'I literally feel sick': 9/11 families rage at LIV-PGA merger. But money talks.

Money talks.

This should be the new branding slogan of America’s golf universe now that the supposedly venerable, tradition-bound and stridently nonprofit Professional Golfers' Association of America has joined and dipped its fingers into the terror-tainted piggy bank of the Saudi-financed LIV Golf circuit.

In a shocking turnaround, the PGA, which controls and runs most of America’s top professional golf tournaments and their massive amounts of prize money and lucrative endorsement deals, announced Tuesday that it was joining forces with the year-old rival LIV, which is bankrolled by the Saudi Arabian royal family.

The new alliance between the PGA and LIV – along with an international golf tour – will be a for-profit partnership. In other words, millions will be made. Maybe billions.

LIV Golf Tulsa at the Cedar Ridge Country Club in Broken Arrow, Okla., in May 2023.

The PGA will oversee the nuts and bolts of tournaments. But Saudi money will loom as the main financial foundation and likely source of heftier payouts for top golfers. And a Saudi will sit at the top of the management food chain. Finally, not to be overlooked is the fact that both sides have agreed to drop lawsuits against each other.

The move comes after not only a yearlong torrent of criticism from the PGA and others that Saudi royals approved the 2018 murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi but also disturbing, recently declassified FBI reports that link Saudi officials to Islamist terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks.

Money, money and more money

In the end, however, money seems to have won the day. The PGA and its dull collection of baseball-capped, drone-like golfers will get richer. And the already rich Saudis will have “sport-washed” the blood off their hands. Indeed, this might be just the start of Saudi efforts to win friends by bankrolling sports. The kingdom is already expressing interest in car racing and soccer. What's next? Baseball? Basketball? Tennis?

Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump – yes, he’s involved, too, as a LIV supporter and early beneficiary of Saudi cash – can have a good I-told-you-so laugh.

Former President Donald Trump talks with a pro golfer at a LIV Golf event in May 2023 at Trump National Golf Club in Northern Virginia.

It was Trump, ignoring intense criticism from 9/11 victims and relatives, who embraced the Saudi dollars and invited the LIV tour last year to play at his golf courses. In some respects, this was Trump's way of retaliating against the PGA for its decision to cancel a major championship at his New Jersey course after the former president's role in circulating falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election and questions about his role on Jan. 6, 2021, in the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The credibility that comes from a former president’s unvarnished support was important for LIV – and the Saudis. Indeed, the $650 billion Saudi Public Investment Fund, which is controlled by the kingdom’s royal family and is the primary financier of LIV, tossed in a $2 billion stake in a new Wall Street firm run by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Think of this as just a gift among pals. Trump, in turn, found a sugar daddy in LIV for his golf empire.

LIV has already played a tournament this year – on the Memorial Day weekend, no less – at a Trump course in Northern Virginia. Later this summer, LIV is returning to Trump’s course in Bedminster, New Jersey, and then heading to another Trump course in Florida in October.

It’s nice work if you can get it, no?

'I literally feel sick'

Until this week, the PGA was on record as harshly criticizing Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses against the LGBTQ community and women, and its links to the Khashoggi murder and 9/11. The PGA even suspended its golfers who accepted massive Saudi bonuses and signed on with the LIV tour.

All that seems to be history now. The PGA plans to welcome back such exiled golfers as Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka. And the LIV circuit will move forward with bigger payouts in prize money and appearance fees.

As for the questions about the death of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who lived in Northern Virginia, and the numerous questions about Saudi links to America’s deadliest terror attack on Sept. 11, 2001, well, let’s just say they are being conveniently ignored. 

Brett Eagleson, president of 9/11 Justice, discusses in July 2022 the group's opposition to Saudi support for the LIV Golf tournament at a Trump golf course in Bedminster, N.J.

The merger, a closely guarded secret as the PGA negotiated with the LIV, came as a shock, not just to golf fans who actually believed America’s preeminent golf association had a moral spine but to the hundreds of 9/11 victims and their relatives who felt they had found an ally against Saudi efforts to cover up its misdeeds by investing in professional golf.

Dennis McGinley of Haworth, New Jersey, who lost his brother, Daniel, in the rubble of the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks, described the merger as a “kick in the gut.”

“I literally feel sick,” McGinley said when reached by phone. "I thought it was some sort of joke."

McGinley’s sentiments were echoed across the 9/11 community, which has doggedly pursued a massive federal lawsuit in Manhattan that targets Saudi Arabia for its alleged support of the 9/11 attacks.

Brett Eagleson of Middletown, Connecticut, who lost his father when a commercial jetliner hijacked by 9/11 terrorists crashed into the Trade Center’s twin towers in lower Manhattan, called for congressional hearings to examine the new ties between LIV and the PGA.

