A planned victory lap week for PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan turned into a series of PR blunders, indecision, and an eventual cancellation of the Tour’s marquee event, The Players Championship. It started poorly with an ill-timed appearance on CNBC to announce his new massive TV rights deal as markets tumbled and the hosts just tried to move on, almost bothered by his presence during a major news moment. It ended with a Friday news conference, his third in four days, fielding questions about the cancellation of The Players, the Tour’s major and money-making bonanza, only a day after they played the first round with fans on the grounds.
There were red-faced moments, emotional moments, social media misfires, nagging press critics, and reversals of course. It was not a good week.
But this is a new week and while Sunday was not spent crowning a new Players champion, it’s off to a good start for the PGA Tour, relative for this sportsless, upside-down moment. This current season is in flux with events reaching into April, at the very least, cancelled. That’s a temporary threat and disruption to Tour operations because of a much more serious worldwide problem and priority. From an operational standpoint, the Tour’s existential threat, the Premier Golf League, is now reeling after two more high-profile rejections.
The first came Sunday afternoon with world No. 3 Brooks Koepka, winner of four of his last 10 major championship starts, telling Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press, “I am out of the PGL. I’m going with the PGA Tour.” Later Sunday evening came Jon Rahm, the No. 2 player in the world, telling Eamon Lynch of Golfweek, “I’m a PGA Tour member and I’m going to stay that way.”
Koepka and Rahm join Rory McIlroy in coming out vocally opposed to the PGL. Those would be the Nos. 1, 2, and 3 ranked players in the world. While McIlroy is a leading voice in the game right now, he alone could not stop the PGL and even he admitted as much when he first said “I’m out” in Mexico last month. “My position is I’m against it until there may come a day that I can’t be against it,” McIlroy said. “If everyone else goes, I might not have a choice.”
Until Sunday, there had been no high-profile or highly ranked players joining McIlroy in public opposition. Koepka, who had been rumored to be in a group of potential “yays” on the PGL, is a significant blow to the upstart league’s chances and the declaration came unexpectedly and at an unexpected time.
The PGL, if successful, would poach the top 50 or so players in the world, most of them on the PGA Tour, for a worldwide series of events. The proposed league includes a team aspect, with a subset of the most elite players getting an equity stake and some form of control of a team. The organizers say the concept has been ramping up over six years of discussions. It is fully and well funded. When the PGL finally became a public news story in January, Monahan promptly said a player could not be a member of both circuits. Needless to say, if most of the top players in golf committed to this, it would end the PGA Tour as we know it. Their marketable stars would be gone, leaving a mix of the chaff outside the top 50 and some minor league tours they operate.
It was this group outside the top of the world rankings that Koepka specifically cited in his comments rebuffing the PGL. “I get that the stars are what people come to see,” he told Ferguson. “But these guys who we see win, who have been grinding for 10 or 15 years, that’s what makes the cool stories. I’d have a hard time looking at guys and putting them out of a job.”
Koepka has been the most dominant player in golf over the last four years, but his was a different path to No. 1. Unlike so many modern stars, he was not a highly ranked recruit, immediate pro, and marketable face in his early 20s. Rather, he went to the Challenge Tour, the Euro Tour’s developmental system, and worked his way up at events in golf hotbeds like Kenya and Kazakhstan. Koepka often expresses a fondness for this path, imploring more to go out and see the world on the Euro Tour before trying to make it big in the United States. He credits this experience with getting him to where he is now. It was also apparently a pivotal point of why he decided to go against the PGL and consider those outside the top 50, adding, “I don’t forget where I’ve come from. There are guys from that top 125 who could be the next star.”
It’s a different reason that ends in the same position as McIlroy, who cited a distaste for the Saudi funding behind the PGL as well as losing independent contractor status by being told how many events to play and where and when to play. There were waves of praise for McIlroy’s “leadership” when he spoke out, especially against the funding. Koepka will not get that kind of praise but this too is leadership. It comes from someone often framed as a ruthless self-serving loner motivated in this case by looking out for the whole.
McIlroy’s decision to come out against the PGL was unsurprising. He would eventually need others, however, and Koepka would not have been the first pick if you were predicting a next domino. In fact, it would have been perfectly reasonable to predict Koepka would be one of the first to state publicly in favor for the other side. Two weeks ago he refused to parrot McIlroy’s stance and said he would always just want to play against the best in the world, wherever that may be.
Koepka made an impressive statement and it came from an unexpected source that, in a way, may deal the greatest blow to the PGL. Rahm promptly followed suit and now the concept, six years in the making, seems to be on the mat. McIlroy’s rebuke could not do that alone.
The PGL has not gained traction just because of its impressive coffers. There are legitimately interesting ideas and underpinnings in its proposal. The PGA Tour has been complacent, tone-deaf, and monotonous on a variety of issues that have made the core golf entertainment product often feel ancillary. The PGL threat, which has been real, hopefully provokes some change at the PGA Tour. As a concept, it certainly exposed some weaknesses and added to the heightened stress levels of commissioner Monahan long before he had to confront Covid-19 at his marquee event.
After the many missteps handling that serious crisis, Koepka delivered some of the best news the Tour could have hoped for on another problem that’s not life-or-death but one that threatens the league’s existence. After management stumbled through last week, it was the players, in Koepka and Rahm, who provided a boost at Tour HQ.