A look into the Saudis' long-held desire to enter the world of professional golf
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. If you know anything about golf, you know that, unlike other sports, it's marked by a culture of civility. There are a lot of rules for courtesy on the course, and trash talking among professional players is rare. But for the past couple of years, a civil war has raged within professional men's golf driven by a bold move by Saudi Arabia.
This summer sports fans and business analysts were stunned to learn that a deal had been struck to give the kingdom a dominant role in men's professional golf in the United States and Europe. The Saudi regime has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into golf, soccer, boxing and Formula 1 racing in recent years, a practice human rights groups have termed sportswashing, arguing that the Saudis hope to distract attention from the kingdom's many human rights abuses, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudis effectively pressured U.S. golf executives into a partnership by forming their own golf circuit to rival the American PGA Tour. The Saudi-funded tour, called LIV, feature different rules for competition, speakers blaring rock music on the course and big-money contracts to lure some of the game's best players to the upstart league.
Our guest, New York Times writer Alan Blinder, has followed the battle for the control of golf and the fallout from the agreement with the Saudis, which includes antitrust investigations by the Justice Department and members of Congress. Alan Blinder is currently a national correspondent for the New York Times covering education. He has reported from more than 35 states as well as Asia and Europe and spent four years as a sports reporter. Alan Blinder, welcome to FRESH AIR.
ALAN BLINDER: It's good to be here.
DAVIES: Let's start with the Saudis. As I mentioned, they've put a lot of money into pro golf and other sports. Put this in context for us. Is it clear why they're doing this?
BLINDER: Well, I think the explanation for why they're doing this is very much in the eye of the beholder. And, you know, it's not like one explanation excludes others from being possible. The official explanation we hear a lot from officials in Saudi Arabia is this is an effort to diversify the kingdom's economy. It's oil-dependent. You know, they've been looking for ways to be something besides just this oil-rich country. So there's that explanation. And this is seen as a pretty valid argument. I mean, they are trying to diversify their wealth fund.
But there are other explanations, too. There's a view that the Saudis want to have a seat at the global table. They would like to have power and influence and be able to shape their own reputation and their own image. So there can be that element here of - again, they're more than just an oil-rich country. There's a view that this is an effort to engage in what's called sportswashing, where you use sports to sanitize your reputation, to clean up your act, to be seen as something else. And then there's just the old sport philosophy here of, they just want to, you know, revitalize a game that can feel a little stale and a little cold sometimes and bring it some new life and some new energy. So it might be one of those explanations. It might be all those explanations. But there are a lot of different theories floating around out there.
DAVIES: You know, I mentioned human rights abuses in the intro and the murder of, you know, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Just remind us. What are some of the other issues - are that has earned the kingdom such condemnation?
BLINDER: I mean, there have been decades of problems surrounding the kingdom's treatment of gay and lesbian people. There have been decades of problems surrounding the kingdom's treatment of women. It's - there is the war in Yemen. There are any number of issues that have caught Western attention over the years and led the kingdom, at times, to being something of a pariah state.
DAVIES: A key figure on the Saudi side of this thing is a fellow named Yasir Al-Rumayyan. Tell us about him.
BLINDER: He is the governor of the Public Investment Fund, which is Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund. He is a golf fanatic himself, loves the game. But he's - this is his first real foray into the professional world of golf. You know, he is a figure who has been charged with trying to really elevate the Saudi investment portfolio. He's very close to the crown prince, who is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. And he has his hands in a lot of different things. You know, he is the chairman of Aramco, for instance, the state oil company. I mean, this is not a guy who's just sitting there, working on one fund for Saudi Arabia. He is one of the principal figures in the Saudi Arabian economic strategy.
DAVIES: Right. And you mentioned this public investment fund, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. How big is it?
BLINDER: Oh, it's many, many hundreds of billions of dollars at this point. They were looking to have - I think it was 1 trillion under management by 2025. It's among the world's largest wealth funds.
DAVIES: All right, so plenty of money, an interest in developing - you know, bringing more visitors, modernizing, diversifying the economy. You know, when the Saudis launched this rival tour called LIV, they threw a lot of money into it to attract players.
BLINDER: So much money.
