PONTE VEDRA — When Jay Monahan showed up Tuesday for his annual appearance with the media prior to The Players Championship, he walked into the media center, climbed onto the dais and sat down, briefly, in the wrong chair.
Laura Neal, the PGA Tour’s Vice President of Communications and Media Content, quietly gestured to the chair to Monahan’s right and he sheepishly scooted over, with Neal grabbing the chair he had just vacated. Now Monahan’s long-awaited press conference could begin.
If you were searching for metaphors, it was an interesting one. Two years into the PGA Tour’s efforts to fend off the threat of LIV Golf, it’s still debatable whether Monahan has been in the driver’s seat for the dramatic re-shaping of professional golf in America, or if he’s been scooted over to sit in the passenger seat while others — primarily Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods — have taken the wheel.
The reality is, it probably doesn’t matter.
Regardless of who deserves credit, the PGA Tour will look dramatically different in 2024 than it has looked for the last 50 years. And while LIV Golf still looms as a potential threat, that threat feels of late like it has been downgraded to a nuisance. Monahan’s biggest strength, in the end, may turn out to be that he was willing to work on the unpleasant elements of a restructure, like getting sponsors to pony up more money, without demanding credit for the changes.
“That gives me energy, being a part of that,” Monahan said when I asked him Tuesday how he settled on his role as a behind-the-scenes negotiator while others, like McIlroy, took the lead on organization and messaging. “I love every second of it and am thankful for it. … I was grateful that Tiger and Rory and that group of players got together because I was a part of the process. I understood what they were seeking to accomplish; the lines of communication were very open and transparent. In my role it's my job to synthesize that and ultimately come back to our board of five player directors and five independent directors and alongside my team make a recommendation that's in the best interests of the Tour.”
A year ago, it did not seem like Monahan was the right man for the moment. He was, in the words of Michael Corleone, more of a Tom Hagan, peace time consigliere. In his press conference prior to The Players in 2022, he came across as stiff and defensive. With Phil Mickelson in exile, and Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau having re-committed to the PGA Tour, it felt like an early victory lap. “The PGA Tour is moving on,” Monahan said. Repeated use of the phrase “legacy, not leverage” in the coming months did not project strength the way he clearly hoped it would.
When he came into the CBS booth with Jim Nantz during the final round of the Canadian Open, he looked like he felt personally betrayed by some of the defections to LIV, his voice wavering at times. “I would ask any player who has left or is considering leaving: ‘Have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?’ ” Monahan said. An awkward silence hung in the air.
Some of those elements of Monahan’s personality remain evident. He rarely seems relaxed behind a microphone. His answers to even the most mundane questions can sound like a ChatGPT script that has ingested every corporate leadership book on the discount table of Barnes & Noble. Because he meets so infrequently with the media, almost none of the questions he fielded on Tuesday were about The Players Championship, the crown jewel of PGA Tour events. He could benefit from making more casual appearances with the media, chats by the putting green where he didn’t feel like he had to be dressed in his best suit. There are still areas of messaging that are going to be a struggle for him.
But if Greg Norman was what LIV thought it needed — a bold and brash leader who promised big swings and didn’t dwell on getting the details nailed down before he opened his mouth — then Monahan may ultimately turn out to be exactly what the PGA Tour needed to counter it.
He has made his share of missteps. Had he agreed to meet with Andy Gardiner of the Premier Golf League when the concept first arose years ago, it’s possible the PGA Tour could have come up with its own model for team golf, outflanking LIV before they stole Gardiner’s idea and used it for sports washing purposes. A strong case can be made that the Tour’s unwillingness to adapt, much to the frustration of members like Mickelson, left it vulnerable to LIV’s rise. There have definitely been moments the past two years when you had to wonder if the PGA Tour would be better off with a more charismatic commissioner.
But there is also evidence that Monahan has learned to play the long game.
Had Monahan, instead of McIlroy and Woods, proposed a scenario that would dramatically overhaul the Tour in a way that appeared to enrich only the game’s elite, there likely would have been a revolt among the Tour’s steerage class. As it stands, there is some trepidation from those players that what they’re been shown in statistical modeling will play out, but few dissenting voices. The restructuring, which will feature at least eight designated events that have limited fields and no cuts, was passed unanimously by the PGA Tour Policy Board. What ultimately emerged in negotiations looks dramatically different from the initial plan drafted by the players in Delaware last October.
“I can confidently say that it's not two separate tours as much as that might be perceived that way,” said Jordan Spieth. “In Delaware that was the first presentation; it was essentially two separate tours.”
Some of the credit for that should go to Monahan.
“There have been a lot of conversations,” Monahan said. “There have been a lot of bad ideas that we came up with along the way. But candidly, I think the level of discussion has been really helpful and got us to the point that we're at today.”
McIlroy had the credibility to sell it. Monahan believes he has figured out a way to pay for it. Each man played to his strengths. And when the details were fleshed out on Tuesday in a presentation to the larger membership, some of the class resentment dissipated.
“I think the temperature in the room was nowhere near as hot as I anticipated it to be once the information was sort of laid out,” said McIlroy, when asked about the Tuesday player meeting.
Monahan does not wield the kind of power that Roger Goodell or Adam Silver has in their job, an important aspect to remember when assessing how he’s handled the tumult of the last two years. He hasn’t been empowered by billionaires to rule over millionaires. The PGA Tour, both a nonprofit and a player-run organization with a board of directors, doesn’t work that way. Monahan is instead more like the director of a hit Broadway play, a production that has been running for many years. A director needs to manage and massage the egos of actors, producers and stage hands, plus the orchestra. He has to weigh the assessment of critics but also not forget his real job is to please the audience. And he has to do all this from behind the scenes, almost never asking for credit when things do go well.
To the surprise of many, it’s working.
“I'm pleased with the work the PGA Tour has done in regards to feedback from players,” said Spieth. "I've felt like in the last six months, maybe four months, the communication has been fantastic, and hopefully, this is a product that doesn't need to be changed much. Once the nicks are kind of figured out over the next six months or so, the little details, hopefully it can be a situation where there doesn't have to be a lot of change over the next 20 plus years, and that was really the outlook that we all had on it.”
There are still landmines ahead that Monahan will need to dodge. Eventually, someone from LIV Golf will want to return to the PGA Tour, either because their contract has expired or they’ve decided they have regrets and want to attempt to break it. It’s been a hot topic amongst PGA Tour players in recent weeks, as whispers have grown louder that not everyone is as happy at LIV as they appear in their promotional videos. It has sparked a discussion: Is there any feasible path back to the PGA Tour?
Players seem divided on whether there should be.
“I’ve thought a lot about this,” Max Homa said. “My selfish petty pride would be really frustrated. But I think my unselfish side and my realistic side is, all of those guys that you can name that left are great for golf. Champion golfers, interesting golfers, so many great stories across their careers. So of course I think if I could put my selfish part aside and maybe put on my big-boy hat, I would realize that having them back would be a good thing for golf at large.”
With rumors swirling, it seemed like a question worth putting to Monahan. Was there any wiggle room in the Tour’s position that LIV players would never be allowed back?
“For some reason, I've been hearing that a lot lately,” Monahan said. “And I'm not certain where that's coming from. The players that are playing on that tour are contractually obligated to play on that tour. So any hypotheticals at this point really aren't relevant, and I think you know me well enough to know I'm not a big fan of hypotheticals. But our position, to answer your question directly, has not changed.”
His message, more confident than a year ago, sounded like a different line from The Godfather:
It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director at No Laying Up.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org