Eagleson, the president of 9/11 Justice, a coalition of victims and relatives trying to uncover evidence of Saudi complicity in the attacks, called the PGA-LIV merger “a direct betrayal of the 9/11 community” and a “spineless major money grab” by professional golfers.

Brett Eagleson, president of 9/11 Justice, wipes a tear on July 29, 2022, as he addresses reporters about the group's opposition to Saudi support for the LIV Golf tournament at a Trump golf course in Bedminster, N.J.

Terry Strada, formerly of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, and now living in Florida, where she runs another coalition of victims called 9/11 Families United, had given birth to a baby boy only four days before her husband, Tom, died in the collapse of the twin towers. On Tuesday, in summoning memories of her husband and her own search for the truth behind the 9/11 attacks, Strada called the PGA and its golfers “Saudi shills” for “taking billions of dollars to cleanse the Saudi reputation.”

“Make no mistake,” she said, “we will never forget.”

Understanding the lingering questions of 9/11

In order to understand this sense of betrayal among 9/11 victims and their relatives over the pretzel-like twisted ethics that seem to be at play now in America’s professional golf world, it’s important to turn back the calendar.

Just before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in September 2021, President Joe Biden, under pressure from 9/11 victims who threatened to bar him from memorial ceremonies, ordered the release of thousands of pages of top-secret investigative files on Saudi links to the team of 19 operatives from Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network who carried out the terror plot.

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Fifteen of the 19 terrorists were Saudi citizens. Bin Laden also came from a prominent Saudi family. What emerged in the FBI documents was a disjointed but nevertheless shocking narrative of how a series of Saudi government officials – including staffers at the kingdom’s embassy in Washington, D.C. – had been in contact with some of 19 terrorists.

Among the most notable revelations: In the months before 9/11 attacks, Saudi officials might have helped members of the terror team find apartments and relocate to Northern Virginia and to New Jersey.

What the FBI documents do not show is whether Saudi officials knew the precise details of the 9/11 plan to hijack four commercial jetliners and crash them in suicide-murder missions into landmark buildings.

Two of the planes struck the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center in Manhattan. Another hit the Pentagon. The fourth, which was bound for either the White House or the U.S. Capitol building, went down in a Pennsylvania farm field after passengers fought back against the hijackers.

In the case of two hijackers, Saudi officials knew they were dealing with known members of the al-Qaida terror network who had infiltrated the United States. The CIA also was tracking those two operatives – Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi – who managed to make their way to northern New Jersey, living in apartments in Paterson and in a South Hackensack motel.

But in one of the great mysteries of 9/11, the CIA never alerted the FBI that known terrorists were living in America. This has led to an unconfirmed yet increasingly popular theory – cited in a recently disclosed declaration as evidence in the terror trials at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – that the CIA was working with Saudi officials in a failed effort to recruit al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi as double agents inside al-Qaida. The CIA, meanwhile, has never explained its role in its botched investigation of al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi.

Another question, investigators say, is whether Saudi officials linked to al-Mihdhar, al-Hazmi and other hijackers were acting in their official government capacity or in some sort of rogue-like role.

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In an exclusive interview with this columnist recently, Philip Zelikow, the former executive director of the 9/11 Commission, acknowledged that he has come to believe that some Saudi officials might have become radicalized Islamists and stepped out of their government roles to help the 9/11 hijackers.

Zelikow’s theory, along with evidence from the FBI collected after the completion of the 9/11 Commission report in 2004, are all tied to a basic question that has haunted U.S. investigators for years: How did 19 terrorists, most of whom had never visited the United States and could barely speak English, manage to find apartments, rent cars, open bank accounts and organize such an elaborate terror attack? Did anyone help them? If so, who?

The revelations from the newly declassified FBI reports, along with such questions, were all part of a debate last summer when the LIV Golf circuit emerged and found a cozy alliance with Trump. Also in the mix was increased attention to a CIA report accusing Saudi’s top ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, of approving the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

All that now seems to be old news – at least in the greedy, see-no-evil mindset of the PGA.

As for Trump, the special federal prosecutor investigating the former president’s alleged mishandling of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate is reportedly looking into the former president’s ties to LIV. It’s not clear yet how that investigation may be affected by the new PGA-LIV alliance.

Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner and a key voice in criticizing the Saudi-financed LIV venture last summer, has now flip-flopped. In Monahan’s mind, LIV is no longer immoral. And who knows? Perhaps the PGA will reverse itself and hold a major tournament at a Trump-owned course.

On Tuesday, Monahan reportedly admitted in a group meeting with players that “people are going to call me a hypocrite.” But he added: “Circumstances do change.”

Yep. Money talks.

Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com, part of the USA TODAY Network, as well as the author of three critically acclaimed nonfiction books and a podcast and documentary film producer. This column first published at NorthJersey.com

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This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Why the LIV Golf, PGA merger has 9/11 families feeling 'sick'