A Tournament Director Sounds Off
Lack of communication or engagement. Unprecedented ‘animosity.’ Choosing ‘winners and losers.’ The czar of a non-designated event says of PGA Tour leadership, ‘They’re just making this stuff up by the seat of their pants.’
By Alan Shipnuck
March 8, 2023
Shortly after PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan met the press on Tuesday at the Players Championship, offering a rosy assessment of the state of play, my phone rang. The caller was someone I’ve never met or even spoken with. He is the tournament director at an old, proud PGA Tour event and he wanted to vent. “With all the change happening at the Tour,” he said, “there is one side to the story that is not being told: ours. Monahan, Tiger, Rory, all the other top players—they seem to have forgotten their biggest customer, which is the title sponsors of the tournaments. Honda, Dell Computers, Mayakoba… they’re gone. If the Tour keeps losing big, longstanding sponsors, none of this other stuff matters because the business model is going to collapse. Those of us at the tournament level, we’re on the front lines right now, trying to hold everything together.”
This gent agreed to participate in a Q&A on the condition of anonymity, to avoid retribution from the Tour and blowback from his event’s sponsor.
Fire Pit: Your tournament this year is not an elevated event. Do you feel like there’s a really exclusive party you weren’t invited to?
Tournament director: I enjoyed Bay Hill as much as everybody else. It was a great show and I’m happy for the Tour to have some wins. We’re fine this season because everyone knows this schedule was thrown together as part of a very transitional year. The real concern is 2024 and beyond. Nobody knows what the future will look like. We remain hopeful, but there are still so many unanswered questions. The most frustrating part is that the Tour has done so little to engage with the title sponsors and the tournaments. The communication has been clunky and minimal at best. It’s almost like a form of avoidance. They do the absolute minimum and that has led to a lot of animosity between the Tour and the sponsors, which is unbelievable to me. You would think they would be working overtime to make their corporate partners feel valued and get them to buy into this new vision they are trying to create.
FP: How concerned are you about your strength of field in the future?
TD: Very. We have been told nothing about how much the top 50 players will have to play non-designated events next year. [Ed. note: In 2023, top players must compete in three non-elevated events to collect their full Player Impact Program bonus.] The only information we get is from the public press releases and that language appears to have been stripped away now. Of course, we joke that’ll probably change three or four more times based on which players complain. This is part of the frustration and animosity: None of this feels like a well laid-out plan. From the very beginning, the Tour has been reactionary all the way across the board. They’re just making this stuff up by the seat of their pants.
FP: How is your title sponsor reacting to the changing landscape?
TD: We had already been in conversations about reupping. In our mind it was a done deal coming out of last year, when we had a spectacular field. Now, it’s how can we show them value? How can they justify a $15 million investment? And if they can’t, candidly, how do we find someone else? It’s getting harder to ask for more and more from the sponsor without having answers. If we knew that every third year we would be designated, that would calm a lot of nerves. When you lose starpower, it definitely hurts. It hurts more from a perception standpoint. Make no mistake, when no big names show up at a tournament, like Honda, the news media around non-designated events turns very negative. Casual fans take note and the perception becomes they are being sold an inferior product. All of our local golf fans have been pinched by inflation, and discretionary spending has never been tighter. Fans are asking why they should spend 50 or 60 or 70 bucks to watch a bunch of players they’ve never heard of. Objectively, it’s a valid question.
FP: The Tour hosts an annual end-of-the-year gathering for the tournament directors, and I know you talk among yourselves. How would you describe the mood among your peers?
TD: When the news broke last summer and big names started leaving for LIV, multiple sponsors looked into how they could get out of their contracts. They felt they could do it since the product had been irrevocably harmed, but nobody wanted to be first. It would have been a lose-lose for everyone involved. It never happened, but that tells you what the mood has been like. There is more animosity now because it’s become two tours. If you’re not a designated event, there is a lot of stress and uncertainty about how you are going to keep, or find, a title sponsor. It all boils down to eyeballs for the sponsors: Am they getting what they signed up for? The ratings have been pretty staggering for non-elevated events, down 20 percent or more. I’m curious what TV is going to feel like for non-designated events next year. How does NBC feel? They paid $1.3 billion for TV rights; now the Tour is switching up the game on them. If two-thirds of their events are shit fields, with nobody in the top 20, what incentive do they have to invest in the broadcast? We’re asking them to spend a lot of money on a fringe sport, a regional sport. If they’re not getting eyeballs, that is a huge problem.
FP: How can your tournament survive if it never gets designated status?
TD: Over the last five to seven years, we have tried to turn our tournament into an event that people in our community want to be a part of. That takes a lot of energy and work and investment from the title sponsor, putting in extra capital besides what they are contractually obligated to do. We’re doing everything we can. But ultimately golf fans want to see the best players. That’s what is so frustrating about what is happening right now: These top guys are making sure they get paid, but what will this do to the long-term health of the Tour? They are creating a closed loop. That’s great for the top guys, and a small number of tournaments, but what about the rest of us?
