After more than a year of high-stakes jockeying and long-distance accusations, Jay Monahan and Yasir al-Rumayyan finally met in May, an arranged blind date in some Venice cafe or hotel.
Now the oddest of bedfellows will attempt to remake the future of professional golf and repair the damage done by a yearlong civil war they had once waged against each other.
The 53-year-olds in charge could not be more different: Monahan, the American commissioner of the PGA Tour since 2017, and al-Rumayyan, the trusted confidant of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and overseer of his country’s massive Public Investment Fund.
It is that fund, claiming to be worth somewhere close to $700 billion, that bought its way into golf last Tuesday. It ended a sniping, court-complicated fight between the PGA’s American and European tours and the Saudi-backed LIV Golf tour. It instantly solved the PGA Tour’s financial struggles.
Now al-Rumayyan will be chairman of this entity. Monahan will be his chief executive. And among the many complex questions this raises is one of internal logistics. How will this unlikely duo manage — manage the game of golf, both on the course and off it, and manage to get along?
“Money can change everything,” the legendary golfer Gary Player said in an email exchange. “And all we can do now is hope the outcome moving forward is positive for all.”
Monahan has deep New England roots and a background in sports marketing. His leadership style is as hushed as a golf crowd awaiting a winning putt.
“I enjoy all forms of human interaction,” he told Golf Digest in 2017. “Talking with people, listening to them, often just observing them. Even unpleasant people, I enjoy discovering what makes them tick. It’s sort of a requirement of the job I’m in now because the range of people is so broad, their situations so dynamic. Their needs and goals can be material, but it’s the human interaction that gets us there.”
Al-Rumayyan, the cash-carrying disrupter with a deep passion for golf, is a stern test for Monahan’s people skills. Certainly his “needs and goals” are material.
While al-Rumayyan will hold just one of the (now) 11 seats on the PGA Tour board of directors, he and the wealth fund have the exclusive right to invest in the new entity. That means they control the finances, and they plan to pump in billions of dollars.
In his only public appearance since the merger was announced last week, a televised consummation on CNBC where the two sat chummily side by side, al-Rumayyan said he would let Monahan lead the operation.
The “voting system” and the majority of the board, he noted, “is not going to be with us.”
But al-Rumayyan’s very presence — and the deal itself, for now only a framework that could take months to formalize — is a heavy reminder that money can trump it all.
“The Saudis will want to dominate this,” said James M. Dorsey, adjunct senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School for International Studies in Singapore. “They don’t like to play second fiddle. And they believe, not without reason, that money talks.”
What kind of takeover leader al-Rumayyan will become is unclear. His PIF portfolio is massive, and he chairs dozens of state-owned firms, including the oil giant Saudi Aramco and the mining firm Ma’aden. He largely lets executive teams run them as they see fit.
But the relationship with Newcastle United, the English soccer team, might provide the best clues for golf.
The PIF bought an 80 percent share of Newcastle United in 2021. Fans of the English club immediately welcomed the ownership change, as the prospect of on-field success overrode hard questions. Infused with PIF money, doled out by al-Rumayyan, Newcastle has surged toward the top of the English Premier League.
At Newcastle, he has left day-to-day decisions to others, though he has quickly approved expenditures for talent upgrades and has not been invisible.
He shows up to matches on occasion. (Compare that with mostly absentee ownership of Manchester City by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, who made news on Saturday by going to the team’s Champions League final.) He has kicked the ball around the team’s field and been photographed in the dressing room.
Yet al-Rumayyan is more passionate about golf. Around LIV, his pet project, he is known as H.E., for His Excellency, and has been a considerable public presence. At last year’s LIV event in Bedminster, N.J., al-Rumayyan hobnobbed with former President Donald J. Trump, the course’s owner. For a time, al-Rumayyan wore a “Make America Great Again” cap.
But most do not expect him to be an overtly public presence in golf or a familiar figure around the trophy ceremonies. Part of it is his portfolio; he has plenty of other business responsibilities.
“How much time does he have to allocate?” Dorsey said. “This is a man at the top of an empire. He oversees a vast array of things. I think you’ll see a lot of his lieutenants and not a lot of him, at least once this settles down.”
Part of it is Saudi culture; he has to “walk a fine line,” according to Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, given the autocratic leadership of Prince Mohammed.
