In sports, the victor’s brilliance is sometimes owed as much to the vanquished’s ineptness as it is to the victor’s brilliance. When future generations of Tweeters look back on the previous few years in golf, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan will be remembered for his skillful backroom diplomacy in forging vital public (key players) and private (key sponsors) connections (Chairman Ridley). However, a full accounting should indicate how much Monahan has benefited from the fumbling of those pursuing a Saudi-funded alternative league, a rebellion of clowns that could make Bozo look Churchillian in contrast.
Monahan’s self-assurance was evident in his opening remarks at a Players Championship press conference on Tuesday, when he projected the demeanor of a boxer who knows he has his opponent on the ground, if not quite counted out.
“The PGA Tour is moving on,” he continued, a statement intended to irritate his former correspondent, Greg Norman, whose February 24 letter to Monahan had promised that things were just getting started.
“We are, and will always be, focused on legacy, not leverage,” he said, using language that was immediately recognizable as a targeted drone hit on Phil Mickelson.
Monahan knows the finish isn’t near, no matter how ready he was to verbally dispose of his opponents. A rival league could yet form, albeit it appears that players will be departing TPC Sawgrass on Friday evening rather than hoisting the trophy on Sunday. The billable hours to be spent disputing how much control the Tour may have over independent contractors have outside counsel salivating. Not to mention Mickelson’s unresolved status, as he had been actively recruiting fellow players on behalf of the Saudis until his attempted coup collapsed quickly last month.
Monahan stated, “The ball is in his court.”
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,” apologized (mostly to the aforementioned MFers for inadvertently telling the truth about them), then retreated to a Montana club to lick his self-inflicted wounds while his teammates wondered aloud if comeuppance is
It’s understandable that the two haven’t spoken. After all, a captain would be hesitant to toss a life raft to a saboteur who attempted to sink his ship while pushing out in an unsuitable life raft. Before a reputational rescue effort is made, Mickelson must be observed swimming back toward the ship.
Other ancillary issues that surrounded Monahan’s previously impenetrable stronghold at Ponte Vedra Beach were also obvious in his remarks. The fact that the chairman of sports’ most politically averse league revealed that players, caddies, and staff had been handed ribbons in the colors of the Ukrainian flag to show sympathy for those currently being bombarded by Vladimir Putin’s soldiers went practically unreported. (Some of the players who will wear ribbons this week might object if they were the colors of Yemen, where their Saudi suitors are also accused of war crimes.)
The gesture and accompanying humanitarian fundraising drive may appear insignificant, but it has tentatively involved the Tour in a rising movement demanding that athletic entities speak out on human rights issues. FIFA, possibly the most venal organization in sport, took notice of the chorus and took action (admittedly a competitive category). Monahan is well aware that this wave of sentiment will eventually reach his own shores, necessitating a rethinking of the Tour’s China strategy.
The HSBC Champions, the Tour’s stop in Shanghai, hasn’t been contested since 2019, but the commissioner would be foolish to parse specifics—that it’s held in China because HSBC wants it there, that the Chinese government isn’t paying for the pleasure. The morality lens through which many golf fans regarded the Saudi danger is no less pertinent when it comes to China. Professional golf will have to reconsider where it does business and with whom. “You’re either in business with people who chop off heads, or you’re not,” a senior golf industry executive recently told me. We shouldn’t be doing this.”
Monahan sought to skirt around another issue that will necessitate a fundamental shift in the PGA Tour’s operations. When pressed on transparency, he discussed it in terms of how he communicates with his members, rather than what he reveals to the outside world about those members. A company vying for a piece of the sports betting pie will quickly understand how unsustainable it is to maintain a culture of secrecy about disciplinary action that bettors believe they have a right to know about.
“It’s a complaint that has been leveled against the PGA Tour over the years, and I believe we must constantly be willing to evolve.” “That’s something we’re willing to consider,” he finally said.
Since his last state of the Tour presentation at the Players Championship, Monahan has been pushed to develop on a number of fronts, fending off challenges, making compromises, and managing discontent. It’s a difficult duty for which he admitted to being ill-suited. He added, “I get up every day assuming someone is attempting to steal my food.” “That’s how I’m wired.” It wasn’t the kind of phrase that normally elicited a wry smile, but not today.
Monahan now has a commanding lead, but not a decisive one, two years after the Saudi scheme first came to light. What happens next will mainly be determined by his ostensible adversaries in Riyadh. And, based on their performance thus far, Monahan won’t be gazing at an empty lunch plate anytime soon.
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