Coronavirus and its associated troubles is not the only matter to have caused Jay Monahan recent strain. As golf, like all other sports, now seeks to navigate a path towards resumption there will inevitably be a sense that additional challenges may disappear. They may actually multiply. Monahan, in his role as the PGA Tour’s commissioner, encountered 2020 turmoil even before the pandemic afforded the world a new normal.
The Premier Golf League dominated discussion in the early part of this year, even though sceptics insist this is a scheme based in dreamland. It isn’t going away, you know. Or is it? Must it?
Brooks Koepka followed the outspoken lead of Rory McIlroy by declaring himself not interested in breaking rank from the PGA Tour. Jon Rahm and Bubba Watson added similar sentiment. These would be deemed fatal blows were those behind the PGL, hardly known as fantasists, not fully inclined to plough on. In fact, their pitches to a broader body of players was imminent when the PGA Tour season ground to a halt. But is the expansion now worthwhile; would a seemingly sub-par product fly?
Monahan’s annual pre-Players Championship media conference was littered with PGL questions. This project, six years quietly in the making, aims to coax top players towards an F1-style environment, with a team facet all part of the plan. Money is no object. Raine Capital, which has previous for shaking up traditional sporting markets, has been involved with PGL for more than two years. The top players can have vast chunks of it guaranteed, before they whack a Titleist in anger. It is the ultimate sporting disruption plan.
Saudi Arabia, which had controversially offered financial backing to the PGL, may now be of a mind to back off and retain an existing relationship with the European Tour. Even that, in emphasising the PGL’s bullishness, would be shrugged off with others said to be waiting in the wings to subscribe. PGL insiders insist coronavirus hasn’t blunted their fiscal power; yet it has, unquestionably if perhaps temporarily, done precisely that to the PGA and especially European Tours. That the PGA Tour will imminently announce a planned return in mid-June, minus spectators, shows they are either unwilling or unable to remain in cold storage for long. The European Tour has warned of purse reductions post-pandemic.
McIlroy’s dismissal of the PGL was noteworthy on numerous levels, not least because of his mature thought process. Still, the world No 1 was perceptive enough to leave himself an out. “My position is I’m against it until there may come a day that I can’t be against it,” the Northern Irishman said. “If everyone else goes, I might not have a choice.”
Adam Scott has doubled down on his assertion that the PGL proposal is a “fantastic” one. “I’m still very positive about the concept of what it could be, for sure,” the Australian said. Henrik Stenson has spoken positively.
Phil Mickelson, the player most closely linked with the PGL, is known to have held face-to-face talks with Monahan on this very subject during the Florida swing. What the PGL needs is public buy-in from players or it will ultimately wither on the vine. Monahan admitted he has not met the PGL’s chief executive, Andy Gardiner, which is strange but endorses the sense of a turf war.
The PGA Tour has a new, multi-year broadcasting deal that supposedly affirms its stranglehold on the game. A simple inference is that it ramped up the commercial value of players who have committed to its principles. Bringing ESPN into the equation alongside NBC was a smart PGA Tour move; it limits the PGL’s broadcast scope. Still, golf’s viewer demographic isn’t getting any younger and there have to be legitimate questions about the sport’s appeal in a post-Tiger age.
PGL management will realise there is every possibility of their work being used as leverage by players. It may have brought the European and PGA Tours closer together, which points to potential for an overdue world circuit. Monahan, though, and his European equivalent Keith Pelley are leading members organisations where change to suit even the vast majority isn’t straightforward.
The basic need for structural alterations in golf will be glaring when it returns; tours compete against each other in a limited player and date market. That model, regardless of whether the PGL is viewed as credible or not, cannot continue. McIlroy expressed concerns about a “saturated” tournament market during the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“Our attitude all the way through this has only been, we will build and we will persevere and we will offer the opportunity for people to make a choice,” said Gardiner in February. “We spent six years building an extraordinarily solid platform which gives us the opportunity to facilitate whatever decision is made by third parties.” Presumably this includes outright rejection.
Golf has been placed into a state of flux by the coronavirus outbreak. It is maybe crude to suggest PGL can seize opportunity from that, but the operation can now return to working away from view, having led the news agenda before the shutdown. It would seem silly to disregard this ambitious scheme quite yet.