PGA Tour commissioner offers optimism but few specifics on the game's future

Fans want to see the best players in the best events, but that seems a long way off

The best players at the best events. It doesn’t seem like much to ask of a sport, does it? The NBA does it. The NFL does it. NASCAR, baseball, hockey all manage it. But men’s professional golf simply can’t, or won’t, figure out a way to give fans what they want.

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, one of the key figures in the ongoing turmoil roiling the sport, held one of his few annual open news conferences Tuesday in advance of the Players Championship, the Tour’s flagship event.

It’s clear from the speech that the Tour is aware fans are fed up with the continuing drama and focus on money that consumes the men’s game right now. It’s not clear what exactly the Tour is going to do about that or how it will rebuild burnt bridges and restore fans’ faith in the game.

While it’s not quite fair to compare the state-of-the-union speeches from Augusta National — which hosts a once-a-year event — and the year-round PGA Tour, we’re going to do it anyway. Augusta National almost always announces tangible events and programs, from a new women’s tournament to a video game to investment in local golf. Monahan, by contrast, offered plenty of promises, a few apologies, and precious little in the way of specifics — not what the game needed at an existential crisis point.

“Despite the distractions over the last two years, fans, sponsors and communities continue to value and engage with the PGA Tour,” Monahan said, “and I am more confident than ever in the fundamental strength of our organization.”

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) (Jared C. Tilton via Getty Images)

Why golf is in a state of chaos

To be clear, pro golf’s problems didn’t begin with the emergence of LIV. Golf is a world of fiefdoms, and while the PGA Tour controls the most real estate, it doesn’t control the most desirable properties — the four majors, all of which are run by separate entities. There were five entities — or Five Families, if you prefer — all tasked with preserving, maintaining and growing their share of the sport even before LIV Golf arrived on the scene. That's a recipe for chaos even in calm times ... and these are not calm times.

College football, with its competing interests and baked-in chaos, is perhaps the closest analogue in sports to the money-obsessed turmoil of men’s professional golf right now. But even college football has some built-in foundations that golf currently lacks. Georgia or Ohio State can’t just decide they don’t feel like playing a Week 3 game. The SEC knows it can’t just break away from the existing college football infrastructure, play only within its own conference, and expect to be taken seriously. At the end of the season, there’s only one pathway to a title, and everyone knows it, abides by it and participates in it.

Men’s golf, though, has splintered. At this week’s Players, many of the world’s top players — including arguably the hottest player in the game, Joaquin Niemann — won’t be in the field. That’s their choice and their decision, and they’re being paid well for it. But the losers in this equation are the fans, who won’t get to see Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka tee it up against Scottie Scheffler and Rory McIlroy, not this week and — judging from Monahan’s non-comments — not for some time to come.

When will PGA Tour, LIV reunite?

The Tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund that backs LIV Golf, struck a stunning surprise agreement last year to create a new worldwide organizational structure for the game of golf. But the entities blew right past a self-imposed deadline, and movement on both sides seems to indicate that any real agreement is a long way off.

“Our negotiations are accelerating as we spend time together,” Monahan said of the PIF. “While we have several key issues that we still need to work through, we have a shared vision to quiet the noise and unlock golf's worldwide potential. It's going to take time, but I reiterate what I said at the Tour Championship in August. I see a positive outcome for the PGA Tour and the sport as a whole.”

While optimistic language is welcome, hard specifics would be even more welcome, and there, Monahan was conspicuously silent. He sidestepped direct inquiries on whether there would be a pathway for LIV players to return to the Tour (“It really is not in the best interest of the PGA Tour and our membership and for PIF for me to be talking about where we are with specific elements of our discussions”) and team golf (“I'm not at liberty to talk about the specifics. I just don't think that's helpful for what we're trying to accomplish together”).

Monahan spent substantial time talking up the virtues of the new investment of Strategic Sports Group, a consortium of sports owners, and the freedom it will allow the Tour and its players. That’s good news for those entities, and for tournaments’ sponsors and host communities. But the vast majority of golf’s fans won’t attend more than one tournament this year, if that, and the Tour must find a way to satisfy them or risk losing decades of built-up legacy and goodwill.

He also declared himself "the right person" to shepherd the PGA Tour through these rough seas. That's still very much to be determined, but there's a simple — if difficult-to-execute — north star that Monahan and the Tour must follow.

The best players at the best events. Until the PGA Tour and the PIF figure a way to make that happen, fans’ full attention will be elsewhere, and the game will suffer as a result.