Success stories in sport often owe as much to the ineptitude of the vanquished as to the brilliance of the victor. When future generations of Tweeters analyze the past few years in golf, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan will be credited for deft backroom diplomacy in building crucial alliances both public (key players) and private (Chairman Ridley). Yet a thorough accounting should note the extent to which Monahan has benefitted from the bumbling of those pushing a Saudi-financed rival league, a mutiny of clowns that could make Bozo seem Churchillian by comparison.
Monahan’s confidence was apparent in his opening remarks at a Tuesday press conference at the Players Championship, during which he projected the mien of a boxer who knows he has his opponent on the canvas, if not quite counted out.
“The PGA Tour is moving on,” he began, a declaration designed to irk his erstwhile correspondent, Greg Norman, whose February 24 epistle to Monahan had promised that things were only beginning.
“We are and we always will be focused on legacy, not leverage,” he continued, wording immediately obvious as a targeted drone strike on Phil Mickelson.
However eager he was to verbally dispense with his challengers, Monahan knows the end isn’t imminent. A rival league could still launch, though it seems destined to feature players more likely to be leaving TPC Sawgrass on Friday evening than hoisting the trophy on Sunday. Outside counsel is drooling at the billable hours to be spent litigating how much control the Tour can exercise over independent contractors. And, not least, there is the unresolved status of Mickelson, who had been actively recruiting fellow players on behalf of the Saudis until his attempted coup unraveled rapidly last month.
“The ball is in his court,” Monahan said.
Monahan hasn’t spoken to Mickelson since the former folk hero accused the Tour of “obnoxious greed,” was revealed to have called his Saudi benefactors murderers and “scary motherf…..s,” issued an apology (chiefly to the aforementioned MFers for inadvertently telling the truth about them), then retreated to a club in Montana to lick his self-inflicted wounds while his peers in the locker room wondered aloud if comeuppance is one word or two.
It is no surprise that the two haven’t conversed. After all, a captain would be ill-disposed to toss a life vest to a saboteur who tried to sink his ship while pushing off in a life-raft that ultimately proved unseaworthy. Mickelson must be seen to swim back toward the ship some before a reputational rescue effort is mounted.
Other tangential troubles circling Monahan’s once impenetrable fortress in Ponte Vedra Beach were evident in his comments too. It passed almost unnoticed that the head of the most politically squeamish league in sports announced that players, caddies and staff had been given ribbons in the colors of the Ukrainian flag to signal their support for those currently being bombarded by the forces of Vladimir Putin. (Some players who will don ribbons this week would balk if the colors were those of Yemen, where their Saudi suitors are equally guilty of war crimes.)
The gesture and accompanying humanitarian fundraising drive seems superficial, but it tentatively enlisted the Tour in a growing movement that demands sporting bodies not remain silent on matters of human rights. That chorus even spurred action from FIFA, arguably the most venal organization in sport (admittedly a competitive category). Monahan knows this wave of sentiment will probably wash up on his own shores soon enough, perhaps forcing a rethink of the Tour’s China business.
The Tour stop in Shanghai, the HSBC Champions, hasn’t been contested since 2019, but the commissioner would be unwise to parse specifics—that it’s held in China because HSBC wants it there, that the Chinese government isn’t paying the Tour for the privilege. The lens through which many golf fans viewed the Saudi threat—that of morality—is no less relevant with China. Professional golf will be forced to reassess where and with whom it does business. As a senior golf industry executive said to me recently, “You are either in business with people who chop off heads, or you’re not. We should not be.”
Monahan attempted to sidestep another issue that will force a fundamental change in how the PGA Tour operates. When pushed on transparency, he addressed it in the context of how he communicates with his members, not what he communicates about those members to the outside world. An organization hungry for its share of sports gambling dollars will soon realize how untenable it is to maintain a culture of secrecy around disciplinary action that bettors feel entitled to know about.
“It’s a criticism that has been lobbied against the PGA Tour through the years, and I think we always have to be open to evolving. That’s something that we are open to,” he finally conceded.
Monahan has been forced to evolve on many fronts since last he gave a state of the Tour address at the Players Championship, fending off challenges, making concessions and managing discontent. It’s an onerous task that he admitted to being oddly suited for. “I wake up every day assuming someone is trying to take my lunch,” he said. “That’s the way I operate.” It was the kind of statement that would usually be accompanied with a wry smile, but not today.
Two years after the Saudi scheme burst into public view, Monahan finds himself with a dominant edge, but not yet a decisive one. What happens next will depend largely on his putative rivals in Riyadh. And if their aptitude thus far is any indication, Monahan won’t expect to be staring at an empty lunch plate anytime soon.
Published at Golfweek.com, March 8, 2022.