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LIV Golf, PGA Tour spar over testimony from Saudi officials

A federal judge declined Friday to postpone the trial date in LIV Golf's antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour, even while conceding that might be inevitable if LIV owner Saudi Arabia appeals a ruling that officials with its sovereign wealth fund be required to testify.

Friday's case management hearing in the Northern District of California capped off a flurry of filings in the last week over the PGA Tour alleging the Public Investment Fund and its governor, Yasir al-Rumayyan, were more than just investors in the rival league.

Saudi Arabia's PIF holds some $600 billion in oil profits and other assets, making it one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world. The PIF owns 93% of LIV Golf, according to court documents.

U.S. Magistrate Susan van Keulen ruled last week that the PIF and al-Rumayyan were not exempt from providing testimony and documents under the Foreign Service Immunity Act because of an exception for commercial activity.

Saudi Arabia, through its attorney, filed a separate letter with U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman on Thursday, arguing that the magistrate's order has “broad implications for Saudi Arabia beyond the instant case” and that it would file a friend-of-court appeal.

A lawyer for the PIF indicated an appeal to the Ninth Circuit was ready to be filed as early as Friday.

Saudi Arabia’s leaders, in a lawsuit between their golf circuit and the rival PGA Tour, maintain their high standing in the oil kingdom’s government makes them legally immune from most actions by U.S. courts.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last year successfully used an argument of sovereign immunity to escape a civil lawsuit in Saudi officials’ 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The PIF and al-Rumayyan contend that enforcing subpoenas in the U.S. would force them to violate Saudi law against disclosure of confidential information.

The PGA Tour, meanwhile, filed a motion on the magistrate's order arguing depositions of the PIF and al-Rumayyan should not take place in Saudi Arabia.

“The Tour and its American counsel should not have to run the risk that they might be harassed or detained because something they say in a deposition is perceived as critical of the Saudi government; nor should they have to censor themselves in the course of conducting Court-ordered discovery,” the motion said.

Earlier this week, Freeman — who is overseeing the case — allowed the PIF and its governor to be added as defendants to the PGA Tour's counterclaim in the lawsuit.

In the amended counterclaim with the Saudis listed as defendants, the PGA Tour refers to Greg Norman as the “nominal CEO” of the LIV Golf circuit, while al-Rumayyan calls all the shots.

The tour alleges the PIF governor functions as LIV's chief executive, "receiving regular reports from Norman, approving LIV’s budget, making key strategic decisions, participating in player recruitment in the United States, and micro-managing LIV’s day-to-day operations both while in the United States and from abroad.

“And even once contracts are signed and debts accrued, PIF holds the purse strings: none of LIV’s partners or golfers gets paid until PIF and Mr. Al-Rumayyan agree to distribute the money.”

John Quinn, a lawyer for the PIF and three players who remain as defendants, described the PIF's relationship as “what you'd expect from a new investor in a startup."

Freeman wasn't swayed.

“Based on everything I've read ... he is in up to his eyeballs in everything that LIV has done,” Freeman said during the hearing. “He's intricately involved, and I think it's ludicrous to suggest otherwise.”

But she also said there was no need for the PGA Tour to delay the discovery process while waiting to first get testimony — if allowed — from the Saudis. Freeman said the tour and its attorney can always conduct interviews again if new information arises.

LIV Golf attorneys claim the tour wants to delay the trial — tentatively set for January 2024 — to keep LIV golfers off the PGA Tour. Nine LIV players initially sued the PGA Tour after they were banned from competing in its events. The tour requires players to get permission to play in conflicting tournaments.

The Saudi-funded league offered signing fees reported to be upward of $100 million to players like Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka, who compete for $25 million in prize money at each of its 13 tournaments.

The first LIV event of the season began Friday in Mexico. The 48-man field has 37 players who were PGA Tour members. All have been suspended by the tour, and now only have access to the major championships if they are eligible.

Quinn argued the window for a player to compete at his best is small.

Freeman scheduled another meeting for April, when the deadline for discovery has passed.

“I'm concerned that everyone is dragging their feet on both sides,” she said.

However, she noted the Saudis can appeal to the Ninth Circuit, which would leave little choice but to delay the trial. The deadline for summary judgment motions is August.

Freeman said she has 400 cases before her and already is setting some of those cases for trial in August 2025.

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