One man’s agenda is the starting point in negotiations, no matter how determined he is to view it as the destination. The coming months will provide ample reminders of that reality as the process of reshaping professional golf stumbles toward an increasingly sloppy and contentious endgame.
For two years, we’ve seen skirmishes claimed as decisive victories. The moves by Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka to leave the PGA Tour for LIV were no more conclusive than the decisions of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy to remain. A jump to LIV by Jon Rahm – the subject of intense speculation – will be no different, whatever the banner-wavers and pearl-clutchers on either side say. But it would represent something significant, beyond being an example of what happens to a man of supposed character who remains in the mephitic orbit of people like Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia.
A Rahm departure would be more impactful mostly by dint of timing, hastening a reckoning for the competing agendas that have all but paralyzed the PGA Tour’s Policy Board.
Among players on the board, there’s a faction opposed to involving the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund in the future of the Tour, preferring to partner with one of several interested private investors. Their motivations are varied, whether it’s patriotism, a desire to see LIV continue for leverage or simple aversion to a Framework Agreement foisted upon them without consultation. Jay Monahan, however, is adamant that the Saudis be included, presumably because he’d rather not have a free-spending rival approaching apostate members who promise fealty only until the offer swells sufficiently.
This standoff makes any poaching of Rahm an astute leverage play by PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan, who is scheduled to meet Monahan this week. It would be a sharp reminder to resistant player directors of the damage he can inflict, potentially guarantee PIF participation in the Tour’s future, and secure terms more favorable than had seemed likely. If a peace deal is consummated, Al-Rumayyan might never have to make a Year 2 payment to Rahm. And if it isn’t? Well, he bought the Masters champion and world No. 3 as a high-profile plaything for his league.
One school of thought says losing Rahm would finish Monahan, reinforcing a perception that he is being outmaneuvered. Alternatively, he could emerge stronger if hesitant players embrace his case for détente. Of course, player directors might also be galvanized against PIF as an untrustworthy partner and entirely torpedo the Framework Agreement. That too has ramifications. Do the Tour’s private equity suitors, who thought they were going into business with the Saudis, have the stomach to go to war with them instead?
Like an artfully designed golf course, there are plentiful options, each with its own perils.
While all of this is pondered at professional golf’s penthouse level, there are rumblings in the basement. A petition began circulating this weekend among Tour members demanding a meeting with leadership to address grievances about how they’re too focused on the stars at the expense of the ensemble. This pitching wedge uprising will find support among the rank and file since valid criticisms are being leveled, but the Tour will never again govern the elite according to the concerns of the proletariat. This is more than ever a member-led organization. Just not those members.
The fundamental problem in this quagmire is that players want to be paid now on value that hasn’t yet been created, or on value they won’t contribute to creating. For too many people, this is a moment in time to advance selfish agendas. Like a player who has assured access to the majors and wants to cash-in with no regard for past proclamations or loyalties. Or players who want to pillage the Tour for whatever they can get during their window of competitive relevance, with no regard to future-proofing the business. Or journeymen who see riches agonizingly out of reach and demand a share, with no regard to their comparative irrelevance in the product. Witness the cretinous complaint of Chris Stroud. “The Tour has never tried to give back to the players,” quoth the one-time winner – of an opposite field event – with more than $13 million in rewards to show for his mediocrity. It’s enough to drive anyone into the arms of the nearest friendly barkeep.
In every direction one looks, greed and entitlement are rampant. That risks engineering a model that is unsustainable, largely because the intent seems to be servicing the current generation of stars with only a cursory nod to what future generations might inherit. Short-term thinking is prevalent – whether panicked reactions to LIV moves or in individual agendas – and conversations within the membership are souring. Small wonder that McIlroy opted to pack his briefcase and leave the board.
Al-Rumayyan and LIV have a finite amount of time to succeed in golf, which is why a get like Rahm is appealing to the point of necessity. But the PGA Tour isn’t going anywhere, and its focus ought to be less on raising as much money as possible now but on bettering the product for those deeply invested in it, including its forgotten fans. The board would do well to consider the wisdom of Charlie Munger, the famed investment partner of Warren Buffett, who died last week. “The world is full of foolish gamblers,” he said, “and they will not do as well as the patient investors.”