As a federal antitrust case slowly winds its way through the court system, LIV Golf chief executive Greg Norman visited Capitol Hill this week, receiving mixed reviews from lawmakers as he tried to sell them on his breakaway serise that has upended the golf world.
Greg Norman finds friendly faces, harsh criticism on Capitol Hill trip
“They wanted to talk about antitrust, and I could care less,” Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) said in an interview. “It’s not Congress’s job. We’re a country of laws; take it up to the courts. That’s where it needs to be, not in the halls of Congress.
“How in the hell are we wasting any time talking about a bunch of millionaires and a golf game?” he continued. “This is all just Saudi propaganda.”
Having lured away some of the sport’s most high-profile players with staggering contract offers, LIV Golf has staged five tournaments and announced plans for a 14-event season next year. But the upstart venture continues to face backlash over its Saudi benefactors and has effectively cleaved the professional golf world in two. Norman came to Washington this week for meetings with lawmakers, trying to explain the LIV vision and also to lay out ways it feels the PGA Tour has hindered its entrance into the marketplace.
The group of visiting officials, which included Norman and Atul Khosla, LIV’s president and chief operating officer, met Tuesday and Wednesday with lawmakers from both chambers and both parties, according to a person familiar with the itinerary, including individual senators and representatives, the Republican Study Committee, some members of the Congressional Golf Caucus, some members of House leadership and some members of the House Judiciary Committee.
“Greg Norman had a very productive day on Capitol Hill today in front of some 60 members of Congress,” LIV spokesman Jonathan Grella said in a statement Wednesday. “His message about the benefits of competition was very well received, even if a couple members of Congress say otherwise.”
LIV Golf has courted controversy since its inception. The operation is funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and has been accused of being a high-priced attempt to “sportswash” the country’s human rights violations, including the 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The families of 9/11 victims also have protested at some events.
Currying favor on Capitol Hill is a delicate task for LIV officials because Saudi relations continue to be a divisive issue on both sides of the aisle. Before LIV’s event last weekend in Illinois, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) tweeted: “This weekend, a golf glove will try and cover a blood-stained hand as the LIV golf tournament comes to Chicago in the Saudi government’s continued, desperate attempt to clean up its image. Money shouldn’t be allowed to cover up the murder and dismemberment of a journalist or the imprisonment and harassment of activists like Raif Badawi, Waleed Abu Ak-Khair, and Salma al-Shehab.”
And in July, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland urging the Justice Department to investigate LIV Golf for potentially violating federal laws by failing to register as a foreign agent.
In a statement Wednesday, Roy said, “Don’t sell us ‘this is just about competition’ when they won’t answer about a billion dollars to buy off PGA Tour players … resulting in a billion dollars of PR for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (quoting President Trump) in likely violation of FARA.”
LIV hired Hobart Hallaway & Quayle Ventures to lobby on its behalf and help arrange this week’s itinerary. The schedule included meetings with both West Virginia senators; LIV is reportedly considering staging one of its events at the Greenbrier resort next year. LIV officials also met separately with House Majority Whip Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), and Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who chairs the Congressional Golf Caucus, among others.
The largest meeting was Wednesday afternoon with about 65 members of the conservative Republican Study Committee. Burchett was in that meeting but said he left early out of frustration. Betsy DeVos, the former education secretary, was also in attendance, but many lawmakers were instead drawn to Norman, Burchett said.
“It just ticked me off,” he said. “Everybody’s assumption of Congress is a bunch of country clubbers out there playing golf with millionaires. By bringing Greg Norman in here, they’ve just perpetuated that myth even more.”
While some of his colleagues were apparently receptive to the LIV presentation, Burchett said he saw no role for Congress in the ongoing LIV-PGA Tour dispute, and said it’s impossible to separate the LIV venture from its Saudi funding.
“You got to realize the way they treat people in their country is just ridiculous,” he said. “Women couldn’t drive until recently. … They’ve cultivated this radical culture that led to 9/11. But they bring out the dollar bills and we come running. It’s like Pavlov’s dog hearing the bell.”