DAVIES: Yeah, it's - it was remarkable. But the other side of this is that, you know, those players had grievances of their own against the existing golf league that dominates the United States and Europe, the PGA Tour. What were some of the players' grievances about the PGA? Tell us a bit about how it's organized and what the problems were.
BLINDER: So the PGA Tour is based in Florida, and it has been around for a number of decades. It came out - sort of really emerging during the Lyndon Johnson administration. And the grievances surrounding the PGA Tour were essentially that they didn't pay players enough money. Players didn't have enough control. The demands of the tour schedule were too much. And there were a number of players who were just tired of it. They saw executives who were getting enormous salaries - not as enormous as some players' compensation.
The thing about the PGA Tour, though, is because of how it was structured, players didn't earn salaries through golf tournaments. They could earn prize money, but how they earned their living was entirely dependent on performance. There were no guarantees. So you could actually wind up being a professional golfer, play in a golf tournament, and lose money if you didn't make the cut. If you didn't advance to weekend play, you'd be out your expenses for the week. I mean, there was plenty of money to be had if you were a top golfer. But there were a lot of folks, even some of the wealthiest and most popular golfers in the world, who felt like the system wasn't fair enough.
DAVIES: Right. You know, it is interesting to just take a moment on this. You know, if you're kind of an average player in Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association and you're on a team and if the team goes to an away game, you go. You travel with the team. All your expenses are paid. And even if the coach never puts you in the game or if you'd go in and perform fully, your salary is guaranteed, and your expenses are covered. By contrast, a golfer goes to a tournament. He has to pay his own expenses, brings a caddie, maybe somebody else if they're big enough to have, like, a coach with them. And as you say, you know, if after two rounds they're not in the first half of the leaderboard, they're cut. They get nothing - not even travel money. It's a really big difference; isn't it?
BLINDER: Yeah. I mean, they are - golfers are independent contractors, and that is a key part of this entire debate. Golfers said, we want to be able to choose where we play, when we play, how we play. We're independent contractors. We should be allowed to do that. But, yeah, I mean, there is a lot less financial certainty that comes with being a professional golfer than a lot of other professional athletic endeavors. It's a fairly remarkable system. If you think about it, you know, these golfers are generally their own pitchmen, essentially. There's a reason you see them doing so many endorsement deals. They do so many press conferences. It's because they are their own brands. There is no team, generally speaking, for them to fall back on. Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods. Phil Mickelson is Phil Mickelson. Rory McIlroy is Rory McIlroy. They are the brand, the show, the whole shebang.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with New York Times national correspondent Alan Blinder. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with New York Times national correspondent Alan Blinder. He spent much of the past two years covering the turmoil in men's professional golf, spurred by Saudi Arabia's investment in a new circuit of tournaments to rival the traditional PGA Tour.
So before this tour was launched by the Saudis, they spent a lot of time and effort trying to form a partnership with the PGA. They wanted to get involved. How did the PGA respond?
BLINDER: They basically gave them the cold shoulder. The PGA Tour was pretty content to do its own thing and was happy to rebuff any kind of investment by the Saudis. They had no interest in doing business with them.
DAVIES: Right. So the Saudis, led by this guy who heads their public investment fund, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, said, OK, we're going to - we're, in effect, going to declare war. We're going to form our own tour, and we're going to invite some of the top players in your tour to join ours. They called this tour LIV - that's capital L-I-V. You want to explain the name?
BLINDER: LIV is the Roman numeral for 54, and LIV Golf plays 54-hole tournaments, unlike the 72-hole events that are traditionally what we see at PGA Tour events in the four major championships, which are the Masters Tournament, the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open and the British Open.
DAVIES: So the Saudis decide to launch this tour to rival the PGA, this established circuit that's been around for so long. And they didn't play small. They had hundreds of millions to offer, and they wanted to recruit some big players. How did they do?
BLINDER: They - depending on your favorite player, they did pretty well. Phil Mickelson - who is a six-time major tournament winner, he won the Masters three times, one of the most celebrated, popular golfers of his generation, or frankly, any other - was probably LIV's marquee signing.
DAVIES: And what did we - what do we think they paid him?
BLINDER: It was reportedly in the $200 million guaranteed range.
DAVIES: Right. Now, that's in addition to any winnings he might encounter on the tour, right? That's just a guaranteed payment?
BLINDER: It's significant money and...
