PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The course located just down the street from PGA Tour headquarters is pristine. The fairways are velvet, with nary a divot to be found. The greens look smooth and fast, the flagsticks whipping in the wind.
With the Players Championship approaching at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, the place is vacant in the weeks leading up to the tour's flagship tournament, save for the workers scurrying about to keep it in prime condition.
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan is the exception to the "no golf" edict in place leading up to the tournament.
It's good to be the commissioner.
Just over four months into his tenure as only the fourth leader of the PGA Tour in its history, Monahan is faced with what might be his first bad day on the job. He gets to play golf on a course with nobody on it, but he is doing so with me.
This, perhaps, tells you a little bit about the man who took over for Tim Finchem in January and celebrated his 47th birthday on Sunday. Monahan loves to play golf, no matter the company.
That would seem a prerequisite if you are going to preside over an organization of tour golf professionals, but is not necessarily easily accomplished. Not with sponsors, players, television executives, media, constant travel and myriad other tasks that come with the job.
All of which might make keeping his 4.1 handicap (at both TPC Sawgrass and Pablo Creek in Jacksonville) a bit of a challenge.
Monahan's glass-full attitude is an indication why he was OK with riding around in a cart and playing with a golf writer -- and answering a bunch of questions, too, as he is about to preside over his first Players Championship, which begins Thursday.
Editor's Note: Read part II of Bob Harig's interview with Jay Monahan.
Monahan has a never-ending list of things to do as commissioner, but he boils down his to-do list this way:
"Making Mr. (Arnold) Palmer proud,'' he said. "If you really think about that every step of the way, at the end of the year the PGA Tour will have had great year. That has been guiding a lot of my and our thinking."
"Really communicating and connecting with our players and partners and listening and trying to convert that into the growth and momentum we want to carry into next year. I think it's important for anyone who is in a new position to really spend a lot of time out there listening and getting as broad a perspective as possible."
"Celebrating the game. I think we're in a competitive world. It's competitive for young people's time. It's competitive for everybody's time. This game is so unique and so special in how it can impact one's life. And using our platform to continue to celebrate what is unique about the game I think is an important role for us. It's important for us to do that with all of our industry partners. We all talk about the growth of the game, and it will grow and I think we're in a perfect position to make a big impact on that front."
"Overall engagement in the PGA Tour. You look at ratings, you look at social media following, you look at video consumption, you look at what's happening in the markets where you're playing week in and week out in terms of attendance and charity impact. You look at economic impact. You look at the broad picture. But the way people engage the tour through our tournaments, making sure we're growing on that front."
"One of the things we're doing is investing back in our product. We've got an initiative called Digital 2.0 that has been a focus for the last several years. You'll see us make more investments in our platforms. We're making a lot more investments in analytics and understanding what is happening week in and week out. Investing in what we call the fan journey and make sure we really understand what the fan wants and trying to get ahead of the curve on that front and really be a lot more thoughtful about it.''
The Rules of Golf
Various rules issues have dogged the game over the past year, namely the Dustin Johnson incident at the U.S. Open where he wasn't sure for the remaining six holes of the tournament if he would be docked a 1-stroke penalty. (He was and still won.) Since then, both of golf's governing bodies -- the United States Golf Association and R&A -- have come together with a vast proposal to overhaul the rules, as well as a new stipulation to limit the use of video review.
All of it has made many wonder -- including a decent segment of PGA Tour players -- why the organization doesn't have its own set of rules. In American professional sports, the rules are set by the leagues themselves, and often differ from those used in international competition or amateur events.
"Our (regulations) stipulate that we play by USGA rules,'' Monahan said. "On occasion, we make local rules (which is allowed within The Rules of Golf), so at times there are differences. But I think it's inherently good for the game to be playing by the same set of rules.''
Monahan said to make any such change -- and none is imminent -- would need to be vetted and approved by the PGA Tour policy board.
"But if you look at what's transpired over roughly the last 18 months, we were very involved in the rules modernization process,'' Monahan said. "We gave a lot of input along the way. The most recent announcement (about video review) and the fact that both organizations responded in the middle of a rules cycle (new rules are typically implemented every four years) and made a change, we're encouraged by that.
"It's always been part of the discourse and will continue to be. We've got longstanding strong partnerships with both organizations and when there are differences and when there are challenges, it would be our preference to be able to deal with them directly with those organizations. What just transpired is not just the PGA Tour, but the professional tours coming together and talking to the governing bodies and that resulting in a change is positive.''
Monahan noted that the PGA Tour is experimenting with distance measuring devices at four tournaments this year on the Web.com Tour, which is allowed by the USGA as a local rule, but has not be implemented at the higher levels of the game.
As for viewer call-ins about rules violations, if the PGA Tour is going to follow USGA rules, it can't simply decide it will ignore such notifications. "And that is one of the things (the governing bodies) are looking at right now,'' Monahan said.
The PGA Tour almost never discloses discipline of its players for transgressions outside of failing a performance enhancing a drug test, often leaving it open for criticism given the lack of transparency.
If a player tests positive for recreational drugs -- or gets arrested or runs afoul of various tour regulations -- the penalties are not disclosed. This is in contrast to the major U.S. sports leagues that not only reveal penalties, but often announce them before any appeal is heard.
