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Players 2024: Jay Monahan didn't say much, but what he said says a lot

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Cliff Hawkins

March 12, 2024

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — The commissioner talked a lot but said very little. There are questions golf desperately wants answered, and maybe in time those answers will come. For now, the haze that has clouded the men’s professional game remains, and given how past “State of the Tour” addresses have been weaponized against him, perhaps it’s best Jay Monahan didn’t get into specifics on what exactly is going on as the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund continue to discuss a partnership.

Recall that it was on this stage two years ago that Monahan proclaimed his organization was moving on from threats of a rival circuit, only to watch some of the tour’s most recognizable names defect to a league he thought was merely theoretical. Then last year, he asserted the tour was never in a better financial situation, only to surprisingly partner with a foreign wealth fund months later because the tour’s economic trajectory was not sustainable. The fog of golf’s civil war may be frustrating, but maybe some things should be left in the shadows.

Speaking Tuesday at his tour’s flagship event, the Players Championship, there were two things of substance from his remarks, and those comments were notable in who and what they addressed.

The first was the who, as Monahan professed his attention to the group that’s been sidelined during the sport’s existential crisis. “Our business thrives when together we're all laser-focused on delivering for our fans. If we fail on that front, we fail on every front,” Monahan said. “They're tired of hearing about conflict, money and who is getting what. They want to watch the world's best golfers compete in tournaments with history, meaning, and legacies on the line at venues they recognize and love.”

Monahan later said fans are his “most important constituent,” and he’s right. The power does not lie with him or the players, the Strategic Sport Groups or Saudi Arabia. The fans will ultimately decide who “wins” the game's currently existential crisis, but their patience is dwindling. There is palpable fatigue from those inside the game and out regarding professional golf’s hostilities; people just want peace. But that’s not easy to come by; how it is achieved is fraught with hard examinations. It will require selling tour membership on LIV forgiveness, or more specifically, that the consequences the tour promised would come for taking tens of millions of guaranteed money will not be enforced. (Never mind that some LIV players may not wish to return.) There’s also the fallout from partnering with a regime accused of numerous human-rights atrocities. Those are heavy considerations, yet allowing this fight to continue without end is a reality no one wants to accept.

That includes Monahan. He would like unification, too. It makes, in the parlance that’s been used often the past few years, his “product” better. Again, though, it’s easier said than done. As he reiterated on multiple times Tuesday, bringing the game together is not necessarily his North Star.

“I feel a responsibility to put the PGA Tour in the strongest position every single day,” Monahan said. “We've taken a big step forward in our progression with SSG. We continue to be in those discussions with the PIF, so clearly I see that as an opportunity for us to strengthen our tour and to strengthen the game.

“In direct answer to your question, I take that responsibility seriously, and as a board and as an organization, we're committed to trying get to a place where there is unification.”

Which brings us to the second note of substance from Tuesday’s press conference. Since the surprise announcement of framework agreement last June, some have wondered if a change of leadership at the PGA Tour is needed for professional golf to actually come together. If Monahan harbors any doubt, he has done little to hide it. He believes his way is the right way.

“I can't generalize as it relates to players, but clearly given the responsibility I've been given by both boards, I have the support of our board, and I am the right person to lead us forward,” Monahan said. “I know that. I believe that in my heart, and I'm determined to do exactly that.”

That self-conviction, however, was undercut by comments from the players that followed Monahan in the media room. Xander Schauffele had previously said he lost faith in Monahan following last summer’s unexpected reveal, and Schauffele said his position hasn’t changed when asked about it.

“Trust is something that's pretty tender, so words are words, and I would say in my book he's got a long way to go,” Schauffele said. “He could be the guy, but in my book, he's got a long way to go to gain the trust of the membership. I'm sure he's got the support of the board, since they were with him making some of those decisions, but for me personally he's got quite a ways to go.”

Patrick Cantlay, one of the tour’s six player directors, was asked, too, if he thought Monahan was the right person for the job. Here’s how Cantlay answered: “I think it's really important that we're all rowing in the same direction, I think with this PGA Tour Enterprises board, I think it's really exciting that we do have a chance to kind of start with something new and all move together in the right direction.”

Cantlay is careful behind the mic; what he doesn’t say is just as important as what he does.

To Monahan’s critics, it may be unsettling that the man charged with extinguishing golf’s flames couldn’t keep the inferno from starting in the first place. Monahan is also not obtuse; he acknowledged he could have handled the framework agreement better. “I've taken full responsibility and accountability for that,” Monahan said. “That's on me. But we've moved on, and we've made so much progress since that point in time and I have learned from it. I've been humbled by it.”

But the mea culpa ended there. That was the past, and Monahan’s only concerned with the future. Last week’s announcement that Monahan will have voting rights with his new position as CEO of PGA Tour Enterprises solidified that whereover the tour is going, he will be the one behind the wheel.

“I think I've gotten stronger as a leader, and the progress that we have made since that point in time, some of which I just talked about, and includes the SSG's investment in the PGA Tour and the prospects that that brings forward, I couldn't be more excited about,” Monahan said. “This is a very complicated business when you have 200 plus members, over 100 different corporate partners, 50 tournament organizations, communities you're responsible for. I'm really proud of our players. I'm really proud of my team members. We're just trying to get better every single day, and I feel like as an organization we have come a long way in the last several months, and I expect next time I'm in front of all of you we'll have a lot more progress to report.”

Monahan’s duty is to his tour and his tour alone. It’s perhaps unfair to task him with being peacemaker when he was not the one who started the division, and—judging by his terse response to a question about Jon Rahm’s poaching—relations may remain frosty with his opponent.

Still, if there is one takeaway from the schism and its repercussions, it’s that a majority of golf’s stakeholders have worried more about themselves rather than where their moves were taking the sport. These moves have led golf astray, but Jay Monahan asserts he’ll get the professional game back on the right path. The next few months will put that to the test. As past State of the Tour addresses have shown, actions speak louder than words.