“If you seem to be too big, and you seem to be Mr. Saudi Arabia, bin Salman doesn’t take well to people stepping on his toes,” Ulrichsen said. “But we’ve also seen that al-Rumayyan is probably the most trusted and most competent member of his inner circle.”
Al-Rumayyan was a little-known banking executive in 2015, when King Abdullah died. Power consolidated around Prince Mohammed, who soon started Vision 2030, an ambitious makeover for Saudi Arabia and its reputation. Part of that involved building the PIF as a diversifying vehicle for growing global capital, financially and culturally.
Prince Mohammed, looking to flush out the aging elite that he felt limited the country’s ambitions — locking up and abusing hundreds of them — handed responsibility of the fund to al-Rumayyan.
Continued human rights violations and the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, on orders, the Central Intelligence Agency has said, from Prince Mohammed, have made the Saudis global pariahs.
But under al-Rumayyan’s direction, the investment fund grew exponentially.
Investment in sports, in particular, has proved an effective reputation launderer that some call sportswashing. The culmination of that effort may be the takeover of golf, announced the same week Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken visited Prince Mohammed in Saudi Arabia.
“This was part of establishing Saudi Arabia on the global stage,” Ulrichsen said of the Saudi push into international sports. “And in this case, it shows that Saudi Arabia is welcome again at the highest kind of table in the United States, especially after what happened post-2018. That period of isolation is now definitely over.”
For Saudis, the golf deal is more a global news event than a national one. Wednesday’s front page of Arriyadiyah, the kingdom’s top sports daily, was dominated by the news of the French soccer player Karim Benzema moving to Jeddah-based Al-Ittihad, the latest prize for the top Saudi league, which already attracted Cristiano Ronaldo, among others. The announcement of the golf merger was nowhere to be found in any of the paper’s pages for that day, and merited only a brief mention on Page 11 on Thursday.
But al-Rumayyan is on a one-man mission to use golf for Saudi benefit. He helped establish the Saudi Golf Federation and the Saudi Golf Company, founded in 2019 to promote the game in the country.
One uncertainty is the long-term role of Monahan as chief executive. Tax records obtained by ProPublica show that he was paid $14 million in salary in 2021 for his role as PGA Tour commissioner. He spent most of 2022 and early 2023 trying to fend off LIV through insults and lawsuits.
That litigation will be withdrawn, saving the cash-poor PGA Tour money while shielding al-Rumayyan and the wealth fund from depositions and discovery.
Was it all gamesmanship that can be forgiven now? Or might al-Rumayyan work behind the scenes to find a leader more aligned with his goals?
Monahan wants golf fans, sponsors and his own players to resist the reflexive, collective wince at this new arrangement, painted by many as a money-over-morals transaction, and to think of where global golf can be in 10 years.
It most likely depends on whatever al-Rumayyan wants.
It could be mere tweaks in payouts, schedules and formats to lift a sagging, traditional enterprise — the way he has handled Newcastle. Or it could be an overhaul. A possible comparison, without ties to the PIF, is the way international cricket introduced Twenty20 to counter dragging, multiday contests with something shorter, livelier and more consumable, which is similar to what LIV has tried to do.
For someone like Player, 87, a nine-time major tournament winner from South Africa, the hope is broad, global growth, not just on the PGA Tour.
“The women’s game and the weekend golfer should not be forgotten with all this money pouring in,” he said. “Allow the ladies to earn a better living. Use the money to make golf accessible for the masses. Let’s make it a point to share this new era to all who love our sport.”
At the heart of all the possibilities, for now, is the relationship between two men — an impossibly rich backer from Saudi Arabia and a tradition-rich sports executive from Massachusetts.
“We just sat down, him and I, in Venice for about two hours, trying to understand each other,” al-Rumayyan said. “He talked about his aspirations, his life. I did the same. Even my family was with me in Venice. We had a lunch with a big group of people. The understanding and the positive thinking is what really unites us in growing the game of golf. The passion that we have, both of us, is what really cemented this kind of agreement.”
Springtime in Venice has a way of sparking such enchantment.
Skeptics may point out that Venice is a series of islands and an easy place to lose your sense of direction. Cynics might note that it is sinking.
Ahmed Al Omran contributed reporting.