BLINDER: ...The kind of money you don't normally see in professional golf. So you had players like Phil Mickelson. You had other stars maybe not as famous as Phil Mickelson. So they really built this roster of big stars, big names, but - as people over on the PGA Tour like to note - a lot of people who you'd probably never heard of. But yeah, there were some big names.
DAVIES: This got nasty, right? How did the tour and its leading players react publicly to this effort by the Saudi Arabians?
BLINDER: Oh, it was an absolutely acidic reaction from the PGA Tour. Players were suspended. They were told you may not participate. And this gets into a lot of the challenges and legalese of being a membership organization - a voluntary membership organization and how TV rights work and what kinds of promises are made to sponsors and so on and so forth. But no, players were suspended if they defected to LIV. And some of the players who remained loyal to the PGA Tour were just absolutely stinging in their criticism. Some of them took a more moral stance of, you know, arguing that Saudi money was tainted money. Some of them, like Tiger Woods, just flatly, you know, lampooned how LIV golf is played. You know, this whole 54-hole, no-cut philosophy. I mean, there were just - there were any number of routes people took to condemn LIV players for making the switch.
DAVIES: So let's talk for a moment about what the LIV tournaments were like, 'cause this is interesting. If you follow golf at all, you know, the traditional PGA tournaments were, you know, four rounds of 18 holes and, you know, half the field was cut after the first two if you didn't do so well. LIV was very different, right? I mean, one of the things was music on the golf course? Is this...
BLINDER: Oh, I mean, there is music on the golf course. There are concerts after rounds. You got players wearing shorts, which is a much bigger deal than you might think it would be if you're not a golf fan. You've got what's called a shotgun start where players essentially don't - in a PGA Tour event, players just go out in order as the day goes on. They start on the first hole. They play one through 18. In a shotgun start, you'd have players all over the course, and they would just start from there. So maybe you started on the 15th hole, you'd go 15, 16, 17, 18 then back to the first hole. And it what it did was it created an entirely different dynamic to the play and to, you know, the television product. You didn't have to watch an all-day golf tournament. You could watch for a couple of hours and see the entirety of the LIV round. But yeah, the dynamic was entirely different. I mean, you know, you're used to going to PGA Tour events and to the traditional majors, and they're very starchy affairs. And that is not a word I think anyone would ever use at a LIV golf tournament.
DAVIES: And, you know, there is this tradition in golf that fans - I mean, they're asked to be quiet when a player is about to hit a shot, whether it's a full swing or a putt. And everybody knows kind of the announcer's golf voice. We're here at a big moment on the 10th green - that kind of thing. So at a LIV tournament, are they playing music over speakers while players are trying to concentrate and hit their shots?
BLINDER: Generally, off in the distance, you might hear some of that. And, you know, fans were expected to be quiet when players are hitting their shots. But the whole mantra of LIV - their slogan is actually golf, but louder. Like the idea is that this is a fan-friendly, you know, youthful extravaganza of golf. So it's an entirely different vibe. And it's - you know, it may work for some people and not for others.
DAVIES: The other thing that was different about the LIV tour is that in addition to playing an individual tournament at which, you know, the lowest score won the biggest prize, there were teams. I mean, they actually had teams with - of four golfers apiece. What were some of the team names?
BLINDER: I mean, there was the HyFlyers and the RangeGoats and Iron Heads. Like, they were these - was essentially a franchise model within golf. And golf is not a sport where we see a lot of team play outside of high school and college golf. I mean, you'll have the Ryder Cup coming up later this month featuring teams from the United States and Europe. But team golf is just not a thing that we see very often in the professional ranks.
DAVIES: So you got all these players on the course. They all start at the same time. So they're playing, and music is playing, and they're in shorts. And then there also - there's this team competition - what? - five teams on the course. I don't know how exactly you would keep track of this. They've had some events in the United States. They had a whole tour last year, and they - and they've begun - in '22 and '23. What's - what has fan attendance been like? Have people - you know, a lot clicked into this?
BLINDER: Fan attendance has been one of the great questions surrounding LIV. They don't get nearly the crowds that major golf tournaments get. The same time, they do get crowds out there. They do get audiences. And what they've failed to do, though, is really break through in a meaningful way on television. They don't have a deal on TV with one of the big networks that, you know - the PGA Tour you can usually find on NBC or CBS. LIV Golf was being played on the CW Network, which, until it brought LIV Golf in, was not a sports network. It was mostly known for, like, "Gilmore Girls" and that kind of thing. So the access to LIV has not been nearly as prolific as the PGA Tour.
