FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE
What Jimmy Dunne, golf's ultimate power broker, is doing on the PGA Tour Policy Board
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
This uncomfortable and interesting year in professional golf just got more interesting. On Tuesday morning, the PGA Tour announced a move that had been months in the making: The golf impresario Jimmy Dunne, the ultimate elite-golf clubby insider with the disarmingly candid demeanor of an old-school New York City cab driver, will be joining the PGA Tour policy board in the new year as an independent director. As boilerplate press releases go, the announcement had more news value than most.
That’s because of what the boilerplate press release did not say: One of Dunne’s primary tasks will be to try to ensure that more elite players do not leave the PGA Tour, or the game’s amateur ranks, to join LIV Golf. He has been doing this, in his own sui generis way, for most of the past year, without any sort of official title. In business and in golf, Dunne, a silver-haired, 5-foot-8, 65-year-old native Long Islander with the accent to prove it, is not afraid to insert himself or his views. But now his pro bono advisory services will come with a title, and he will have a vote, one of 10, on sensitive PGA Tour policy matters and decisions. Asked what it means to be an independent director, Dunne said, “It means you think and vote for yourself. The commissioner’s first job is to take care of the players, but an independent board member is thinking about the players, the sponsors, the fans, the TV deals, all of that.”
But Dunne’s broad view of professional golf is similar to that of Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner. They both have a scrappy, take-my-lunch-money-and-I’m-coming-after-you mentality. They have a close relationship. Given that, this won’t surprise you. Rory McIlroy, Dunne’s friend and a PGA Tour board member, has, at least at times, shown an interest in finding a working relationship with Saudi-backed LIV Golf. Dunne does not share that view. “I am 100 percent supportive of the PGA Tour and behind it,” Dunne said in a phone interview on Tuesday morning, before a meeting and a golf game, which is pretty much a typical day for him.
His appointment to the board, Dunne said, “is a war-time deal.” He did not use the famous line from "The Godfather," about “going to the mattresses” as the Corleone family goes to war with the other New York mob families. By the way, the line first appeared in the Mario Puzo novel. Dunne and McIlroy share notes on books. Dunne is now reading McIlroy’s most recent recommendation, The Gap and the Gain: The High Achievers’ Guide to Happiness, Confidence and Success.
Dunne does not do corporate word-parsing. Even his commencement address last year at his alma mater, Notre Dame, was informal and freewheeling in places. He said, “If you like cool, clinical detachment in people, I’m not that guy.” He demonstrated his penchant for real-world talking in his comments on Tuesday as well. Regarding Greg Norman, the LIV Golf commissioner, Dunne said, “I wouldn’t want to work for Greg Norman. I like people who are absolutely credible, more worried about fact than sizzle, and are reliable.”
Dunne, whose life changed dramatically after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as he lost scores of friends and colleagues, said he wouldn’t want his paycheck signed by a Saudi bank either. He has spent most of his Wall Street career working for himself, at investment companies where he was a principal.
One of his fundamental beliefs about the PGA Tour is that its greatness stems from being both democratic and meritocratic: Shoot the scores, make the money, hoist the trophies, become a legend. Live happily ever after. “Playing the PGA Tour is like playing center field for the New York Yankees,” he said. “Do that for 10 years and everything else will take care of itself.” His athletic heroes are Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, and Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino. He has played golf with Trevino, with Michael Jordan, with Michael Bloomberg. He has an obsessive interest in success and excellence. His hobby and his profession are the same: dispensing advice. His stock-in-trade is reading people and winning their trust. Players who have sought his advice and will in the future will see that.
“If guys are asking me what they should do, I point to the money you can make on the PGA Tour, what it means to play in majors, playing on Ryder Cups and President Cups, playing in the FedEx events,” Dunne said. “Yeah, you can make a lot of money playing LIV Golf. But you can make a lot of money playing on the PGA Tour, and you can look back at what you’ve done with real satisfaction.” Where to play, Dunne said, “is a pretty binary decision.”
That could change depending on how various percolating legal issues are settled, both in the United States and abroad, how Official World Golf Ranking points are allocated, how welcoming the administrators behind the four major championships choose to be toward LIV players. Professional golf has never been messier. But things are clear to Dunne. “I don’t have any ill feeling to guys who have went [to LIV],” he said. He counts Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed and Graeme McDowell as friends. But he wants nothing to do with LIV Golf.
Dunne can play with anybody, and has. He shot 63 at Shinnecock Hills, where he is a longtime member. But par for him on a hard golf course is more like 75. He has no tolerance for slow play, slow greens or slow food service. He has always looked to get things done. Dunne plays most of his golf at clubs where he is a member, including Augusta National, Pine Valley, National Golf Links and various clubs in Ireland. He invited McIlroy’s father, Gerry, a former barman and a good golfer, to join Seminole and has logged many rounds with him.
In a pre-tournament interview in Dubai this week, Rory McIlroy said, “There’s a few things that I would like to see on the LIV side that needs to happen. I think Greg [Norman] needs to go. I think he just needs to exit stage left. He’s made his mark, but I think now is the right time to sort of say, ‘Look, you’ve got this thing off the ground, but no one is going to talk unless there’s an adult in the room that can actually try to mend fences.’ Then things can happen. But right now, it’s a stalemate.”