FP: Even if you aren’t given designated status, are there things you can do to attract players?
TD: Our tournament doesn’t pay players. We just don’t. Do some ask? Absolutely. A lot of the guys who used to ask have gone to LIV, but others are still on Tour. How do you think Travelers gets so many top guys to show up? That tournament is the king of appearance fees, though they call them personal service contracts or something like that. Bubba [Watson] went public with some of these details, but it’s been going on for a long time, basically paying guys to show up at a cocktail party and things like that.
FP: How much money are we talking?
TD: I’ve been told $250,000 to $500,000. Must be nice. The CEO is a golf nut, and they turned that tournament into a top event. Now they’ve bought their way into designated status so it’s hard to argue with the results.
FP: It seems inevitable there is going to be some contraction of the schedule. You come from the business world, you must understand the market forces involved. But how challenging is it to put all this effort into hosting a tournament under these circumstances?
TD: It makes me sad because the Tour is choosing the winners and losers. Yes, in the past there had always been different tiers of tournaments based on how the schedule fell, but it wasn’t official policy and you always felt like you could overcome it. Maybe you’d give a sponsor’s exemption to a kid and he’d become a superstar and keep coming back year after year. Or maybe some top players would want to work on their game and add your event. But now we can’t control our own destiny and that is frustrating. You can do everything right but one or two decisions in Ponte Vedra Beach, or even from Tiger and Rory, can change everything. And that has a big effect on how your tournament is viewed in your community and the charitable impact you can have. And for what? Just so the top guys can make more money, even though they were already making a ton of it. It’s really sad.
In 1994, Alan wrote his first cover story for Sports Illustrated as a 21 year-old intern, and in the ensuing quarter-century he typed two dozen more. He is the author of eight books, including best-sellers Bud, Sweat & Tees; The Swinger (with Michael Bamberger); and Phil. Shipnuck has won 13 first-place awards in the annual Golf Writers Association of America writing contest, breaking the record of Dan Jenkins, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Alan lives in Carmel, Cal.
16 thoughts on “A Tournament Director Sounds Off”
I don’t LOVE the proposed and planned changes recently announced by the PGA Tour. I don’t care for getting rid of the cut. I admit to being a bit old school and traditional but at the same time, LIV dropped a bomb on professional golf last year. The TOUR is certainly to blame for years of little to no innovation, hoarding funds, boring courses, and not listening to players.
If the Tour didn’t act quickly and attempt some pretty radical changes, player defections to LIV would have snowballed. Then what? The PGA Tour as we have known it might possibly not even exist. I love the history of the old Clam Bake years, and stories from the Milwaukee Open of days gone by, and caddies road tripping from stop to stop. I hope those traditions and threads can continue for years to come but honestly Alan – offer up an idea? A plan? How and what would you have done in a position of leadership on the Tour to stave off the threat of LIV and salvage the tour, the communities it supports, (and visa versa) and its membership all at the same time? Honestly. Share some alternatives.
The proposed changes will be what…a whopping 8 or 10 events with no cut…and 30 plus full field events with a cut. I understand that I am not a normal professional golf follower, only interested in the big names and major tournaments. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the drama of the closing holes of the Honda a few weeks ago. One guy trying to grind out his first win and another feeling the pressure of a 5 year drought. Great stuff! The challenges for sponsors and organizers of the non elevated events are real and substantial, yet I think it’s a model that can work. Only time will tell I guess.
I don’t like the changes, but given the alternative of a completed gutted and dead PGATour…I’ll learn to adapt to the constant of change.
The value of that recent PGAT win at Honda is way down. Most PGAT wins are now European Tour level value. You can delude yourself that nothing has changed but PGAT wins (apart from a select few) are now toilet-value.
I guess I’m wondering if any reporters are asking these questions to the commissioner or to players themselves about how they feel the non designated tournaments will fare in 2024? And what are their responses?
This is either a Jayson Blair situation or John Drago.
It feels like the PGATour are betting all their chips on 2023/24, praying LIV shit their pants, and fold. What if LIV are playing the long game, the one where they bleed the Tour dry. In this scenario, Monahan, Rory and Co, might be remembered as the people who made the decisions that killed the Tour.
Ha! Some legacy.
As a former PGA TOUR sponsor, I agree with the former Chief Marketing Officer of FedEx who once said in a public address “In the past 20 years I’ve done deals with every sports league on the planet. And the toughest one to deal with, by a factor of 10, is the PGA TOUR.” The TOUR leadership is horrible, they treated us a their new 3rd-largest sponsor horribly, and it didn’t get better. The best evidence that they hire bad people to run the TOUR is that even after the LIV tour threatened their existence, they’re still treating sponsors and tournaments so badly.
