Dec 1, 2022 - Politics & Policy

PGA Tour taps top Kevin McCarthy confidant in LIV fight

Illustration of an GOP elephant-shaped golf ball on a golf tee

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The PGA Tour is enlisting one of House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy’s closest friends and confidants to help it beat back a new competitor that's in business with Donald Trump, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: This fight between professional sports leagues is about politics as much as business or athletics.

  • Saudi-backed LIV Golf has established Republican bona fides by virtue of its relationship with Trump, whose courses have hosted multiple LIV tournaments.
  • With Republicans set to assume the majority in January, the PGA Tour is bringing on its own GOP muscle — Jeff Miller, principal of lobbying firm Miller Strategies and a close McCarthy ally.
  • He played a key role in House GOP fundraising efforts throughout the 2022 cycle, and also was a significant fundraiser for Trump's 2020 campaign.

Details: Miller's charge will be to promote the PGA Tour and its interests in Washington, including “shining a light on the competition,” a source familiar with Miller's hiring told Axios.

  • That could entail amplifying criticism among lawmakers, the press and the public over LIV's ties to the Saudi government.
  • “This is a sports fight that is really a political one, and Jeff’s hiring is a very important weapon in the fight,” the source said.
  • A PGA Tour spokesperson declined to comment on the hire. Miller also declined to comment.

The big picture: LIV has poached top golfers from the PGA Tour since it launched last year. But it also has drawn intense scrutiny — in the golfing and political worlds — over its backing from Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund.

  • Critics call it a "sportswashing" operation designed to boost the Kingdom's image amid human rights scandals, including the 2018 execution of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
  • LIV leadership got a cool reception during a meeting with the House GOP Conference earlier this year. One prominent Republican, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, has called for a federal investigation into the league.
  • The PGA Tour, meanwhile, is the subject of a Justice Department antitrust probe.

Between the lines: Miller's relationship with McCarthy was surely seen as a critical asset for the Tour, given the near universal presumption before the midterm elections that McCarthy would be the next House speaker.

  • Miller has known McCarthy for three decades and is known to be his closest ally on K Street.
  • After Republicans underperformed in the midterms, McCarthy is suddenly facing an intra-party insurgency that threatens his ascendance. But if McCarthy does make it, Miller could become, as Politico speculated before the midterms, the “most powerful unelected man in DC.”

The other side: LIV portrays itself as a scrappy upstart taking on an entrenched, corrupt incumbent.

  • The new league has brought on notable names in the political world, including former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and Ben Quayle, a former Republican congressman from Arizona and son of a former U.S. vice president.

LIV's chief executive, Greg Norman, at an event in England this year, said of the Saudis: "We've all made mistakes and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.”

  • “This whole thing about Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi and human rights, talk about it, but also talk about the good the country is doing to change its culture."
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