ST. SIMONS ISLAND, GEORGIA | Around lunchtime on Wednesday, a gray sky hung over Sea Island Golf Club as a light breeze rustled the live oaks and the coming rain waited just offshore.
At a place that exemplifies elegant relaxation, the pre-holiday vibe was pitch perfect as PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan finished a pro-am round like the dozens of other businessmen and sponsors spread across two moss-draped and sand-scaped golf courses in advance of the season-ending RSM Classic.
Aside from the occasional noise of a private jet on final approach to the airport nearby, the peacefulness that blanketed the property seemed to muffle the latest reverberations from the tour’s ongoing efforts to redefine itself.
For Monahan, it was a gentle morning in the middle of another demanding week.
Barely 48 hours removed from a seven-hour-plus Policy Board meeting and with the ripples from Rory McIlroy’s decision to resign from that same board still creating whitecaps, the peaceful picture didn’t change the churning reality facing the PGA Tour as it evaluates its next steps in negotiations with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and a coterie of deep-pocketed private-investment entities.
The official tour season may have ended Sunday on the edge of the Atlantic, but there is still long, hard work to be done. Monahan in private moments has conveyed his optimism regarding the progress.
The promise – or perhaps more accurately the hope – of having a detailed agreement between the tour and the PIF by December 31 is fading fast, however. That doesn’t mean the two sides won’t reach an agreement, only that no one should expect Monahan to show up on CNBC on New Year’s Eve with news of a finalized deal.
The noisemakers will be limited to welcoming in 2024, not a finished PGA Tour product. Not yet anyway.
While the news of McIlroy’s decision to step away from the work he has done so effectively and seemingly tirelessly on the tour’s behalf surprised many on the Policy Board – “We had no idea,” one member said – it didn’t shock everyone.
When someone asked Jon Rahm, another of the tour’s pragmatic players, whether he might want McIlroy’s spot on the board, he practically ran the other way.
McIlroy made it clear earlier this year that he has tired of being the public spokesperson in a difficult, emotional process. As a 34-year-old father still chasing major championships, he’s making a reasonable decision.
A Northern Irishman who lives in Jupiter, Florida, McIlroy has plans eventually to move to London with his family and a myriad of responsibilities beyond his board duties. Reading any more into his departure than McIlroy doing this for himself and his career feels as if it’s going too deep.
As McIlroy said in a recent interview, not every board member sees the world the same way. That’s not surprising, but with Tiger Woods and his considerable presence on the board now, it’s easier for McIlroy to step aside.
“Absolutely no chance,” Rahm said.
Seeking clarity at this time in the tour’s existence is challenging. To hear people close to the process talk about what’s happening behind closed doors, they are more encouraged by both the process and the progress now than they may have been earlier this year.
A Policy Board meeting in July felt like a boxing match at times, one participant said, but the meeting last week was the most encouraging since the surprise June 6 announcement made by Monahan and Yasir Al-Rumayyan sent a shudder through the game.
It has become clear that the tour will have private investors in the relatively near future. It still seems likely that the PIF will be involved, but it’s a virtual certainty that private-equity groups will have a stake in the tour’s proposed for-profit business.
Monahan told players in a memo last week that they will profit from the coming investment.
“Tour management has designed a program that would align the interest of our members with the commercial business of the tour via direct equity ownership in PGA Tour Enterprises. At the point we secure outside investment, this would be a unique offering in professional sports, as no other league grants its players/members direct equity ownership in the league’s business,” Monahan wrote.
The Saudis, particularly Al-Rumayyan, want a seat at the game’s head table, and everyone, it seems, wants the best players competing against one another again.
Digging deeper into what prospective investors might contribute and what they would want – how the finished product might look – is still on the board’s to-do list. The interest is there on all sides. Working through the details is an ongoing process.
The tour has its TPC Network golf courses and its stake in the PGA Tour Superstore retail outlets among other investments. That could seem quaint in a few years if the vision comes together.
LIV Golf, which has been financed by the PIF, will continue at least through next year and perhaps beyond. The Saudis, particularly Al-Rumayyan, want a seat at the game’s head table, and everyone, it seems, wants the best players competing against one another again.
As the curtain comes down on what already has been a season of significant change – the $20 million “signature events” debuted, and a restructured fall schedule showed the potential for what can be seen as a two-tiered tour – more change is coming.
When it happens and how it looks, what it means and where it goes from here are questions still hanging out there.
If being at Sea Island felt like a soft landing at the end of a hard season, maybe it was – even as the work toward what comes next continues.
Top: Jay Monahan has much on his plate as 2024 looms.
Keyur Khamar. PGA TOUR VIA GETTY IMAGES