DAVIES: Now, the other interesting part of this story is one Donald Trump, the ex-president, who is a golf nut and owns a bunch of courses. Where did he fit into this story?
BLINDER: Well, one of the challenges for LIV Golf was that a lot of really top-tier courses were long affiliated with PGA Tour and, therefore, essentially declared their loyalty to the heritage brand, if you will.
DAVIES: So they weren't going to host these upstart LIV tournaments, right?
BLINDER: No. They were - they didn't want the condemnation. They didn't want to fracture their relationship with the PGA Tour. So LIV needs golf courses, and they need very good golf courses. And as it so happens, Donald Trump owns a lot of very good golf courses. Whether you like his politics or not, his portfolio of golf courses is probably among the world's best.
DAVIES: So he embraced LIV?
BLINDER: He absolutely embraced LIV. I think you could argue he was one of LIV's biggest cheerleaders. I mean, he hosted LIV tournaments at his course in Bedminster, N.J. He hosted in Doral, Fla. He hosted outside of Washington. And not only was his property serving as host. Trump himself was often showing up and playing in pro-am events and watching rounds and talking to golfers. I mean, he was not - I wouldn't call him a mascot for LIV, but he was a presence around LIV - still is.
DAVIES: And at one of the tournaments at Bedminster, I think I read that it sort of turned into a MAGA rally, right? I mean, Marjorie Taylor Greene showed up. I mean, is this what LIV thought they were getting?
BLINDER: You know, I'm not sure if LIV knew what it was quite getting, but they knew they needed really top-flight golf courses, and Trump had them. And, of course, there's a school of thought out there saying, you know, this is essentially a foreign government funneling money to a former president and possibly a future president. And people point a lot to the Trump family's ties to Saudi Arabia and look at this as an influence operation. And it may very well be. LIV has always explained this away as, well, we need good golf courses, and he has them.
DAVIES: And it's fair to say that the traditional golf establishment kind of condemned and isolated Trump, didn't they?
BLINDER: Oh, yeah. I mean, Trump has long wanted to be a golf powerbroker, and by some indications, he was actually getting a little closer to being there. He had - his family had won the rights to host a PGA championship at the Bedminster course. There had been a women's U.S. Open. His family course in Scotland, Turnberry - longtime British open course over the years. Like, he has some spectacular properties. But after January 6 in particular, Trump essentially became persona non grata in a lot of circles of professional golf, and the PGA Championship was pulled from Bedminster. The RNA, which organizes the British Open, has made quite clear it has no intention of going to Turnberry anytime soon. So, you know, if Trump wanted to be around big-time golfers and be a sports baron, LIV was a place he could go and do that.
DAVIES: Let's take another break here, and let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Alan Blinder. He is a national correspondent for The New York Times. He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. We're speaking with The New York Times national correspondent Alan Blinder. For much of the past two years, he's covered a civil war of sorts in men's professional golf spurred by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia's creation of a new circuit of golf tournaments to rival the established PGA Tour in the U.S. The Saudis' extravagant spending and poaching of some of the game's best players ultimately led to an agreement to merge the PGA and the Saudi-backed tour, called LIV. The final terms of the new structure are yet to be negotiated.
Well, the other thing that happened besides the war of words among traditional golf and the LIV tour - there was court action. I mean, LIV sued the PGA, and the PGA countersued. What was the heart of the legal issues here?
BLINDER: It was essentially an antitrust case and whether the PGA Tour was played fairly and whether it was stamping out competition improperly. And this was a nasty case with a lot of very well-paid lawyers billing a lot of hours, and we were not really all that close to a trial. But the discovery was happening, and there were depositions happening, and the Saudis had lost a couple things in this litigation. There had been questions about sovereign immunity. There had been questions, you know, about access to records and that sort of thing. And there were some setbacks for the Saudis in court. But this was, at its core, an antitrust issue that would need to be decided.
DAVIES: So the Saudis were saying, look. The PGA - you're suppressing competition. They should have - be able to choose, right?
