sway whether Tuesday’s actions are just a blip that leads to headlines for a day or a disaster that draws more scrutiny.
“It would be smart for the PGA to understand that they don’t invite them to play patty,” said JC Watts, who played quarterback in Oklahoma before representing a district in the state in Congress, from 1999 to 2003, a member of the House Republican leadership.
“Voters back home, they understand the sport and they understand 9/11,” Watts added, referring to longstanding accusations that Saudi government agents played a role in the 2001 attacks. “This is a sport that has a much deeper twist than your usual hearing.”
This Congress, with a long history of testing, persistence and looming large when it comes to sports, has been stepping into the golf fray like a sure thing after the round and the Saudi wealth fund announced a framework agreement on June 6. It took the form of two Senate inquiries, a House bill to repeal the tour’s tax-exempt status, demands by the Justice Department and the Treasury Department to consider the intervention and a hearing Tuesday in the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
The action is the latest example of congressional interest in the sport resulting in a mixed record. Lawmakers and their investigators unearthed information and sometimes sparked changes in the sports landscape, either through legislation or the grinding power of the congressional platform.
said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who was instrumental in hearings nearly two decades ago about the use of steroids in baseball, which lawmakers have called part of a national disaster. “That’s really what you have to do. It could be a healthy thing, or a tax justice thing, but you have to explain why Congress is involved, and it’s a high threshold.”
Davis warned that the sports hearing was “high-stakes, high-reward, especially at a time when Congress is not seen as productive.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut and chair of the subcommittee, said the “central” role of sports in American society makes it especially important for Congress to scrutinize. He noted that the proposed Saudi role in golf was too much for Congress to ignore.
“There really is a national interest in this dear and iconic American institution, which is about to be taken over by one of the most repressive governments in the world,” he said in an interview.
On Tuesday, the subcommittee will not hear any of the three witnesses it originally requested. PGA Tour commissioner Guy Monahan has been on medical leave for about a month, though the tour said Friday he’d be back next week. Yasser Al-Rumayyan, governor of the wealth fund, and Greg Norman, commissioner of the Saudi-backed LIV golf tournament, cited scheduling conflicts and declined to appear.
“Suffice it to say, this hearing certainly won’t be the last,” Blumenthal said. “We will have hearings after there is a final agreement, if that is appropriate, and there is a national interest in doing so.”
After the tour announced Monahan’s intended return, Blumenthal’s spokeswoman Maria McElwain said the subcommittee “will follow up with him on any remaining questions after Tuesday’s session.”
But the PGA Tour is hoping to avoid testifying after Tuesday, when Ron Price, its chief operating officer, appears. Although Price did not negotiate the agreement that was announced last month, the tour board member who initiated the talks, James G. Den III, testified.
Price and Dunn may also be asked about Randall Stephenson’s resignation this weekend from the tour’s board of directors after more than a decade. In his resignation letter, Stephenson, the former CEO of AT&T, cited “serious concerns about how this framework agreement could be achieved without board oversight.” He added that the deal was not the kind he could “support in good conscience,” especially since US intelligence officials concluded that the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia authorized the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
“If you’re not really stressed and anxious to make sure you’re ready, you probably aren’t,” said Travis Tegart, CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency, who has repeatedly testified before Congress. “It will certainly be the worst night’s sleep any Witness will ever have.”
Golf has rarely been the subject of questioning in congressional hearings. Sports leaders have often handled their business in Washington behind closed doors, relying on a fount of goodwill and gentleness. The tour faced a major threat in the 1990s, when the Federal Trade Commission examined antitrust cases in golf before its investigation fizzled amid a pressure campaign from Capitol Hill.
Public appearances on the hill were more cheerful. Arnold Palmer, for example, addressed a joint meeting of Congress honoring Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Jack Nicklaus spoke to a House committee about character education.
Other professional sports giants have had less pleasant interactions in Washington. Lawmakers have scrutinized everything from college football’s Bowl Championship (“It looks like a rigged deal,” said President Biden, then a senator.) to sexual assault and domestic violence and the NFL’s investigation into Washington leaders.
But baseball has caught the attention of Congress, like when senators called a 1958 hearing on antitrust exemptions. (“Stengelese baffle the Senators,” read a later headline in The New York Times, which reported that Yankees manager Casey Stengel had lawmakers “confused but laughable”).
Despite all the fanfare and skepticism, the accumulating pressure from Congress helped push baseball into dramatic changes.
The goals of the Senate Subcommittee on Golf are currently unclear.
“What’s the win in this, aside from getting your trophies on the news?” asked Davis, who, after leaving Congress, represented former Leaders owner Daniel Snyder during a House investigation. “Is he reneging on this deal? Is he exposing a Saudi plot to go in and take over American golf?”
The wealth fund has denied that it is using sports to try to repair the kingdom’s reputation as a human rights abuser and has instead asserted that it wants to diversify the Saudi economy and enable the country to play a greater global role. But the Saudi element could still help the Senate investigation develop staying power because it gives Congress something to explore beyond a seemingly mundane sports issue.
“Normally when you talk about sports, you don’t have to talk about the 9/11 families, you don’t have to talk about the Pentagon, you don’t have to talk about Flight 93,” Watts said. “In this case, the only opposition that brings everyone together is Saudi money.”
Blumenthal suggested in the interview that he expects the history of Saudi Arabia — in the interview, he accused the kingdom of being “actively complicit in terrorist activities, including 9/11” — to be the main subject of Tuesday’s proceedings and the ongoing investigation.
The commission cannot unilaterally prevent a deal from advancing, but members are well aware that crushing damaging information or testimony can spark anger and, perhaps more than that, prompt other parts of the federal government that can do more to stop the coalition.
Tygart, the anti-defamation chief, recalled a meeting with a senator before the 2017 hearing in which the lawmaker made clear he understood exactly how an event could shape public debate, even if it did not result in legislation.
Tegart recalls that the senator told him, “I know, how much good can come out of witnesses sitting under bright lights and shuffling in their seats.”