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Dom Amore: Using the Travelers as his backdrop, Jay Monahan throws down the PGA Tour’s gauntlet right into the face of Saudi billions

CROMWELL, Conn. — Jay Monahan played his collegiate golf at Trinity College, and he also played hockey there. In his fifth year as commissioner of the PGA Tour, he may need recall all of his old forechecking, elbowing and slashing skills because he’s in a fight for his organization’s life, and there is no skating through or away from it.

“I am not naïve,” Monahan said at the start of a 40-minute press conference at the TPC River Highlands, where the Travelers Championship begins Thursday. “If this is an arms race and if the only weapons here are dollar bills, the PGA Tour, an American institution, can’t compete with a foreign monarchy that is spending billions of dollars in an attempt to buy the game of golf. We welcome good, healthy competition. The LIV Saudi Golf League is not that. It’s an irrational threat; one not concerned with the return on investment or true growth of the game.”

Monahan, 52, was speaking just as Brooks Koepka’s jump to the LIV Golf series was becoming official, which seemed to take players and officials off guard this week. “I’m surprised at a lot of these guys because they say one thing and then they do another,” Rory McIlroy said. “It’s pretty duplicitous on their part to say one thing and then do another thing.”

It’s one thing for a golfer on the back nine of his career to make the jump to play in glorified exhibitions for some guaranteed cash, but Koepka, 32, is in his prime. Maybe his choice says more about his disdain for regulations and press conferences, but the threat grows with his departure and Monahan has grown more combative to meet it.

He has history, legacy, relevance on his side. Will that be enough?

“We don’t expect to overcome this current challenge by relying on our legacy and track record alone,” Monahan said. “We’ve been on a path for a number of years to strengthen and evolve our product.”

The LIV threat is not going to go away or be easily extinguished, which is why talk of it has dominated the run up to the Travelers. That’s even with massive crowds expected with the end of pandemic restrictions and the presence of the top two golfers in the world, Scottie Scheffler and McIlroy, headlining another impressive field.

After a series of meetings, with players and his policy board, Monahan was ready to roll out a series of planned changes designed, in short, to give PGA members opportunities to earn more guaranteed money, with fewer tournaments, and increase purse sizes at a number of events.

These changes represent modest sums compared to the nine-figure deals LIV Golf is offering — Koepka, it was reported, is receiving up to $150 million — but Monahan is betting that, with a little more money, coupled with the long-standing prestige of the PGA Tour, the flow of defectors will stop.

“I don’t know how much money I’ve made this year,” said Scheffler, who has won four tournaments, including The Masters, and had nine top-10 finishes, “but it’s definitely more than I deserve for whacking a little white golf ball around. For me, the memories that I have playing on this tour and the dreams I have of wanting to be on this tour can’t be replaced by anything financial. Money’s money and it’s not something that I’m trying to let control how I live my life.”

Of course it would be the height of naivete to suggest the PGA, down to its core, is not about money.

“We’re running a business,” Monahan said, “and when you’re running a business, you’re going to generate as much revenue as you possibly can, in this case, for our members, and try and spend as efficiently as you possibly can.”

That business includes several PGA sponsors who do business with the Saudi government, despite its human rights record, as LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman pointed out this week in a Fox News interview, concluding “The hypocrisy is deafening.”

And it includes using every legal, rhetorical and financial weapon at its disposal to squash any rival league, the way other established sports leagues have done in the past.

“I know legacy and purpose sound like talking points that don’t mean much,” Monahan said. “But when I talk of those concepts, it isn’t about some sort of intangible moral high ground. It is our track record as an organization and as a sport. Our members compete for the opportunity to add their names to history books, and, yes, significant financial benefits, without having to wrestle with any sort of moral ambiguity.

“Pure competition creates relevancy and context, which is what fans need and expect in order to invest their time in a sport and in a player. That’s the beauty of the PGA Tour.”

The beauty of the PGA Tour is what Monahan needs to be on display this week, especially Sunday afternoon when the front-runners approach the packed grandstand surrounding the 18th green. The U.S Open, run by the USGA, had a dramatic finish in Brookline, Mass., last week. The PGA could use one this week, something the Travelers Championship has a way of delivering. Golf is needed as a diversion from its own crisis.

Monahan opened his latest manifesto with a reminder that it was at River Highlands two years ago that the PGA began pressing through COVID to lead the return of sports. It survived the pandemic and emerged stronger, he reasoned, it will survive this threat and do the same.

But there will be lots of hooking and slashing and elbowing before Monahan and his PGA linemates get through this one.

“We’re going to use this moment in time to accelerate the growth of our game,” Monahan said, “and do all the things that are going to provide the strength and the momentum that are needed for us to grow, get back to that core principle of best players playing on the greatest stage, which is the PGA Tour.”

©2022 Hartford Courant. Visit at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

This story was originally published June 22, 2022 9:12 PM.

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