BLINDER: Exactly. I mean, the argument was that there is essentially one primary golf league for men's professional players in the United States, and the PGA Tour had a stranglehold on those players given the assorted rules and regulations that the PGA Tour required of its members. And one of the arguments you would hear time and again from LIV players was, we are independent contractors. We should be allowed to play whenever and however we want to. And the argument in response from the PGA Tour and its allies would be, well, it's a condition of being in this membership organization which, you know, markets group television rights and sponsorship deals. And it's...
DAVIES: It's a voluntary agreement, essentially, right?
BLINDER: You can't pick and choose.
DAVIES: Right, right, right.
BLINDER: Yeah. I mean, the view of the PGA Tour was, you cannot just choose when you want to be a member of this organization because, you know, look. If you're the PGA Tour and you're going to broadcast partners or potential sponsors, you want to be able to say, we're going to have these tournaments. Players X, Y, and Z will be there. Well, that becomes a lot harder to pitch people on when player X might be doing something else that weekend.
DAVIES: The battle lines were drawn in this dispute. You know, the PGA was condemning the LIV golfers for selling out to Saudi Arabian money, and the LIV golfers had their own kind of argument. You know, all - you're all a bunch of hypocrites. And then suddenly, it seemed, earlier this summer, there is an announcement...
BLINDER: June 6.
DAVIES: ...That the two sides have agreed. Before we talk about how the deal was struck, let's talk about what convinced each side it was in its interest to lower their guns and cooperate. What convinced the PGA to give up its fight?
BLINDER: Well, the PGA Tour is all too eager to say that it does not have nearly the financial resources of the Saudi wealth fund. And it was spending somewhere on the order of $40, $50 million a year on legal expenses. And they didn't find this kind of arms race sustainable with the wealth fund. They didn't find that they would be able to keep up in the long term with the prize money and the contracts, and they wanted this litigation to end. The PGA Tour thought this was a way out of some very nasty litigation that was costing it a fortune. And the wealth fund also saw a way out of litigation that was not always going in the direction it wanted. And by the way, they would also get a seat at the table of global golf.
DAVIES: The two sides, while they were fighting a war of words, actually began talking. This began when James Dunne, known as Jimmy Dunne to golfers, actually contacted Yasir Al-Rumayyan, and there began a whole series of very private meetings. Just tell us a little bit about how that unfolded.
BLINDER: I mean, these unfolded like a spy novel, to be honest with you. I mean, there was a secret meeting in Britain. There was a secret meeting in Venice. There was a secret meeting in San Francisco and then one in New York. And these were these private talks between PGA Tour officials and the wealth fund about what, you know, some kind of joint venture might look like - totally cloak-and-dagger. I mean, there was one instance when they were meeting in Venice. Jay Monahan was out for breakfast, and he saw another leading professional sports figure and basically found himself ducking under a table to avoid being noticed, as he told people later. Yeah, it was - these negotiations were not carried out in public. They were entirely private. There were rounds of golf. There were long dinners, long lunches, you know, all-night negotiation sessions, basically, all in hopes of reaching a deal. And they thought that if word of this leaked, the whole thing would fall apart.
DAVIES: Rounds of golf meaning the negotiators themselves went out for a round after talks and then continued talking.
BLINDER: Oh, yeah. I mean, it's a social lubricant for these guys.
DAVIES: One of these meetings happened at the wedding of - was it a Formula One race car driver in Venice?
BLINDER: Yeah, it was the - there was a Formula One-related wedding in Venice, and Yasir Al-Rumayyan was attending the wedding. So Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, flew into Venice, and they met kind of on the sidelines of the wedding. He - Jay wasn't at the wedding himself, but it was where Al-Rumayyan was going to be, so Monahan went to Venice and met him there.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things you wrote in writing about the negotiations is that, when they spoke, they agreed upon a point of harmony that would shape the negotiations. Neither man insisted on a nondisclosure agreement. What did that mean? What were they agreeing not to keep secret?
BLINDER: The absence of a nondisclosure agreement really helped set the tone for the talks. It helped, they thought, establish trust between the two sides and the idea that, you know, maybe they didn't have to be sworn enemies on every little thing. It just - it was mostly important for establishing a baseline level of trust that had, to that point, been absent.
