PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It’s not easy being the “guy” in any sport. Just ask MLB commissioner Rob Manfred (lockout) or the NFL’s Roger Goodell (gambling-related suspensions). It’s not all ball games and sunshine at the top.
By comparison, Jay Monahan’s Tuesday could have been worse. On a day when some of his contemporaries were playing defense on a macro scale, the PGA Tour’s front man was taking a predictably subdued victory lap.
“He won’t do that [brag]. That’s not his style. He would never brag about anything,” said one Tour player, moments before the commissioner’s 11 a.m. ET press conference.
Perhaps the closest Monahan got to a brag, humble or otherwise, was when he opened his media session by launching headfirst into the Saudi-backed super league elephant in the room.
“The PGA Tour is moving on,” a somewhat defiant Monahan started. “We have too much momentum and too much to accomplish to be consistently distracted by rumors of other golf leagues and their attempts to disrupt our players, our partners, and most importantly our fans, from enjoying the Tour and the game we all love so much.”
It was a good start. Manfred and Goodell could only hope for a mysterious and widely discredited rival league as a primary concern on Tuesday.
There was, however, one line from Monahan’s opening statement that seemed well-rehearsed and weighty: “We always will be focused on legacy, not leverage,” he said.
“Leverage” has become something of a trigger for the Tour and Monahan since it was weaponized by those who might be eyeing a potential jump to the super league. In Phil Mickelson’s explosive interview on firepitcollective.com, which essentially burned down the super league concept and perhaps Lefty’s own career, he used the word “leverage” twice in a single take.
“[The Tour has] been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. As nice a guy as [Monahan] comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage,” said Mickelson, who later claimed the comments were off the record and out of context.
Mickelson, who announced last month he was taking an undisclosed amount of time off from professional golf, wasn’t in the room Tuesday when Monahan delivered the “leverage” line, but there was no doubt as to whom it was directed.
The commissioner said he’s not spoken to Mickelson since Phil's comments toward the Tour were published. He also danced around the notion that Lefty has been suspended by the Tour for his words.
“We don't comment on disciplinary matters, potential matters or actual matters. But every player is accountable for their actions out here,” Monahan said.
It’s the Tour’s long-held policy not to disclose suspensions or discipline – one of the few issues policy board member Rory McIlroy said he has with Monahan – but if ever the commissioner was going to say something without saying something, it was Tuesday.
Monahan’s message to Mickelson was clear: there is just one way back.
“I think the ball is in his court. I would welcome a phone call from him,” Monahan said. “It's hard for me to talk about the different scenarios that could play out.”
On this, the commissioner doesn’t have a choice. Although he’s been increasingly careful to not use words like “expelled” and “banned” when asked how he would respond to any player committing to the super league, two years ago at TPC Sawgrass he seemed to draw a hard line.
“Our governance system has been driven by our players and our board, and we have regulations in place that allow us to protect the interests of our media partners, our sponsors and all of our constituents, and if we got to that point in time, we would take measures to vigilantly protect this business model,” he said.
Privately, the commissioner has been even tougher on potential mutineers, according to multiple players, which makes this Mickelson moment so compelling. Even if Lefty – who also accused the Tour of “obnoxious greed” in a Golf Digest interview earlier this year – embraces full contrition, which he has not, there’s still the question of precedence.
If Monahan doesn’t follow through with his threat - his promise - in a public enough way to leave a mark, the next time a super league-like concept surfaces the commissioner may not have the luxury of a victory lap.
Even Tuesday’s subdued flex came with a reminder from Monahan that this threat might be over, but there will always be more threats.
“I wake up every day assuming someone is trying to take my lunch. That's the way I operate. That's the way we operate as a team,” Monahan said.
It’s a harsh and some might say unhealthy way to embrace each day, but it does provide a glimpse into how these storm clouds have altered reality at the PGA Tour. Weakness in any form is unacceptable.
The commissioner would never take a victory lap, that’s not his style, just as he would never talk about a specific suspension, that’s not the Tour’s style. But it was what he didn’t say Tuesday at TPC Sawgrass that spoke volumes.