Right up front, before we get into the meat of this column, I want to make something clear: It is admirable that Jay Monahan revealed to a small group of reporters in Memphis this week that his recent leave of absence from his job as PGA Tour Commissioner was because he was suffering from anxiety.
Talking about anxiety is hard. It can feel like you’re confessing to a character flaw. I know, because I’ve endured bouts of it in my own life. A lot of us have, but most of us keep it buried because it’s hard to be vulnerable, especially if you hold a very public job.
Admitting you have anxiety can feel like you’re handing ammunition to your dumbest and most disingenuous critics. But Monahan chose honesty over deceit likely knowing the potential cost. In a time when he needed to show strength, his body and brain would not cooperate, and that can leave you feeling trapped. I’ve been there. Regardless of what happens with his job moving forward, you should be glad Monahan took that time away, not only for the sake of his wife and daughters but for his own sake. What good is having your dream job if it’s making you miserable?
All that said, it is possible to have empathy for someone on a human level and also believe they need to get dramatically better at their job (and quickly) if they want to keep it, and that’s where I’ve arrived with Monahan.
The past few months at the PGA Tour have been — if we’re assessing things honestly — a complete shitshow.
Based on conversations we’ve had with numerous Tour employees throughout the organization, players, host organizations, agents and tour partners, it’s not a stretch to say it feels like it’s rotting internally, and in need of a massive overhaul. At most companies, public or private, the festering issues and repeated bumbling would result in a wholesale turnover and the board seeking new leadership — but not at the Tour, where Monahan is just the fourth commissioner in the last 54 years. If Monahan wants to be the person to lead day-to-day operations of PGA Tour Enterprises, the for-profit entity that will — pending Justice Department approval — welcome the Saudis as a minority investor, he cannot ignore a half-dozen fundamental issues currently plaguing the place he’s run since 2017.
Internal morale is terrible, and we’re not talking about the players. Working for the PGA Tour is no longer the draw that it once was, and entry-level salaries haven’t kept pace with other industries. Communication (both internal and external) has been a mess, and apologizing for it (which Monahan has done repeatedly) means little if he keeps making the same mistakes. Many players feel betrayed, not only by the surprise framework agreement with the Saudis but also by changes made to funnel more money to top players. A large portion of the membership doesn’t trust the C-suite leadership. Sponsors feel squeezed, and a couple of them are furious they’ve been dragged into a potential partnership with a country that has an abominable human rights record. PGA Tour policy board member Randall Stephenson resigned in July, saying in a resignation letter obtained by the Washington Post that he “could not in good conscience” support the framework deal with the Saudis. And then long-time Tour executive Andy Pazder, the Tour’s chief competitions and tournaments officer, resigned suddenly this week, with zero statement or explanation, despite the fact that Monahan had tapped him to lead various committees involved in the PIF partnership, leaving speculation and innuendo to fill the void. Why would Pazder, who had been with the Tour for more than 30 years, resign out of nowhere? Does the Tour really believe the reasons behind his departure will stay secret?
On top of that, a congressional inquiry looms over everything.
How can anyone digest all that and not come to the conclusion that there is a crisis of leadership?
It’s easy to blame the tumult of the past 18 months solely on the ascension of LIV and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s sudden interest in golf, but the problems run deeper than being forced to compete with an oil-rich nation that has a bottomless purse. For more than a year, the Tour has struggled to find a consistent message it can project to the people who want to consume its product. Why are there so many events? Why did it take so long for the top players to agree they need to play together more often? In an era where the Tour sees very few appearances by Tiger Woods, are people tuning in because they’re compelled by the product or simply out of habit? No one has developed a clear strategy, which is how we ended with a bloated season that essentially never ends. The Tour seems engaged in a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, at times boasting about its financial strength and occupying the moral high ground, only to turn around and suddenly claim its position is both dire and untenable, and that a deal with the Saudis is the only path forward.
Obviously, Monahan has a very difficult job, and he has to try and please thousands of people who answer to him in some form, many of them with conflicting interests. Any defense of his performance would begin there and also point out that in the corporate world, situations are constantly changing. It’s easy to be critical from the outside, etc.
But even the biggest Monahan defender (of which there are few) will admit he has a communication problem. It is a glaring weakness, and it has made difficult situations during his tenure mushroom.
Just during the past 18 months, he has:
-Expressed regret that he invoked the 9/11 Families as part of an effort to convince PGA Tour players to stay and not join LIV Golf
-Expressed regret that he didn’t communicate with the policy board during negotiations with Yasir Al-Rumayan and the Public Investment Fund
-Expressed regret that he didn’t fly to Toronto and inform the players he’d negotiated a deal with the Saudis before appearing on CNBC to announce the deal publicly.
Even Monahan’s rare accomplishments have been undercut by the Tour’s poor messaging strategy. In 2020, when he went on CNBC to announce the PGA Tour’s new media deal (a nine-year agreement with CBS, NBC and ESPN worth an estimated $700 million, a 70 percent increase) it came across as tone deaf because a market collapse driven by COVID concerns was unfolding that same day.
I’m not ready to say, with total certainty, that Monahan isn’t the right man for the job. Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm have each given him a vote of confidence, and that ought to count for something. Monahan has helped put a lot of money in the pockets of the PGA Tour membership, and Rahm recently argued that the commissioner should be allowed to see his vision through. It didn’t make sense to change leadership amidst golf’s civil war. (Also, what sane, competent person would’ve wanted the gig amidst that mess?) But any assessment of Monahan’s job status ought to address the elephant in the room: Why is he the right person to lead going forward?
Players have repeatedly told us they have been more likely to learn what’s going on in their own organization by reading media reports on Twitter or listening to podcasts. The PGA Tour’s app and website have lagged behind for years, to the point where they’ve been borderline unusable. Employees, even those intimately involved with issues massively important to the Tour, often feel in the dark about what’s going on, and it’s not just players like Wesley Bryan and Grayson Murray, who both stated they couldn’t trust the Tour executives again. When a tranche of public documents that were part of Larry Klayman’s lawsuit against the PGA Tour was spotted online by Twitter user desertdufferLLG, it became clear that the PGA Tour had drafted an entire strategy to combat LIV Golf that involved Tiger Woods delivering talking points to other players including one where Woods invoked his own son, Charlie — without ever actually checking first if this was okay with Woods.
It’s no wonder the PGA Tour players wanted, and got, Woods added to the PGA Tour policy board with the creation of an additional seat. It gives them a voting majority for the first time, meaning Woods will have a significant say in shaping the future of an organization that likely would not have flourished over the last 25 years without his appeal as the catalyst.
“I couldn’t say yes fast enough,” Monahan told reporters when asked about Woods’ desire to join the policy board.
Woods certainly has his share of baggage. He has made decisions in his personal life that likely shortened his career and put others at risk. But he commands respect and possesses qualities that Monahan clearly lacks. It seems clear that Woods wants to see the Tour he turned into a behemoth continue to survive and find ways to thrive. The players have realized this is their organization, and for too long, they’ve been letting someone else steer the ship on major decisions. If you want to give Phil Mickelson credit for something, this is a fair place to start. The players deserve transparency and haven’t been getting it.
Woods’ legacy is secure, while Monahan’s isn’t. If Monahan is going to be the right man for the job moving forward, he’d be wise to keep close counsel with Woods, and even ask him to lead. The next few months are going to shape professional golf for the foreseeable future.
The commissioner needs all the discipline and credibility he can borrow.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org