DAVIES: So, I mean, you've written - and others - about how there was these cloak-and-dagger meetings between one of the board members from the PGA, a guy named James Dunne - Jimmy Dunne to golfers - and he meets with Yasir Al-Rumayyan. And there's a series of conversations. This was all done in a very quiet way. The PGA commissioner, Jay Monahan, eventually became involved. But the players on - in the PGA, who had really staked their reputation on defending the PGA and saying that they were - they had the right side of this, were totally blindsided when they learned that the PGA head said, never mind, we're going to work with the Saudis anyway.
BLINDER: Yeah. I mean, the best example of this is probably Rory McIlroy, one of the world's finest golfers. And he's a member of the PGA Tour's board, so this is not a guy who, you know, was used to being cut out of big conversations about golf's future. And he had been one of the PGA Tour's leading figures in this fight against LIV Golf. Rory found out about the deal between the wealth fund and the PGA Tour the morning it was announced, and he's on the board.
DAVIES: So let's talk about what this deal actually is. I mean, it's not a merger because the details haven't been worked out yet. What exactly have the two sides agreed to do?
BLINDER: Well, the line they like to trot out is that they've reached an agreement to reach an agreement. And the idea behind this deal, if it comes to pass in the end, is they will create a new for-profit entity that will be called PGA Tour Enterprises. And essentially, they're going to house the golf businesses of the PGA Tour, of the Saudi wealth fund and the DP World Tour, which is formerly the European Tour, all in this one for-profit company. And they will end the golf civil war. The idea is not a merger. They view it more as a joint venture than anything else. They don't like the word merger for sort of legal reasons. But, no, the idea is that they will bring all of these former rivals into one single company. Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, will be the CEO of the company. Yasir al-Rumayyan, the head of the wealth fund, will be the chairman of the board. And there will be significant Saudi influence there.
DAVIES: And one of the PGA Tour board members said before Congress, if I'm recalling correctly, that they anticipated that the Saudis would invest something north of $1 billion into the venture.
BLINDER: Yeah, there was a - during a congressional hearing back in July, we heard a PGA Tour executive throw out that number, which wasn't really surprising given the amount of money the Saudis had already invested in golf. But yeah, we're looking at an investment north of $1 billion from Saudi Arabia. But how many billions? We have no idea at this point.
DAVIES: So let's kind of step back and try and get a sense of what this actually means. You know, this has been presented by some as Saudi oil money effectively buying, taking over men's professional golf. Is it fair to look at it that way?
BLINDER: I think there is a world in which you can look at that in that way. I mean, the argument the PGA Tour makes against that argument is that Jay Monahan will still be the chief executive of this new outfit. The PGA Tour will control a majority of board seats in this new outfit. The PGA Tour will control what's known as the inside-the-ropes dynamics of golf tournaments, so they'll be figuring out what competitions look like and how the game is played and that sort of thing. And the counterargument to that is, well, when Yasir al-Rumayyan is the chairman of the board and the Saudis hold first right of refusal on investments, they control the purse strings. So it's not quite as clear-cut in terms of, you know, American control as the PGA Tour might like to say it is. That's the argument that goes back and forth.
DAVIES: The Saudis have first right of refusal on investments. What exactly does that mean?
BLINDER: Essentially, the Saudis can decide from the start how money is invested into this new company, this new PGA Tour Enterprises. So they will have extensive influence over the money that flows into this operation.
DAVIES: So for now, the two tours are - they will remain in existence, right? So it's not like they're folded together, right?
BLINDER: Yeah. I mean, as of now, there's a LIV event this month in Chicago - or outside of Chicago. The PGA Tour still has its own schedule and its own events. They are separate entities at this moment.
DAVIES: And has the trash-talking stopped?
BLINDER: I mean, it's abated a little bit. I don't think - in private, it hasn't stopped. I'll tell you that much.
DAVIES: What are you hearing in private?
BLINDER: I mean, people are still - look. Think about what Rory McIlroy said in public. He said he still hates LIV. This is a member of the PGA Tour board saying he still hates LIV Golf as a concept. He's accepting of the idea that LIV Golf and Saudi money might be an important thing to keep around, you know, for the growth of the game or the good of the game or whatever you want to call it. But he has said flatly he hates LIV golf, so that should give you a window into what people are still thinking.