For months now, deriding Norman has been a running theme from the PGA Tour leadership, both in public and in private. A spokesperson for Norman said Norman did not want to respond to McIlroy’s comments, nor Dunne’s.
Prior to the arrival of Tiger Woods on the professional golf scene in 1996, Norman was golf’s biggest star. Woods is notoriously tight-lipped about his true feelings about most personal subjects, but his dislike for Norman has been an open secret for 25 years. It has always puzzled Norman, who tells an amusing story about being stuck at a raised bridge in South Florida and being unable to get Woods to even respond to his wave as each sat in an idling car. McIlroy is very much aligned with Woods, as a friend and more recently as a business partner.
Dunne is not at all close to Woods, but he is to McIlroy, which moves him vaguely into the Woods orbit. To borrow an observation, the PGA Tour solar system is high school revisited, but with more money and better cars.
In this scenario, Jim “Bones” Mackay, Justin Thomas’s caddie, is very much aligned with Woods, with McIlroy and most especially with Dunne. In an interview on Tuesday, Mackay said when he learned that Dunne was joining the tour board, “I thought, ‘That’s the best news for the PGA Tour I’ve heard in a long time.’ He’s an incredibly wise man, and in my experience in the game, over the last 30 years, he’s the most beloved figure that I’ve seen.”
When Mackay has been at turning points in his professional life—his 2017 breakup with Mickelson after 25 years; his work as a TV broadcaster after it; his return to caddieing more recently—Mackay has turned to Dunne for counsel. “He gets you,” Mackay said. “You’ve got all these things running through your head, and he’ll cut to the chase.”
Mackay is only one of Dunne’s many caddie friends. He has befriended countless club and touring caddies over the years, often through his Masters-week job as the unofficial host in the caddie house at Augusta National. Dunne has a unique capacity to connect with people on a deep level, often by focusing not just on the person in front of him but the people around the person. His candor about his own failings, and his compulsive nature, is disarming. Watching Dunne in action is entertaining. At the Ryder Cup last year, he walked inside the ropes while wearing a blazer and a USA hat, looking almost like the grand marshal at a parade. When he gave TV interviews during the Walker Cup at Seminole, the same. He likes his place in the game.
But his main work is done in the shade of tall trees, on sun-drenched putting greens, in private planes and in the grill rooms of many of the leading clubs in the world.
Seminole’s annual pro-member event, held on the Monday after the Honda Classic each year, draws many of the top 50 players in the world. Jon Rahm has flown from Phoenix to south Florida specifically for the event, in part out of respect for Dunne. Ed Herlihy, the chairman of the tour’s board, is a member at Seminole. So are Fred Perpall, the incoming USGA president; Seth Waugh, the CEO of the PGA of America; Pete Bevacqua, the chairman of the NBC Sports Group; Mike Davis, the former CEO of the USGA; and Mark Flaherty, a tour board member. Other members include Tom Brady, Nick Price and the course architect Rees Jones. Talk about your one-stop shopping. Jimmy Dunne can win friends and influence people without leaving the Seminole locker room.
Patrick Cantlay has played in the Seminole event, and next year he will become a member of the PGA Tour board, sitting in meetings with McIlroy and Dunne. There has been speculation about Cantlay and his friend Xander Schauffele leaving the PGA Tour for LIV. That now seems less likely. It’s easy to imagine Cantlay and Dunne sitting beside each other in board rooms and not because of alphabetical seating. It’s easy to imagine Dunne doing what needs to be done to make sure Cantlay does not jump ship. If Cantlay is famous for anything in golf, in addition to his spectacular putting stroke, it is cold, shrewd analysis about the business and the playing of golf. Dunne can do all that, and it’s his emotional connection that makes him so effective.
Dunne was a founder of an investment firm that had offices in one of the World Trade Center towers. Brian Koppelman, one of the principal writers and producers behind Showtime series "Billions", has interviewed and spent time with Dunne and used him as a loose model for the show’s former lead character, Bobby Axelrod of Axe Capital, who remains loyal and indebted to the families of friends and colleagues he lost in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Dunne said he never initiates any mention of the Sept. 11 attacks when he discusses LIV Golf with players, most of whom were children when the attacks took place. (Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.) But if a player asks about it, he will say he would not want to be in business with the Saudi oligarchs who are bankrolling LIV.
“My son gets mad at me,” Dunne said. “He’ll say, ‘I’ve never heard you say one negative thing about the Saudis, even after all you’ve gone through.’ But the fact is, I would not want to work for them.”
His stance is clear, and so is his agenda in this new position: The PGA Tour is about fairness and earning what you get, and its values dovetail with American values at their best; if you join LIV Golf, you’ll make a lot of money, but when you get to be 65 you might not feel so good about it. He is taking a long view, and a fatherly approach.
“I’ve enjoyed making money,” Dunne said. “And I’ve enjoyed feeling good about what I do.”
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com