FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE
Jay Monahan meets the press as the PGA Tour's ongoing battle with LIV Golf enters Year 2
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
KAPALUA, Hawaii — Deep in the Plantation Course clubhouse, behind a wall of hats in the pro shop, through some backroom cubicles, there is a small, windowless conference room. A few minutes before 11 on Sunday morning, a dozen frumpy sportswriters (and one well-tanned TV smoothie) were ushered into the room for an audience with the most embattled man in professional golf, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. I sat to his right, and we made awkward eye contact.
The Commish could not quite contain his smirk. I spent most of 2022 trying to get a one-on-one sit-down interview with Monahan but was thwarted at every turn by the watch dogs in the tour’s communications department. I don’t like asking questions in press conference settings because in this business, information is the coin of the realm; if the subject says something funny, or controversial, or particularly insightful, it will be cherry-picked by the aggregating elves at every golf website and thus lose its luster. At the Tour Championship last August, I was desperate enough to throw some moderately tough questions at Monahan, which seemed to arouse the interest of the former high school hockey player. When I cornered him afterward, he said, “I know what you’re doing.” It was slightly enigmatic, but I believe he was referring to the book I’m working on about the battle between the tour and LIV Golf. He fixed me with a look and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll talk to you.”
In the weeks afterward I repeatedly tried to schedule the interview, but the Comms folks were evasive at best. So I began texting Monahan directly … once, twice, three times. He never replied. Finally, a tour media person called to say Monahan would not be doing the interview with me because tour lawyers deemed it too risky, given the ongoing legal battles with LIV. That was a howler given that the week before Monahan had “sat down with ESPN for an exclusive interview before last week’s Presidents Cup at Quail Hollow Club,” according to the ensuing story posted on ESPN.com.
The Kapalua confab was Monahan’s first time meeting the press since then. In advance of it, a tour official requested that I keep things “cordial.” Monahan looked tan but a little tired, having jetted in from Florida a couple of days earlier. (No one had the temerity to ask if he had flown commercial in the wake of damning revelations from The Wall Street Journal about the commissioner’s extensive jet-setting on the company plane.) He began with brief opening remarks, but I wanted to cut to the matter: A fundamental issue at the tour level has always been, Do the players work for the commissioner or does the commissioner work for the players? The Delaware uprising—the mid-August meeting at which Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy convened a bunch of their friends and reshaped the entire tour schedule—seemed to answer that question, but I have always been curious about Monahan’s role behind the scenes. I asked if he had any input about which players were in the room. “That was a meeting that was called by Tiger and Rory,” he said. “I may have made suggestions. I understood who was going to be in the room, but it was their meeting. I mean, I want to be very clear that it was their meeting.”
Jay Monahan congratulates newly crowned FedEx Cup champion Rory McIlroy at the Tour Championship in August.
Did he have any input on how his tour was going to be reorganized? “I think the reality is prior to that, I had a lot of conversations with Tiger and Rory,” Monahan said, “so I had a general sense of what they were talking about. Absolutely.”
One kernel of news that came out of the Kapalua conference room was that the tour has agreed to grant releases to some of its members to play in next month’s Saudi International, which is not a LIV event but is co-sanctioned by the Asian Tour and is sponsored by the same Public Investment Fund backing LIV. I asked Monahan about the process of reviewing such requests; these granular bureaucratic processes have become of more interest in this era of golf’s warring tribes. The players may have seized control of the tour, but in certain matters it remains a monarchy. Monahan said the leaders of his competition department review the release applications and make a recommendation, but the commissioner makes the final call. I asked Monahan if he ever overrules the advice.
“I’m sure I have,” he replied.
There was a lot of talk about the upcoming fall schedule, which has yet to be released, and TV and sponsorship deals. Naturally, there were plenty of questions about the elephant (shark?) in the room: LIV Golf. Even before LIV, there had been the Premier Golf League, which proposed a global tour with small, elite fields and $20 million purses. (If this sounds familiar, in its early days LIV stole two key executives from the PGL.) The first news reports about the PGL (then known as the World Golf Series) bubbled up in mid-2018. To recycle the Watergate-era question about Nixon: What did Monahan know and when did he know it? I asked when he became aware of the World Golf Series, and he said the summer of 2017.
Did he ever see the WGS’s painstakingly detailed 116-page prospectus, which laid out a new way to think about professional golf?
“Given that we’re in the midst of litigation?” he said. “Well, I’d prefer not to answer that question.” The lawsuit in question is actually an antitrust dispute between the tour and LIV, but whatever. The more interesting issue to me is what Monahan should have done differently before a rival league became a full-blown threat. He rejected the premise. “I always think someone’s trying to take my lunch,” he said, metaphorically. “I spend a lot of my time thinking about No. 1, what do we need to do to improve. And then if you were trying to create something new and different, what would that be? So I wasn’t necessarily surprised by it at that point in time, but anytime you hear something for the first time, it gets your attention and it got my attention.”
Now that the battle lines have been drawn, is there any way forward? Monahan has worn as a badge of honor that he has had no contact with Greg Norman, LIV’s polarizing CEO. I asked if Norman called him tomorrow, would he take the call?
“He hasn’t called me so …”
“But if he did?”
“You know me well enough, I’m not getting into hypotheticals.”
“Let me rephrase it: Why have you not had any contact with him throughout this whole process?”
“Now Alan, I think you’ve heard me say a bunch of times that we’re focusing on what we control. We’re at a point now where it’s product versus product. And we have our schedule, we’ve laid it out, we’re going to keep getting better and better and better. They have theirs, and we’re going to continue to be the most pro-competitive aspirational tour. What they have is very different than what we have. We’re going down our path and they’re going down theirs.”
As the session reached the one-hour mark, Monahan’s minder made it clear there was only time for one last question or two. I noted that in the last year the PGA Tour has seen the rise of a robust new competitor while losing from its ranks Hall of Famers, major champions and Ryder Cup captains. Yet it has fought fire with fire, or at least money with money. Is the tour in a stronger or weaker position than a year ago? Monahan perked up a little bit.
“I think the model of the PGA Tour is as strong as it’s ever been,” he said. “If you look at it from a player standpoint, I feel like we have made changes to our schedule, changes to our product that I think make us as attractive as we can possibly be to top players. I think for them, the most important piece in putting together a schedule, does it put players in the best possible position to achieve at the highest levels of the game? I think we absolutely have done that, and we’ll continue to do that. As it relates to strength, we’re growing, growing financially. Last year we had a 31-percent increase in comprehensive player earnings. I think this year we’re somewhere between 16 and 18 percent, and we have a solid group of sponsors, media partners, tournament organizations all coming together. And I feel like as you look out to the future, despite the challenges of the past year, we’re again the strongest we’ve ever been, and I’m going to do everything I can to make certain that continues to be the case.”
The meeting broke up and all of us filed out of the conference room. Near a sale rack in the Kapalua pro shop, I cornered Monahan again and asked if we could continue the conversation in a more private setting. “As was promised at the Tour Championship,” I noted, helpfully.
“I probably shouldn’t have said that,” he said.
“Ah, but you did,” I countered.
Monahan flashed a big, broad smile and reached out to shake my hand. “Alan, thank you,” the commissioner said, and then he was gone.