"I think we look at player discipline as a family matter,'' Monahan said. "If a player is not representing themselves and is not representing the tour well on the golf course through their actions, then we have a system in place that corrects that. This system has worked very well. For us and I think for the player. Our players are well aware there are consequences for their actions.
"Because we don't disclose it, we tend to get a lot of questions. But you have to ask yourself, what is in the best interests of the player and the tour? And I think that the way we're handling it -- particularly as it relates to player discipline and what's happening inside the field of play -- we handle well and we're comfortable with. But I understand the criticism. It's something we talk about and think about for that reason.''
Slow play and penalties are another area where public disclosure is often viewed as a way to deter the behavior. Aside from the rare 1-stroke penalty that is given during competition (the PGA Tour levied its first such penalty in 22 years at the Zurich Classic last month), there is a fine structure in place depending on the number of warnings a player receives.
The tour does not disclose who gets these fines, how often it happens, nor the amount.
"I'm not so sure I agree that anything beyond what we're doing is going to deter the behavior you're asking us to deter,'' Monahan said. "As it relates to slow play, a lot has happened behind the scenes in the last 12 to 18 months. We've developed a Shotlink dashboard for our rules officials where you can at any point in time see where a player is relative to time-par, see where a player is relative to their own historical averages. And we disclose all that information to the players, and so the players are well aware. (Players are only given information about themselves, not other players.) They have access now.
"And we're in the midst of a comprehensive review on pace of play. It's not something that we just say it's our policy and that's how it's always going to be. We recognize that with technology, we can be far more intelligent about what's happening. Now what do you do with it? I would venture to say at this point we are taking a good hard look at it.''
Monahan acknowledged pace of play issues, but said the time for a threesome or twosome to play 18 holes hasn't changed going back to 2004.
"In pockets, there are problems,'' he said. "We have a mechanism in place to address it. The question is really, where are you trying to get to? If it's 3:45 (for 18 holes), what is the time frame you are trying to get down to? What is the balance? In the last couple of weeks, ironically, we've been playing too fast and finishing too early. Relative to the world at large via television, that's not good, either.''
His golf game
Monahan's competitive amateur career was spurred by his dad (Joseph) and two brothers (Brendan and Justin). He spoke of them several times -- and noted he'd love to schedule a trip with them to Bandon Dunes, where he's never been.
And he had a few golf course battles with Finchem -- a pretty good player in his own right -- over the years.
"We always played straight up,'' said Monahan of Finchem, who has clearly been working on his game in retirement -- he has a 4.1 handicap index at TPC Sawgrass and a 6.5 at Pablo Creek. "And I did everything in my power to beat him every time we played.''
Even though he was the boss? "Absolutely. You can't ever play this game that way. I think showing your competitive side when you play says a lot about you.''
Monahan played golf at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and later got a master's degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His path to becoming PGA Tour commissioner included a stint as director of global sponsorships and branding programs for EMC Corporation, executive director of the Deutsche Bank Championship golf tournament outside of Boston, executive vice president of Fenway Sports (Monahan has a 2007 Boston Red Sox World Series ring) and several positions at the PGA Tour, including tournament director of the Players Championship.
In early 2014, he was named deputy commissioner of the PGA Tour, a clear sign that he had been tapped to take over for Finchem, 70, who retired after 22 years leading the tour.
Monahan discussed a match he had with Finchem in 2014 at Kingsbarns, site of this year's Women's British Open and just a few miles from St. Andrews. Monahan shot 73 on the links venue that overlooks the town and figured he was in good shape against Finchem, who was in the group behind.
Looking down at the 18th green from the clubhouse as Finchem played the last hole, Monahan saw the then-commissioner knock in a long putt. It turns out that putt was for 72.
"I have in my office today a framed picture of Kingsbarns with the scorecard and a nice note from him,'' Monahan said. "It was his 'welcome to your new office' present to me a few years ago. He's just as competitive as I am.''
A bucket list
Monahan has played most of the places you would expect: Augusta National, Pine Valley, Pebble Beach.
There are several he has not played, and one omission struck Australian Adam Scott when they recently had a conversation about it.
"As we started talking, I realized I had never been to Australia and had never played Royal Melbourne or Kingston Heath nor any of the Sandbelt golf courses,'' Monahan said. "As we were talking about it, that trip and those golf courses kind of made their way to the top of my list. I would say he was pretty convincing. I would say that would be it.''
Monahan is the fourth commissioner. Joe Dey was the first. He came aboard when the tour was born in 1968; players decided to form their own association and broke away from the PGA of America. A former executive director of the United States Golf Association, Dey had once been a sportswriter who covered Bobby Jones' Grand Slam-clinching victory at Merion in 1930. Dey was commissioner for five years.
Deane Beman, now 79, succeeded Dey in 1974 and came to the job with the perspective of being a player. He won the U.S. Amateur twice, the British Amateur once and captured four PGA Tour titles. Under his leadership, the tour moved to Florida, started a network of TPC courses, required that all tournaments be set up as nonprofits with a charitable component and formed what is now the PGA Tour Champions circuit. He served for 20 years.
Finchem went to work for the PGA Tour in the late 1980s after, among other things, serving in the President Jimmy Carter White House. He served as deputy commissioner before taking over from Beman. Finchem's background was as a lawyer, and he built upon Beman's success and saw the launch of the Presidents Cup, the formation of the World Golf Championships as well as the FedEx Cup, and parlayed Tiger Woods' popularity into robust television contracts and escalating purses.