Poor Jay Monahan. Not in the literal sense, of course — the guy forfeited about $1.5 million in salary during pro golf’s COVID-induced suspension of play in the spring of 2020, so he’s probably not looking over his shoulder at foreclosure — but in terms of that figurative currency known as respect. The PGA Tour commissioner has become a caretaker with limited command. The greener he makes the pasture, the more his horses want to hop the fence.
The harder he tries to mold his constituency into one big, happy family, the less united the product appears. Next month’s Saudi International, a three-year-old event sanctioned only by the barely visible Asian Tour, will boast a stronger field than the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which will be held the same week (Feb. 3-6). Phil Mickelson, Xander Schauffele, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau are among the 30 or so Americans heading to the Middle East.
They will join seven members of last fall’s European Ryder Cup squad, all of whom retain full-time playing privileges in the United States, turning what has always been a harmless conflict of interest into cause for serious concern. Monahan had little choice but to grant waivers to the U.S. contingent, which the Tour downplayed as “not precedent-setting” when it announced the decision.
Yeah, right. You lose one-third of your premium work force to a tournament with zero status, funded by a country trying desperately to launch a “Super Golf League” by luring the game’s biggest stars with millions upon millions in guaranteed money while offering nothing in the way of long-term competitive security?
"You ever heard of 30 guys getting an appearance fee?" is how a longtime observer put it.
Furthermore, how does Monahan explain this particularly unsettling lay of the land to AT&T, the Tour’s second-longest running title sponsor (trailing only Honda), a loyal partner for 36 years and host to what many still consider the flagship stop on the West Coast swing? No matter how you spin it, the commissioner is wrestling with alligators in a dark room here.
Deane Beman (1974-94) ruled pro golf with an iron fist, and before long, even the little guys were depositing checks with commas. Tim Finchem (1994-2016) sat in the back of the limo while Tiger Woods chauffeured the Tour to massive prosperity. Five years into his own tenure, Monahan looks a lot like the most unappreciated executive in sports — a man with terrific vision and greater-good instincts who governs a thankless collection of nearsighted millionaires searching primarily for their next dime.
No wonder he’s so concerned about an upstart contender subsidized by an endless fountain of wealth.
When Monahan gathered the fellas to warn them of the consequences of joining a rival faction last May, he threatened them with “permanent expulsion” (is there any other kind?), then reversed field and provided details on the Player Impact Program: a $40 million bonus pool distributed annually to the 10 pros with the strongest public identity. It was an aggressive form of defense, shall we say. A call to arms long before the enemy had been trained to march in unison.
It also added up to a mixed message, and as legend goes, gasoline + sugar = engine trouble. Did Monahan’s approach work? Just because Jhonattan Vegas is offered a few hundred grand to play somewhere else doesn’t mean he has to accept it. By all accounts, however, he’ll be at the Saudi International next month.
Perhaps Monahan felt the need to address the PIP because Golfweek had broken the story several weeks earlier. The commish would later say that results of the popularity contest would not be released, which still makes no sense. Why would a ranking based on fan favorites and public opinion not be made available to the very people responsible for it?
The goofiness accompanying the Tour’s commitment to secrecy took a comical twist Dec. 29, when Mickelson announced on Twitter that he’d finished atop the PIP list (ahead of Tiger Woods) and would receive $8 million for doing do — half of which hinged on his playing last week at the Tournament of Champions. He did, finishing T-30. When Philly Mick was informed of the good news, wasn’t he asked not to go public with it?
If so, would Monahan decline to punish Mickelson solely due to his immense popularity? It renders the possibility, however hypothetical, that the commissioner would compromise his power to avoid any defections, which is a tough way to lead.
Collin Morikawa has since expressed chagrin over finishing 11th in the ranking — just outside the money. “When you’re the first person out and you have $3 million out there, I don’t think anybody’s going to be happy about that,” Morikawa told Golf Digest. “I’m not [aware] of any other sports league that does something like this. Tell me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think any other sport has a player-impact program where the top 10 are getting paid on the side.
“Is it weird? Absolutely,” Morikawa added. “Are guys that miss out going to complain? Probably.”
And so we’re left with a commissioner who is doing all he can to raise purses to even greater levels, creating incentives to make the game’s top players even wealthier — and not getting a whole lot of love to show for it. When Monahan passed on three months’ worth of paychecks during the pandemic’s initial outbreak, it was an act of nobility. A sign of solidarity at a time when all players would be inactive for an extended period. It’s not like the commish wasn’t working throughout the suspension. In fact, he was probably grinding harder than ever, not only to salvage a season thrown into disarray, but to organize and maintain the safe competitive environments that endure to this day.
Maybe the world’s best golfers will come to realize how good they have it. Maybe they can start with a $40 million thank-you card and take it from there.