One of golf’s greatest tests will unfold starting on Thursday, when the U.S. Open begins at the Los Angeles Country Club. It might be an easier lift — it will assuredly be a shorter one — than the test that is emerging in Washington.
The abrupt announcement last week that the PGA Tour will tie itself to Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and its LIV Golf league is provoking American officials in ways as predictable as they might be persistent in the months ahead.
Antitrust experts are insisting that the Justice Department should consider suing to stop the agreement, which calls for the business operations of LIV and the PGA Tour to be brought into one new company, if the deal closes in the coming months. Lawmakers are complaining that the Florida-based PGA Tour is lurching into business with an arm of the Saudi state that it roundly condemned until last week. Political strategists are scrambling to shape perceptions of an agreement that was forged in secret and, upon its release, promptly criticized as a well-heeled exercise in hypocrisy and whitewashing.
Whether the commotion will amount to anything beyond a few news cycles of fussing — a successful assault on the PGA Tour’s tax-exempt status comes to mind — may not be clear for months. But a week into golf’s latest maelstrom, a deal that could eventually prove lucrative for players and executives is already promising a booming era for lawyers, lobbyists and political sound bites, too.
Although golf had been under pressure inside the Justice Department, where antitrust regulators were looking at the PGA Tour, the announcement last week brought the tumult to Capitol Hill.
In the House, Representative John Garamendi, Democrat of California, swiftly introduced a bill to revoke the PGA Tour’s tax-exempt status. And in the Senate, Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, announced on Monday that a subcommittee he chairs would conduct an inquiry into a deal that he said “raises concerns about the Saudi government’s role in influencing this effort and the risks posed by a foreign government entity assuming control over a cherished American institution.”
That there would be a battle was never much in question. The principal short-term matter to resolve was who, exactly, would be picking which fights.
The golf side of the battle features two forces with formidable records across decades in Washington. Even though Saudi Arabia has had plenty of bipartisan tangles, the kingdom’s officials and allies have often enjoyed an uncommon rapport with their American counterparts, as was on display during a visit from Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken last week. And the PGA Tour has usually found the capital to be a wellspring of courtesy, especially when its supporters helped short-circuit a Federal Trade Commission inquiry in the 1990s.
The trouble for the wealth fund and the tour is that Washington also has a bipartisan affection for lawmakers imitating sports executives, and browbeating actual ones, in public and in private. It can be good politics to glower at the commissioners who draw more jeers than many elected officials, and headline-making hostility from Congress could complicate the golf industry’s quest to sell the deal to the public — and then move past it.
The tour and the wealth fund can take some comfort in history, which suggests a successful congressional effort to thwart the deal directly is unlikely. The Hill, though, could still seek to make the transaction painful beyond a feisty public hearing or two. A change to the tour’s tax status, like the one envisioned in the bill introduced in the House, could cost it millions of dollars a year because it has been structured as a “business league” that is exempt from taxes under section 501(c)(6) of the Internal Revenue Code.
Groups like the PGA Tour have combated legislative headaches surrounding their tax-exempt status in the past, with one effort to end the practice for sports leagues vanishing from a 2017 tax bill at the last moment. In the past 18 months, years after the N.F.L. and Major League Baseball surrendered their exempt statuses, public records show that the tour has spent at least $640,000 on lobbying, with much of that work tied to “tax legislation affecting exempt organizations.”
As a part of his inquiry, Blumenthal on Monday demanded documents related to the tour’s tax-exempt status and, in his letter to the tour, wondered whether the deal would allow a foreign government to “indirectly benefit from provisions in U.S. tax laws meant to promote not-for-profit business associations.”
Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, similarly seethed that the tour had “moved itself right to the top of the leaderboard in terms of most questionable tax exemptions in professional sports.”
But Wyden has also suggested that the deal should run into resistance before the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a Treasury Department-led committee that examines national security implications of foreign investments in real estate and American companies.
Whether there are serious national security concerns about a deal involving golf tours, or whether the committee will even review the agreement at all, is unclear. Janet Yellen, the secretary of the Treasury, said last week that it was “not immediately obvious” to her that the agreement related to national security. But Wyden, who is planning a congressional investigation of his own, has signaled his interest in the department’s exploring whether the deal could give “the Saudi regime inappropriate control or access to U.S. real estate,” most likely through the tour’s Tournament Players Club collection of golf courses.
And those are just the spats that have erupted since last Tuesday.
Urged on by LIV’s lawyers, Justice Department regulators have spent months examining whether the PGA Tour’s tactics to discourage players from defecting to the Saudi-backed league were illegal, and whether the tour’s coziness with other leading golf organizations — like Augusta National Golf Club, the organizer of the Masters Tournament — violated federal law. Instead of quieting misgivings about golf, the deal has only intensified them and might have even armed the department with a new lever: suing to stop the pact, which the tour and wealth fund deny amounts to a merger.
“Generally, we want to encourage parties to settle their disputes outside of the judicial process, but it doesn’t mean that settlements are immune from antitrust,” said Henry J. Hauser, a former antitrust lawyer at the Justice Department who now practices at Perkins Coie, one of the capital’s best-connected firms. “If companies try to resolve a legitimate dispute by agreeing to common conditions that stifle competition, that could be a problem.”
The Justice Department has declined to comment.
The tour is moving aggressively to curb Washington’s irritation, going as far to suggest that Congress and other parts of the federal government could have done more to help it rebuff a Saudi challenge.
“While we are grateful for the written declarations of support we received from certain members, we were largely left on our own to fend off the attacks, ostensibly due to the United States’ complex geopolitical alliance with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the PGA Tour commissioner, Jay Monahan, wrote in a letter to lawmakers last week. “This left the very real prospect of another decade of expensive and distracting litigation and the PGA Tour’s long-term existence under threat.”
In the penultimate sentence of his letter, Monahan described the tour as “an American institution,” just as Blumenthal would on Monday. But like many executives before him, Monahan is finding that Washington is forever eager to scrutinize American institutions, especially when sports are involved.
He may ultimately find that the shouting has only just begun.
Lauren Hirsch contributed reporting.