NORTON — This was 16 years ago, and Jay Monahan was in an office not too far from where he is now, in an armchair inside a sitting room at TPC Boston’s on-course golf museum.
As the young, hotshot leader of a tournament about to make its PGA Tour debut in Monahan’s own Boston backyard, there were so many unknowns hovering over his shoulders about how the event then known as the Deutsche Bank Championship and now known as the Dell Technologies Championship would go, whether area fans would embrace a tournament waged across Labor Day weekend, if enough tour pros would make the commitment to provide a quality field.
Then came the Tuesday morning, the first day the gates would open to the public, allowing spectators to watch the practice rounds. Monahan’s phone rang. One of his closest friends was on the other end. And what that man had to say said everything about the vision Monahan had, about the leader Monahan could be, about the man who returns to this final incarnation of the tournament as we know it not as its executive director anymore, but as commissioner of the PGA Tour.
. . .
There are probably hundreds of different stops along the career way that could tell you how Monahan got here, how the 47-year-old Belmont native rose to one of golf’s most influential and important positions in January, 2017, how a former college hockey player and lifelong New England sports fan used a magnetic personality and formidable relationship-making skills to turn a passion for what he calls the “greatest sport in the world” into a professional calling. Still, this tournament marks as good a waypoint as any, a moment when uncertainty turned into success, when Monahan began making it clear his dynamic, inclusive and open-minded approach could help push a game long defined by many as staid, exclusive and exclusionary into a more inclusive, diverse future.
It started with a Tiger, as in Woods, the sport’s most famous face who was on board from year one, bringing his eponymous charitable foundation in as host, operator and beneficiary of the tournament. While Woods spent part of his Wednesday morning with reporters sharing fond memories of that first event, and even more of the conversation on his gratefulness for his health allowing him to be back here for the first time since 2013, Monahan was remembering another aspect of the Woods effect, revealed in that phone call from his buddy Steve Conley.
“It was 7 a.m. and he called me and said, ‘You need to come down to the front gate,’ ” Monahan recalled. “I said, ‘What are you talking about?’
“People were lined up all the way back, thousands of people on a Tuesday morning, a practice round, the first day we were open, all these people coming through the gates. And I’m like, ‘Wow.’ I just thought it would be a steady flow through the course of the morning, but people were coming out in droves and I thought, ‘Wow, we have something really special here.’ Tiger has been a huge contributor to this event.”
Of course the event is changing now, with a revamped tour schedule meaning TPC Boston will no longer host the Dell every Labor Day weekend, but the Northern Trust instead, in an every-other-year arrangement with the New York market and across the first week of August. But as much as it feels like a loss for Boston, it is a good move for the game, and one of the biggest changes Monahan has overseen in his 17-month tenure.
Though it had been in the works under predecessor Tim Finchem, Monahan always saw how much sense this made in the crowded sports arena, arranged now so there is at least one big-time golf event per month beginning in March (the Players in March, Masters in April, PGA in May, US Open in June, British Open in July) building momentum into a back-to-back-to-back three-week August sprint through the FedEx Cup playoffs. No competition with the start of college football or the ratings behemoth otherwise known as the NFL.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult [to make changes in Boston], but I think our responsibility when we started this effort of thinking about our schedule and our product, what’s the best product for the fan, for sponsors, for players, for our media partners,” Monahan said. “And if you look back over the last several years, we started with an understanding that it was really difficult to have four playoff events and end really our season at the start of college football and start of the NFL, really, very competitive landscape. And so for us we felt like to have the most dramatic close to our season and FedEx Cup playoffs we needed to have it end prior to that point in time.”
Gauging public temperature seems to be one of Monahan’s strengths, reflected in goals that include diversifying golf’s fan base as well as the PGA Tour’s staff, connecting with women in the game (he has two daughters) through initiatives such as women’s executive golf days, and recognizing that the players are the real reason people watch, and have earned the right to have their voices heard. He’s bullish on the incoming crop of young American stars — “You look at really the last five years and the consistent emergence of great young players, under the age of 25, and the fact that each year, including this one, a new one steps forward on the backs of others that have preceded him,” he said – but just as moved by the holdover stars such as Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Sixteen years ago, when Monahan couldn’t have known what this weekend would bring, it was the arrival of Woods that punctuated his vision as reality. Now, as they come here to bid farewell to the tournament as we know it, as Monahan moves up the career ladder and Woods inches closer to the career finish line, Monahan can still see a bright future ahead.
“Golf is a generational game, right?” he says. “You start when you’re 4, 5 or 6 and you can end in your last days. You have someone like Tiger Woods, you look at Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, the greats of the game, their voices, their presence, their impact, it’s there every step of the way. The way I look at this is Tiger’s voice is going to be a part of this sport for a long time to come.”
If golf is lucky, Monahan’s voice will be too.Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.