Cover Story – Jon Drago and Michael Tothe

Cover Story – Jon Drago and Michael Tothe

PGA TOUR events take a lot of work. From sponsorship sales to hospitality areas and putting together a dynamite field for the fans, Tournament Director is a tireless, and sometimes thankless job. Michael Tothe and Jon Drago put in more work than just about anyone getting the Charles Schwab Challenge and the CJ CUP Byron Nelson together, making sure that from stem to stern, it is a great event for sponsors, advertisers, patrons and competitors. 

Tothe, who has held the position for the Schwab since 2012, and Drago, who has served 15 years  as director for the newly named CJ CUP Byron Nelson, both work tirelessly with their teams to ensure that everyone in on the same page, from budgeting and brainstorming, to execution during these events. 

It is a massive undertaking, and with the ever-changing landscape of the PGA TOUR, AG wanted to pick the brains of these fine gentlemen to see how they continue to adapt and evolve to the new-look PGA TOUR, while keeping their events relevant across the national golf landscape and providing an enjoyable time during tournament week for competitors and fans alike. 

AVIDGOLFER: How does this all work? Obviously, there are a lot of moving parts when planning an event of this magnitude. What does a typical day, week, month look like for you guys when you are planning your tournament?

Michael Tothe: There is all the buildup, and then the Sunday of the tournament we crown a champion. The following Monday it is quiet to the point of being a little eerie. From there, I think the first thing we do is reflect. We talk about what went well, pay some bills, start managing taking down the infrastructure and signage, so breaking everything down takes a few weeks. 

Jon Drago: We are very similar. One of the things that makes professional golf tournaments unique is the fact that we are the only professional sport with this number of fans that has to build and take down their stadiums every year. And with the venues, they want everything down pretty fast. So, naturally there is an evaluation period where we reflect on what went well and what we might change in the future, but we try to prioritize getting the build-out taken down quickly.  

AG: What about the different aspects of tournament? How does that work for you at the Nelson?

JD: We have over 100 separate committees, and we meet with all of them. From player transportation, standard bearers, player concierge, starters, scorers and others, we talk to all of them, and we do a de-brief about the tournament and then we start working on the next one. 

AG: Jon, your tournament is a vehicle to provide for the Momentous Institute, how does that all work as you start looking at the Nelson’s success every year?

JD: That aspect makes us different from other PGA TOUR events. We exist for one reason only, and that is to raise money for Momentous and the mental health programs that they run. So, we’re immediately looking at the numbers to see if it was successful and to be sure that we met our goals. We have been very fortunate that we have reached those goals the last several years. 

AG: After years with AT&T, the Nelson has a new sponsor this year. How has it been working with CJ as you move toward the tournament in 2024?

JD: This is typically the time of year we would be making a last-minute sales push and just tidying up a few things with what AT&T wanted to do, but with a new sponsor in 2024, everything is changing for us. We’re changing signage, our operational plans, and we’re learning and developing that business relationship. It has been a little challenging because they’re based in Korea, so we’re working while they’re sleeping and they’re working while we’re sleeping, so we have that back-and-forth, but so far, they have been great to work with. 

AG: What about new ideas? 

MT: We don’t do anymore brainstorming or addition of new ideas after April 1. By then we are working on bringing most of those new ideas to life. 

JD: We are done with new ideas for the tournament on January 1. 

AG: Speaking of new ideas, how do you come up with those? Do you travel to other events to search for new things to bring to your tournament?

MT: I used to go to four to six a year before COVID. I don’t travel to as many now, but we have open lines of communication not only with Jon and the Nelson, but also other tournament directors, as well. So, we exchange ideas openly. We also cherry-pick some ideas from other local venues like AT&T Stadium, Dickies, and other events. 

AG: What are some of the new things you are looking at for 2024?

MT: I am reading a book right now called Fans First. Without fans, we couldn’t do what we do. This year, I am really wanting to put the fans first. I want parking and ticketing to be easy. I want to improve the fan enhancement areas. I also think the excitement around the renovated golf course will also bring people out this year. What Gil Hanse did to the course is amazing, and I think that may be the carrot this year to get fans out. But if you can knock it out of the park from the minute they arrive to the moment they leave, I think you have the opportunity to make some fans for life. 

AG: What about for the Nelson, Jon?

JD: We’re asking fans to spend an entire day at the course, two of which are workdays. Our job is to create an experience, and we want everyone to come regardless of who may be in the field. If you want to watch golf, that’s great, but we also want people who just want to be outside, meet up with their friends, and enjoy the day. You have to make it easy for the fans, and the bigger the crowd is, the better the sponsorship is and the better the hospitality is, because companies and fans feel like they want to be a part of it.  