There are going to be three tournaments that matter in a few years. The Masters and the two opens. Two events with a 156 player field and one invitational with max 90 players. The top guys now wont care, they all have been paid in full. CBS and NBC would be better off showing Seinfeld, Parks and Rec and The Office re-runs. It seems the PGA tour will follow the saying about bankruptcy. How does it happen? Slowly at first then all at once. Golf overall will be fine as it’s more fun to play it then watch it.
I always said that the Tournament directors have a lot of power because they are the go between the players and sponsors. I am hoping that this gives TD of the non elevated events the power to give sponsor exemptions to the LIV players. it would give great drama to the non elevated events and a way that they could sell a lesser tournament to the public.
I’m just glad all of this is about “Legacy” and not about money. It is ironic that a sport which depends totally on corporate sponsorship would go off making business decisions without input from those same corporate sponsors. But since it is only Legacy they are playing for and not the inflated purses, they probably won’t need those sponsors anyway.
This is not good for Rory. Pay attention to playing golf …not Liv Golf or elevated events. Not knowing where he was on the leader board on 14 this past Sunday. Hard to believe. His caddie should have known where Rory stood and told Rory. Stevie,Joe or Michael certainly would have. .But they are professional caddies. If Rory had a top 1 or 2 caddies from the time he joined the Tour….very good chance he may have had two Masters and maybe a few more Majors to boot. Each passing year without the Masters it will only be harder to win.
Interesting to hear a TD vent on the tour challenges and sponsors concerns. Clearly hearing J Monahan say these these changes were in the works is garbage. Tour players now admit that none of the changes would happen without LIV coming along. Monahan is making $14 million per year doing very little and now he actually has to put in some work and yet he still isn’t communicating with TD’s and Sponsors? Why isn’t he being held accountable (feet to fire) by players, sponsors, MEDIA etc? Maybe having discussions between LIV and the PGA means both Norman and Monahan should step aside.
I’m not anti LIV or anti PGA but to the TD’s point I did watch LIV and not the Honda.
Just to give you the perspective of Canadian golf fans and the Canadian Open not being an elevated event.
The Canadian Open is a professional golf tournament that has a long and prestigious history. The tournament has been held annually since 1904 and it has been won by some of the greatest golfers of all time,
The Canadian Open has also been recognized as a significant event in golf because it is the third-oldest national championship in the world, behind only the British Open and the U.S. Open. Additionally, the tournament has a history of being hosted at some of the most iconic golf courses in Canada.such as the St. George’s Golf and Country Club in Toronto. Last years event at St. George’s is memorable for Rory being mobbed as he walked down the 18th fairway on his way to victory.
To say that Canadian golf fans feel disrespected is to state the obvious.
This is shameful treatment for a national open that has been loyal to the US centric PGA Tour for over 100 years. A missed opportunity to show the world that golf exists beyond the borders of the US.
It seems like the PGA tour is desperate to make changes too quickly without considering the so- called tier 2 tour players and obviously the sponsors who make it all possible. Remember, there are probably only 20 to 25 “top” players in my opinion but what about the rest of the tour. Its easy to say as Rory says “play better” to qualify for the elevated events, but truly, these top players ARE better than the tier 2 players and thats a fact! Not considering the majority of the tour serves as a disservice to what the PGA is all about. There may be a sense of urgency on the part of the tour but maybe subtle changes would be more palatable to the majority of players and sponsors.
It defies explanation that Monahan is still in his position. He’d have been fired 6 months ago by a Board with any business savvy. His accomplishment has been turning the non-elevated events into Korn Ferry Tour 2.0
His lack of management and leadership has run the Tour into an unnecessary existential threat. Anti-trust penalties and loss of 501 C (6) status are realities because of this inept administrator.
Rory is equipped with talent to hit par 5’s in two, but has zero ability to assess poor Tour leadership.
Can we just go ahead and admit this is Andrew George? It’s all legit and true but let’s put a name to it and shine a brighter light on the difficulties that have been put on non-designated events
The PGA Tour went a wee bit too far with the latest plan of more “no cut”, limited field events. My opinion (worth nothing, of course) is that they could have kept the cut at those tournaments and expanded the fields to about 100 players, which is still limited. An intriguing part of the PGA Tour has always been the stories of up and coming guys- they should work to include them in the mix and not just buried in “non-elevated” events.
The PGA Tour also should have gathered with Tournament Directors and sponsor representatives to lay out a 5 year plan whereby they CLEARLY show when each current “non- elevated” event will get their turn(s) being an “elevated” event. Give them a say and an inclusive plan.
Seems the PGA Tour did a very poor job of collaborating with their broad stakeholders and haphazardly coddled their top players. Not very good at facilitating “buy in”, for sure.