‘Extra steamy’ player meeting has PGA boss Monahan on defensive after LIV merger

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan describes what it was like during the players meeting, and the excitement for the upcoming changes in 2024.

TORONTO – There was a player meeting Tuesday at Oakdale Golf and Country Club featuring PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who flew in from New York and rolled in in a well-appointed Lincoln Navigator. He slipped in the side door of the clubhouse into the locker room, away from the assembled media who looked ready to pop questions at a politician and not a sports commissioner. A sign in the clubhouse directing where the meeting took place featured someone scribbling in black marker “LIV” about the words “Player Meeting.”

So began a new era of the PGA Tour – or, well, a so-unnamed golf entity.

In bombshell news dropped Tuesday morning, hidden from the world of media and even the top-10 ranked golfers in the world, the PGA Tour ended its legal battles against LIV and the Ponte Vedra Beach-based Tour announced a merger with the DP World Tour and the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia. It was dubbed a “landmark agreement,” with the PIF making a capital investment into the unnamed new entity to help with its “growth and success.” Upwards of “multiple billions,” one PGA Tour player guessed.

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Conversations that got the golf world to this point heated up over the last seven weeks. There were four in-person meetings, and the circle of information was kept “very tight” with just two members of the Tour’s policy board – Ed Herlihy and Jimmy Dunne – sitting with Monahan in the discussions.

Dunne is perhaps the biggest wildcard with what unfolded. His career was shaped by September 11, as he was a partner at a firm that lost 66 workers that day in the terrorist attack, orchestrated mostly by Saudis. Dunne essentially had the first discussion with members of the PIF on growing the PGA Tour and built the initial trust.

“When they came back and said it was a positive conversation and that I should have a follow-up meeting, I think that’s when things started to develop,” Monahan said.

Monahan took the brunt of the player feedback during the approximately one-hour-long meeting in Oakdale’s main dining room. He had long stood for the players and for the legacy of the PGA Tour. “Have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?” he said exactly one year ago at last year’s RBC Canadian Open.

Now PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan is set to be the chairman of this new for-profit entity. Al-Rumayyan will also join the PGA Tour’s board.

The players, obviously, were not as forgiving as Monahan would have liked.

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Johnson Wagner, a PGA Tour winner, said on the Golf Channel that there was a “standing ovation” when players in the room called for new Tour leadership. Trust had been long lost by plenty of the Tour’s best. Strip away any of the golf details, legal battles or geopolitical impact of this particular business effort and think about any company from any industry announcing a full-stop merger without telling 99.9 percent of their employees, and you’re going to get some people upset. 

“I recognize that people are going to call me a hypocrite,” Monahan admitted.

“I accept those criticisms. But circumstances do change. I think that in looking at the big picture and looking at it this way, that’s what got us to this point.”

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The rationale for the announcement, according to another PGA Tour player, was that the Tour’s cash reserves were starting to be impacted. Real dollars – upwards of $100 million – were being spent on legal fees. Not to mention the increased cash needed to run the designated events plus bonus payouts and more. The Tour couldn’t keep going in the way they were. If it was a battle of bucks, they would lose.

There remain plenty of unanswered questions on formatting, membership, and individual and team play moving forward. One Canadian PGA Tour winner called the temperature in the player meeting with Monahan “extra steamy” while a major champion confirmed it was a “s—t show.”

There was disappointment shared on social media from some of the best in the world (Collin Morikawa, a two-time major winner who got as high as No.2 in the world, said he found out the news on Twitter). Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, allegedly, didn’t even find out this was happening until this morning – despite all their efforts to continue to keep the PGA Tour’s legacy intact.  

Monahan believed, looking at the bigger picture, the endless tension wouldn’t be “right or sustainable.” He believes the Tour is now in a “control position” with a “great and world-class investor” in the PIF.

Unfortunately for organizers of the RBC Canadian Open, this marks the second year in a row when the event’s excitement will be usurped by news from LIV. The first event on the rival circuit took place in London during the week of the return of the RBC Canadian Open last year after two years of cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At least there was a bit of a runway there. This was a total bombshell.

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Laurence Applebaum, the CEO of Golf Canada, tried to take as positive a spin on the day as he could. He learned about the news at the same time as everyone else and while he was having conversations with the PGA Tour and its leadership.

“I would say it was a year ago that we were running the return of the 2022 RBC Canadian Open to St. George’s and we had some news and developments (with LIV) and we had the greatest event in our history,” Applebaum said. “We come back into 2023 and again some news that was unexpected and for us we will continue to stay focused on running a great PGA Tour event.”

So, that’s what we’ll get this week. A PGA Tour event – and a fine one at that, the third-oldest in the world after two majors and contested at a first-time host club that is thrilled at the opportunity – with PGA Tour players.

But it’s not hyperbolic to say Tuesday’s announcement was the biggest landscape-shaking news in men’s golf history, certainly in modern memory. Where things go over the next six months or so remains to be seen. The player meeting in Toronto was steamy but solved little. There will be lots of whataboutisms. Elite male professional golfers, no matter which direction their moral compass points, will have to settle with their new reality – or, new “framework agreement,” as Monahan called it.

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“I’ve been doing this and tried to do this for the last, like, 21 years of my life – to play golf professionally. At some point I can’t control what the entity that I play for does,” Canadian PGA Tour winner Adam Hadwin said. “So, can you do certain things as a player to stay away from it? Sure. But […] I’ve dedicated my entire life to being at golf’s highest level. I’m not about to stop playing golf because the entity that I play for has joined forces with the Saudi government.”

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