PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Jay Monahan’s team stood alone at the foot of the hulking clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass, illuminated in the afternoon sun. Beneath them, a few thousand people packed into the first tee box to see Scottie Scheffler off at the Players Championship.
It has become a tradition for Monahan and the PGA Tour’s head honchos to meet here, on the first tee box, for the final opening tee shots of tournament week — an intended victory lap of sorts for the Tour’s flagship tournament.
The vibe hasn’t always been celebratory. Last year, a noticeably smaller crew arrived here on a gray Monday morning for the same ritual. It had been a cold, rainy week — the weather forcing a lackluster finish in front of a subdued crowd. Of course, there was a larger storm forming on the horizon, that of LIV Golf, which was only months from barnstorming the professional golf world in a crusade targeted squarely against the Tour.
This year, however, the energy was light. Monahan and co. wore sunglasses and warm-weather clothes as they chatted from a roped-off area on the great lawn. A brilliant afternoon was about to give way to a scintillating evening — one that would see Scottie Scheffler become just the third golfer ever (behind Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods) to win the Players and Masters in a 12-month stretch. It’d been a striking few days on the PGA Tour, filled with players meetings and wholesale changes, but now it was close to completion.
So, what did the man shepherding golf’s largest professional tour in this bold new era think of it all? Good week?
“Great week,” Monahan said, smile spread wide across his face.
In hindsight, last year’s Players served as a foreboding omen for the year to follow. Monahan’s now-famous “legacy, not leverage” commissioner’s press conference denouncing the rumored tour; Cam Smith’s eventual victory, cementing his status as a top player; and Tiger Woods’ Hall of Fame induction ceremony, a moment marking Woods’ official inauguration as the game’s foremost steward.
The events of the 12 months that followed changed golf as we knew it. The creation of a new rival tour, the steady drain of top talent — including the late-summer crown jewel: Cam Smith — and the players-only meeting called by Woods on a tarmac in Delaware that drafted a bold counterattack to save the sport.
If this year’s Players follows the same tact, it’s easy to see what has Monahan so excited. From the outset, the tone of Players 2023 sounded entirely unlike the year before. Forget an excoriating presser — the Tour started the week by ratifying changes that would change the schedule as we knew it. Now, the designated event structure would look more elegant — no cuts, smaller fields, consistent scheduling. One by one, players stepped up to voice their support (or disdain) for the changes, none of which came with the threatened undertones of the year before.
When Monahan eventually stepped to the podium, he spoke not of morality but of reality.
“We’ve looked at all possible competitive models, and it was evident and perhaps obvious that whatever we do differently, we must showcase our top performers
competing against one another more often,” he said. “This is what fans want, and this is what fans have been asking for.”
“The Tour isn’t just competing with LIV and other sports,” echoed Rory McIlroy. “It’s competing with Instagram.”
The changes were cause for excitement (and near-universally lauded), but they were reinforced once play began. A strange leaderboard melded the best of the Tour’s existing structure with its new one. On one side of the ledger, World No. 50 Min Woo Lee played his way to the brink of special temporary membership on the PGA Tour with a dazzling T6 finish. On the other, the final leaderboard featured golfers ranked Nos. 2, 7, 10 and 11 heading into the week.
“It was a bit of both,” Lee said. “Scottie’s won a lot of tournaments, and everyone wants to see an underdog kind of win and play well. I think obviously they were favoring Scottie, but I enjoyed the crowd out there. I mean, to be, I’ve been in final groups quite a lot lately, and to be on the PGA Tour in one of the biggest PGA Tour tournaments, it’s awesome.”
This is how the Tour wishes to enter its brave new future, with its flagship event highlighting both golf as it was and golf as it will soon become. And if the Players is to be a representative tournament for the PGA Tour, what better way to crown a champion than by naming a new World No. 1 in a runaway, five-shot victory? Scheffler, for his part, couldn’t think of one.
“I don’t worry about what’s going on elsewhere,” Scheffler said. “I’m doing what I can to help improve our Tour, and I think the Tour’s done a great job of continuing to improve, and they’re improving at a rapid pace.”
A few minutes after Scottie Scheffler claimed victory Sunday, Jay Monahan’s team returned again to the foot of the hulking clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass. The sun had begun to set, casting a glow of orange in the sky beyond. Now Monahan stood next to a podium in front of a few thousand people, no longer incognito.
Last year, it was here that Monahan handed the Players trophy to Jacksonville local Cam Smith on a rare Monday finish, dropping the first domino in a turbulent golf season to come.
On Sunday, Monahan carried on with much the same tradition, marking the official start of a golf high season that could shape the future of professional golf as we know it. Monahan seemed to understand this as he reached for the trophy, but when it came time to hand Scheffler the hardware, he paused.
“That our 2022 PGA Tour player of the year is also our 2023 Players champion,” he told the crowd. “I think it’s just fitting.”