DAVIES: Wow. Let's take another break here and then we'll talk some more. We're speaking with The New York Times national correspondent Alan Blinder. We'll continue this conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with New York Times national correspondent Alan Blinder. He has spent much of the past two years covering the turmoil in men's professional golf as the Saudi Arabian government has invested in a new circuit of tournaments to rival the PGA. After much fierce competition, the two sides have reached a cooperation agreement, which will give the Saudis significant influence over the sport.
You know, part of the condemnation of the LIV tour came from families of 9/11 victims who felt that the Saudi government's role was never fully disclosed and, you know, condemned the golfers for having this association. There's an irony in this in that Jimmy Dunne, the PGA official who really led the negotiations with the Saudis, had a special connection to 9/11; didn't he?
BLINDER: So Jimmy Dunne is a board member for the PGA Tour and a very prominent banker in New York. And his firm at the time had offices at the World Trade Center, and a number of employees died in the attacks of 9/11. And Jimmy Dunne was at a golf tournament the day of the attacks in 2001. So he was not harmed, but he has spent the last 22 years, essentially, thinking about what happened that day and how it affected the people he had worked with and known.
DAVIES: And what did he say when asked about this - about dealing with the Saudis after that long history?
BLINDER: His defense was that there was no indication that someone like Yasir al-Rumayyan was directly involved in 9/11. And he always said - Dunne always said that if he met a Saudi who was directly involved in the attacks, he'd be the first person to go after him. But he didn't think you could paint an entire society for a single action.
DAVIES: Right. He said I'd kill him myself, actually, which...
BLINDER: I think that was the comment, yes.
DAVIES: ...Got some attention. Yeah. So while there is this agreement, it could fall apart. I mean, we don't know that they're going to come to final terms, but there's a commitment to try and do so. But the Justice Department and members of Congress say they are very interested in pursuing antitrust issues here. What exactly are they after, and what might happen?
BLINDER: So the Justice Department was interested in men's professional golf before June 6, which is when we learned of this deal between the wealth fund and the PGA Tour. They were already talking to professional golfers, looking to see if the PGA Tour had been suppressing labor markets or anything like that. So they were - golf was already on the radar of the Justice Department. Then this deal comes out, and then there's a question of, well, are you essentially constructing a monopoly - a bigger monopoly now? So in a lot of ways, the legal questions around professional golf got bigger, not smaller, after this deal. There is a chance - there is a universe in which we could see the Justice Department try to block this arrangement if it comes to pass. That has not happened yet. It could, though, and some experts expect that they will try to challenge it.
As for Congress, Congress pretty promptly looked to set up a hearing on this. I think we were in Washington on July 11 - so just a bit more than a month after this deal was announced - and there was a Senate subcommittee hearing where they were grilling PGA Tour officials, trying to understand how the PGA Tour could have made this deal with the Saudi wealth fund. And just recently, that same subcommittee issued a subpoena to the wealth fund for documents and information after Mr. al-Rumayyan essentially refused to testify.
DAVIES: What kind of information do they want, and why are they...
BLINDER: They want financial records. They want documents. They want to - I mean, the argument the Senate makes is that golf - sports are an essential part of American culture. You've got a sovereign wealth fund looking to invest and bring serious money into sports, into American business. Therefore, Congress has a right and a duty to look at what's happening here. So far, the Saudis have, let's just say, had limited interest in talking to Congress. They've offered, you know, some information, some briefings, that sort of thing. But in terms of what Congress has really wanted, which is the governor of the sovereign wealth fund at a witness table on Capitol Hill, that hasn't gone anywhere yet.
DAVIES: You know, I can see an argument that maybe you don't want a foreign government owning critical defense manufacturers or technology firms. But, you know, if they run the pro golf tour, who cares?
BLINDER: You know, we've asked that question, and Congress has essentially told us that they think there is a prerogative and that there can be national security concerns and things like where golf courses are located and whatnot. But the big argument they make is they want to understand why the Saudis are trying to get into American sports and use power in that way. It's a soft power play.
DAVIES: Well, Alan Blinder, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BLINDER: My pleasure.
DAVIES: Alan Blinder is a national correspondent for The New York Times now covering education. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new season of the Apple TV+ series "The Morning Show." This is FRESH AIR.
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