PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan earlier this year pointed to the organization’s prudent financial management as it raced to meet the challenge from Saudi-funded LIV Golf. He repeatedly said the Tour was efficient in the way it is operated and would dip into reserves to help finance larger purses to compete with LIV.
Four days after he made those remarks in June, a PGA Tour-owned Citation X jet flew from the Tour’s headquarters in Florida to California and then on to an airport near Steamboat Springs, Colo., according to records from a commercial jet-tracking service. A trust in the name of Monahan’s wife owns property in that Colorado resort town, county records show.
The June trip to Colorado was one of 17 times the PGA Tour’s jet has landed near Steamboat Springs since Monahan became commissioner in early 2017, flight records show. The jet also has traveled to Montana; Nantucket, Mass.; St. Lucia; and Turks and Caicos on Monahan’s personal travel, according to the flight records and a person familiar with the Tour’s position.
The Tour’s financial resources—and how it spends its money—have been placed in a bright spotlight over the past year. LIV Golf, backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign-wealth fund, has lured away many of the biggest-name golfers in the world with lavish appearance fees and record-breaking prize funds.
As the Tour tries to drum up more money to compete with LIV, Monahan’s private jet travel is one of several signs of past big spending at the organization, which also pays a rich salary to Monahan, made large payments to retired executives and last year moved into a new $81 million headquarters.
Monahan travels regularly, for both business and pleasure, on the private jet, which the nonprofit PGA Tour owns through a for-profit subsidiary. The Tour’s private jet use, however, can’t be gleaned from the annual tax filings required of all nonprofits. Those filings require a nonprofit to provide a narrative description of certain benefits offered to top officials, including private-jet travel, which the Internal Revenue Service calls part of “charter” travel.
The most recently available filing for the PGA Tour says that, in “limited cases,” top executives “may utilize charter or first class travel for business” trips, citing security, privacy or efficiency reasons.
The PGA Tour’s actual policy, however, is different from what is described in the tax filings. The Tour told The Wall Street Journal that Monahan is required by its Policy Board, which includes players, to use the corporate plane for all air travel—business and personal—because it provides the “necessary level of efficiency, privacy, and security.”
Monahan’s personal use of the jet, the organization said, is included as income to the commissioner on the Tour’s annual tax filings. The filings don’t specifically mention the private jet or any jet-related compensation.
Lawyers who specialize in nonprofit law criticized the PGA Tour’s filings, saying they fail to disclose Monahan’s personal-jet travel and claim that charter travel is confined to “limited cases.”
“Given that the organization mandates the use of chartered jets for personal travel, the disclosure on the 990 (tax filing) is at best misleading and at worst intentionally inaccurate,” said Elizabeth Kingsley, a Washington lawyer who advises nonprofit organizations.
The Tour said it works with leading advisers on the tax filings and “is compliant with its reporting and regulatory obligations.”
The PGA Tour’s status as a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization, with an avowed purpose of promoting the sport for the benefit of its professional golfer members, is unusual in today’s pro sports landscape. Bodies such as Major League Baseball and the National Football League have given up functioning as nonprofits, and some lawmakers in the past have questioned whether sports leagues should be able to maintain a tax-exempt status.
Monahan has said that if the “only weapons here are dollar bills,” then the Tour can’t compete with a foreign monarchy spending billions to create a competing league. But in an effort to stem the flow of golfers to LIV, he also unveiled a series of changes to further incentivize players to remain with the Tour.
Twelve PGA events next year will have substantially increased purses, averaging $20 million apiece, a jump of tens of millions in total. A prize fund to reward the Tour’s most popular players will leap in value from $50 million to $100 million. Monahan, in August, said the new money would come from sponsors, the Tour’s own reserves and the benefits of the Tour performing ahead of budget in 2022.
A financial document the Tour provided to the Journal shows that the organization forecasted using $32 million from its reserves in 2022 to fund player earnings. The document projected that 55% of its $1.52 billion in projected revenue would go to the players.
Monahan’s pay of $14.2 million in 2020—the most recent year available—topped the prize money the body awarded to any golfer but one, Dustin Johnson, who made $19.7 million that year, the organization’s tax filings show. (Johnson subsequently became the first high-profile defector to LIV earlier this year.)
The Tour said Monahan’s pay is determined by a board committee, based on competitive rates for other sports leagues, and most of his compensation is dependent on his performance. The Tour pegged the amount Monahan received in 2020 at $8.3 million, with the remaining sum either long-term incentive compensation he has yet to receive or an estimate of future retirement benefits accrued in 2020.
The Tour also treats retired executives well. It paid out $8 million in severance and $32 million in other compensation to retired executives from 2017 to 2020, its annual filings show. More than half of the total went to
who retired as PGA Tour Commissioner in late 2016. In addition to receiving almost $19 million the year after he retired, Finchem remained on the payroll—making at least $800,000 annually—until at least 2020, the filings show.
The Tour said the post-retirement pay included incentive compensation and retirement benefits earned by Finchem and other executives prior to their departure. The Tour said its board retained Finchem after his retirement to chair the fundraising campaign for the Tour’s First Tee Foundation, a youth development organization. Finchem didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The PGA Tour last year opened a new $81 million headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. The three story building, on a golf course and surrounded by a newly created lake, was designed by the internationally known British architecture firm of Foster + Partners.
The Tour said its new facility is “efficient” and replaced a 36-year-old headquarters and other buildings that were owned or rented. Its 750-plus workers were spread over 17 buildings that needed frequent repairs.
A PGA Tour-owned company named Tour Air Inc. began operating the jet in 2011, initially leasing it and then last year purchasing it outright, according to Federal Aviation Administration records. The Citation X, known as an unusually speedy aircraft, typically carries up to eight passengers.
Flight records suggest the plane frequently is used for business travel. There were more than two dozen flights in 2022 to airports near Tour events while they were happening. The plane flew back and forth between Tour headquarters in Florida and Augusta, Ga., four times during the week surrounding this year’s Masters.
Sometimes the flights are a mixture of business and personal.
n July, the plane went from its base in St. Augustine, Fla., to Missoula, Mont. A few days later it went to Detroit, the site of that week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic, before heading back to Missoula about 17 hours later on July 27. The trips to Montana, where the commissioner’s family previously had spent time at an exclusive ranch, were personal for Monahan, according to the person familiar with the Tour’s position.
In July 2019, the jet spent a week on the resort island of Nantucket, Mass., flight records show. Monahan spent time with family on the trip, the person familiar with the Tour’s position said, on his way back from the British Open. Within the past year, the jet also flew several times to a college town where one of his children attends school.
This June, when the flight records show a trip to Turks and Caicos, it took Monahan to attend the wedding of four-time major champion Brooks Koepka, the person said. A few weeks later, in the middle of the Monahan news conference at which he discussed the Tour’s financial efficiency, LIV announced Koepka as its newest recruit.