Before Jay Monahan was commissioner of the PGA Tour, he worked in sales for the tour, putting deals together for tournaments with new sponsors. So Monahan knows all too well the struggles of the desert’s PGA Tour event over the last decade.

“In retrospect, it has been a fight,” Monahan said Thursday in an exclusive interview with The Desert Sun at the American Express tournament. “But if you look back when Humana came on board and CareerBuilder came on board, there was a lot of promise. There is a lot of energy that went into it. There are a number of reasons that it just didn’t work out.”

As the tournament takes a new turn with American Express as the sponsor and Phil Mickelson as the host, Monahan believes there are great things ahead for a tournament that nearly died in 2011.

“To have American Express here and with Steve Squeri (head of American Express), to have Jeff Sanders (executive director of the event for Lagardere Sports) who has been in the market for the time that he’s been here, for the progress that has been made, and American Express to plug into that, you have an outline for the future of the event,” Monahan said.

Monahan said that he believes what has been accomplished in the event for 2020 in the short time that American Express and Mickelson have been on board is remarkable. In particular, he loves having American Express back as a title sponsor on a tour event for the first time since 2006.

The return of a major sponsor

“We are very fortunate, if you look over the course of our schedule, we’ve got great companies, great leaders, great brands that have made long-term commitments to our sport,” Monahan said. “American Express has continued to stay involved in golf with their partnership with the USGA, so they have been in the game.

“But the beauty of this is their commitment to the event, their commitment to the Coachella Valley. And now Jeff, who I think is an extraordinary executive director, can now plan multiple years out.”

Monahan made sure to echo what American Express, Mickelson and Lagardere Sports has said time and again in recent months that the new Phil Mickelson Foundation will not be taking tournament proceeds out of the desert.

“There has been some discussion about the charitable dollars, and to know that 100 percent of the money is going to stay in the valley, I think when people start to see the energy and the involvement of Phil, with American Express, I think people are going to be really pleased with this move,” Monahan said.

“I think people need to trust it, because when Phil Mickelson says it, American Express says it, Jeff Sanders says it, the PGA Tour says it, you have to trust it,” he added.

Monahan had good things to say about the 60-year-history of Desert Classic Charities running the desert tournament, but he added that change comes to all things, even if that change is hard. That change includes the addition of events like the concerts that are now part of the American Express.

Stevie Nicks, a rock and roll legend, and Luke Bryan, one of the biggest names in country music today, will perform concerts on the PGA West driving range. Nicks will perform Friday night and Bryan will play Saturday to what are expected to be the largest crowds of the four years of concerts at the tournament.

Growing the game
“Our number one objective as an organization is to grow and diversify our fan base. You look at the way our tournaments are evolving, the week of the tournament, Monday through Sunday, golf is the central component,” Monahan said. “But tournaments are living, breathing organisms in their communities. And you have to attract the core fan, and what we call drama seekers, the sports fans. You’ve got to draw them in.”

Monahan added that the changes in the tournament this year should be a sign to fans that the tour wants to stay in the Coachella Valley.

“There is a lot of demand for the PGA Tour. We have a commitment to the valley and we have a history that dates back to 1960 that becomes part of the fabric of who you are,” Monahan said. “So we are always going to do everything we can, and we have in this case, to build a long-term sustainable recipe for success here.”

Larry Bohannan is The Desert Sun golf writer. He can be reached at (760) 778-4633 or Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter at @Larry_Bohannan. Support local journalism: Subscribe to the Desert Sun.