Former PGA Tour, Augusta National executive a key cog in potential super league

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Less than a year ago, Ron Cross occupied a lofty corner office at PGA Tour headquarters. It was, by every measure, a dream job.

Cross grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, where he began volunteering to work at The Players Championship as a teenager and later started his career in golf with the PGA Tour as an intern when he graduated from the University of Florida.

“I was at the right place at the right time,” Cross laughed.

He became something of a plug-and-play executive at the Tour, moving from championship to championship and town to town while organizing some of the circuit’s most high-profile events, including the Presidents Cup and Tour Championship. It was during his time at East Lake when he crossed paths with former Augusta National chairman Billy Payne, who eventually convinced Cross to leave the Tour and spearhead the club’s “grow the game” initiatives.

He eventually returned to the Tour as senior vice president of the Presidents Cup with oversight of the circuit’s international events in Mexico, China, South Korea and Japan.

Again, dream job stuff.

Cross’ resume is important largely because of where he found himself late Friday – Dubai. “Looking at opportunities with the Asian Tour and where we should go,” he explained.

Greg Norman names two chief executives to LIV Golf Investments

If that sounds vague, know that it’s a sign of the times.

Greg Norman – who was named CEO of LIV Golf Investments, the group that’s behind a proposed new global tour – named Cross and former ESPN executive Sean Bratches members of his fund’s leadership team early Friday. Cross will be the chief events officer while Bratches will be the chief commercial officer.

Norman and LIV Golf Investments stepped out of the shadows last week as the group behind the start-up super league, which had been talked about and speculated on for years. Neither Norman nor Cross have confirmed what the next step in the process will be – or even if there is a plan for a global tour – but with the financial backing of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the proposed circuit is either the greatest threat to the PGA Tour’s business model or, depending on who you ask, a much-needed needed disruptor in professional golf.

It’s why Cross is such a compelling figure in what has the potential to be a global turf war. After spending the better part of three decades in proximity to the PGA Tour’s decision making process, he now finds himself on the other side of the table.

How will the PGA Tour respond to a rival circuit that threatens to lure its top players away with enormous purses and lucrative ownership stakes? “I’m probably not the best person to answer that,” Cross said.

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Norman was similarly noncommittal when he met with a group of select media in New York City last week (Golf Channel was not invited to the meeting) and not a single player has announced they plan to join a new circuit. Instead, the Australian focused on LIV’s $200 million, 10-year investment in an annual 10-event series on the Asian Tour.

However, Norman and Cross are leaving plenty of breadcrumbs to what will eventually be the new circuit’s big reveal.

“There’s potential moving down the road, we’ve had great decisions about things we can do. Nothing we’re able to say or put a stamp on today,” Cross said. “I know with my experience with the Asian Amateur there is great potential for growth in Asia, so I think this is a great starting point.”

The proof of that potential lies within Cross’ particular area of expertise. Having managed many of the PGA Tour’s biggest events would be a useful skillset for a circuit with global ambitions and during his tenure at Augusta National, Cross spent a good deal of time organizing the Asian-Pacific Amateur, which is being played in Dubai this week.

“I think the potential for golf to be more global is very exciting and a great opportunity for everyone involved in the game,” Cross said. “Ultimately that’s what we want to do, is be a part of helping to grow the game and make the game better for anyone and everyone. However we can help in making things better is what we’re interested in.”

As last week’s news unfolded, Graeme McDowell was among the first Tour players to ask the obvious question: Is competition a good thing? It’s a seemingly poignant question for someone who spent 30-odd years working for an organization that hasn’t faced a great amount of competition.

“I think competition is good for any and all businesses,” Cross said. “That drives further improvement. That drives better outcomes for everyone involved.”

When Jay Monahan took over as PGA Tour commissioner in 2017, Cross returned “back home” to where he started his career in golf. “I thought I’d retire at the Tour, but unfortunately the pandemic hit,” he said. As the pandemic hurt the circuit’s business his position was “eliminated” in December 2020.

Cross holds no hard feelings towards the Tour. He understands better than most the reality of a global pandemic on nearly every business. But he also understands – again, better than most – that the product can always be better.

“Continuous improvement,” he said, “that’s what we learned from [the late Clifford Roberts] and Mr. Payne at Augusta. It’s what everybody in golf strives for. You want to make the experience better for fans, for players, for clients, for volunteers.”

Cross doesn’t sound like a disrupter, which is no huge surprise given that the soft-spoken father of two has been embedded in the game’s establishment his entire adult life. But there is a flash when he’s pressed for his understanding of Norman’s vision.

“The opportunity to continue to improve and make the game better on a professional level and ultimately that translates down to the grassroots level,” Cross said. “Those 10 events on the Asian Tour are going to be a good first effort to see how we can help and be a part of that and see where else we can make an impact moving forward.”