WASHINGTON -- With families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks watching from just feet away, two top executives from the PGA Tour faced blistering criticism from Senate Democrats over their tour's proposal to work with LIV Golf, the tour backed by a Saudi government both Democrats and Republicans argued has committed egregious human rights abuses.
"Today's hearing is about much more than a game of golf," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations for the Senate's Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. "It's about how a brutal, repressive regime can buy influence and, indeed, even take over a cherished American institution to cleanse its public image."
Blumenthal said there was a "feeling of betrayal" from PGA players when they learned of the agreement with LIV Golf -- an agreement seeking to create a subsidiary within the PGA Tour that would host golf tournaments around the world.
But the PGA Tour's chief operating officer, Ron Price, and a member of its board, Jimmy Dunne, insisted to lawmakers that the PGA Tour was facing "an unprecedented attack" and an "existential threat" when LIV Golf was launched two years ago.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., agreed, noting that the PGA Tour has estimated assets of $1.25 billion, while the Saudi Private Investment Fund financing LIV Golf is worth more than $600 billion -- "it's not a fair fight," Johnson said.
"LIV Golf would have continued to recruit our players and put our tour in jeopardy, and they could have become the leader of professional golf, and operated it for the benefit of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," Price, the PGA Tour's COO, testified.
So "instead of losing control of the PGA Tour, we pursued a peace," Price said, insisting that no final deal has been reached and that any joint venture would have to let the PGA Tour retain control overs its operations and tournaments.
A key part of the framework agreement reached so far is an end to all pending litigation, including pausing an antitrust lawsuit that LIV Golf filed against the PGA Tour after the PGA Tour suspended players for joining LIV Golf. Such litigation had already cost the PGA Tour tens of millions of dollars, according to Price.
But Blumenthal and other Democrats weren't sympathetic.
"There is something that stinks about this path that you're on right now, because it is a surrender, and it is all about the money," Blumenthal told Price and Dunne, accusing Saudi Arabia of killing journalists, fostering war in Yemen, and jailing and torturing dissidents.
Blumenthal and Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., expressed particular concern over whether any deal with LIV Golf could end up stifling anyone associated with the PGA Tour from speaking out against the Saudi government for its horrific history of human rights abuses, including its alleged role in the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
When Blumenthal specifically asked Price whether the PGA Tour would commit to ensuring that players could freely speak their minds, even if that meant supporting players in court if need be, Price didn't initially offer a definitive answer, saying, "We would try to protect their interests."
"Well you know, the answer to that question should be, 'Yes, we'll do it proudly. We'll protect our players,'" Blumenthal said.
"We will protect our players proudly," Price replied. "Our players will be freely able to speak about Saudi Arabia," he added later.
Blumenthal suggested the PGA Tour's previous opposition to LIV Golf may have been softened by Saudi Arabia's plans to pour huge sums of money into the new joint venture -- with the Arab state agreeing to funnel "north of $1 billion" into the new golf entity, Price revealed at Tuesday's hearing.
"What happened that led the PGA to change its position? Was it only the hope of ending litigation? Or was it also the unspecified amount Saudi investment that would come of it? Just how much money did PIF offer the PGA Tour?" he asked prior to Price's revelation.
Price and Dunne repeatedly said that assuring the future of the PGA Tour was the only thing driving them.
"LIV put us on fire. LIV put us in an incredibly difficult position," Dunne said.
At one point, Dunne seemed to get emotional about the subject, his voice cracking as he spoke of his love for the game of golf, its potential as "a force throughout the world," and the "18 million young men and Saudi women" who might not think "every American hated them" if they were exposed more to something like the PGA Tour.
Dunne tried to defend the agreement by saying only "some men" from Saudi Arabia were part of 9/11, and that he lost 66 friends and colleagues to the attacks that day.
"If any person had the remotest connection to an attack on our country and the murder of my friends, I am the last guy that would be sitting at a table," he insisted.
But for some families of 9/11 victims, the potential deal opens fresh wounds.
Terry Strada, 9/11 Families United chairwoman, lost her husband in the North Tower on 9/11 and has been fighting for Saudi Arabia to be held accountable for the attacks for years. Strada told ABC News that learning about the proposed deal felt personal to her.
"It was very upsetting. It was like a gut punch. Just like the floor falls out from beneath your feet," Strada said.
"It sets you back quite a bit," she said. "It's like ripping the Band-Aid off again and it's very raw to understand that now like you said this company is doing business with the kingdom."
Strada called the deal between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf "appalling" and said she hoped the Senate hearing would shed light on the PGA's seemingly sudden about-face on LIV Golf.
"I want Jimmy Dunne and I want the other man that's testifying to look at families and see that the pain that he has caused all of us," Strada told ABC News. "We aren't going to forget, and we aren't going to let the American people forget."
In June 2022, a group of nearly 2,500 survivors of family members killed or injured in the terrorist attacks wrote an open letter to PGA Tour members to thank them for not joining LIV Golf, accusing those who joined LIV Golf of accepting "blood money."
"Thank you for standing up for decency. Thank you for standing up for the 9/11 Families. Thank you for resisting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's efforts to cleanse its reputation by buying off professional athletes," the letter, published roughly a year before the deal was announced, said.
Blumenthal told ABC News that members of Congress are prepared to act unilaterally to derail a final deal if necessary.
"We certainly have tools at our disposal if either representatives of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund or other witnesses refuse to come forward. I'm not going to prejudge how those tools may be used because we are continuing to hope for their cooperation, but we can produce reports recommendations legislation and the DOJ can use facts that we adduce here in their investigation of antitrust issues that could lead to blocking the deal," he said.
ABC News' Allison Pecorin and Rachel Scott contributed to this report.