AG: With the Nelson moving from TPC Las Colinas several years ago to Trinity Forest and now further north to McKinney and TPC Craig Ranch, do you feel that having the tournaments farther apart has maybe helped both events?

JD: I think it was cool when the tournaments were back-to-back and the Metroplex owned golf for two weeks, but I think it’s better for the fan to have them separated. Going to a tournament in back-to-back weeks can be tough. I do think it’s great that North Texas can support not only two PGA TOUR events, but a Korn Ferry Tour event and the Invited Celebrity Classic. 

MT: I liked us being back-to-back, but I think there can be some golf fatigue. For example, if you have corporate partners that are supporting both tournaments, it might be the same people entertaining clients, so they have to be out of the office for multiple days over the course of two weeks, which can be tough. So, splitting them up can be beneficial. We also share several vendors, as well, which can be tough for them, too. 

AG: Over the last couple years, with the birth of the LIV Tour, the game has splintered a bit. How do you keep fans coming to events with some of the big names that have defected away from the PGA TOUR? 

MT: Look, the way I see it, it makes it easier. The longer I do this, the more I understand you can’t worry about the guys that aren’t here. For me, I don’t even need to try to get a guy like Brooks Koepka. I don’t need to even worry about those guys on the LIV, because they can’t play on the PGA TOUR. I just take them out of the equation. But, we are lucky to have guys like Scottie Scheffler, Jordan Spieth, Will Zalatoris, Tom Hoge and Davis Riley all here locally, so we’re probably going to get those guys. 

AG: With that said, how do you draw in some of the bigger names other than the ones you just mentioned?

MT: Sure. You start looking at who it will be after those names I just mentioned. You start looking at guys like Max Homa, Zander Schauffele, Colin Morikawa. And it kind of depends on how their schedule shakes out. It’s not really rocket science. We understand that most of those guys aren’t going to play more than four weeks in a row. So, we see where they line up and go from there. I think between the Nelson and Colonial, we’re going to get a good number of guys. At the end of the day, after the tournament starts, we are celebrating the guys that are on the leaderboard, not the guys that aren’t here. 

JD: And golf gives us great stories regardless. Take Nick Dunlap, for example. I remember my second year as Tournament Director was 2010 and Jason Day won. Most people didn’t know who he was at that time, but he was the number one player in the world just a couple years later. Keegan Bradley won in 2011 and a couple months later won the PGA Championship. Same thing with Jason Dufner. We’re pushing the sport. We’re going to have a number of those top-tier guys play that we’re going to get a good story out of it. We’re going to get some of those young, up-and-coming players. 

AG: How fortunate do you feel to be doing this in the Metroplex, which has become a true hotbed for golf in general?

MT: We should be very thankful. Our fans are incredible, and the community support has been amazing. We are selling pro-am spots and sponsorships months before the field is even set. Charles Schwab moving their global headquarters here also helped us a lot. They picked North Texas, and now we have a great title sponsor.  We’re really lucky. 

JD: At a time where major brands like Farmer’s and Wells Fargo are leaving the tour and some of these iconic venues, we just signed a 10-year deal with a major international company that invested in our community and what we plan to do for the next decade. So, yes, we’re realty lucky. Also having the names of historical figures like Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson attached to the events are huge for both of us. The commitment of Colonial Country Club and the Salesmanship Club members are also a huge part of what we both do. 

AG: You mention the Salesmanship Club, how important are they to what you do? 

JD: We like to say it’s more than a game. It’s an emotional attachment and the bigger picture of mental health and what we do with Momentous. Our 600 Salesmanship Club members are so invested in that. One example I use is when we didn’t have a tournament in 2020, our Salesmanship Club members still met our revenue budget. They are selling more than just a tournament; we are selling a relationship with the community. When we canceled in 2020, we offered the option for a full refund, rolling their investment to 2021, or donating it to our programs, and over 50 percent told us to keep it for the kids and Momentous, which was just incredible. 

AG: If you can give us one reason to attend your events this year, what is your hook for 2024?

MT: For us and the Charles Schwab Challenge, it’s going to be the new course.  The investment the club made in Gil Hanse and the renovation. It’s incredible how quickly they have done this. Colonial is still Colonial, but it’s going to be a new and better Colonial. Gil has studied photos and did his research. So, you’re going to see something that is more like Colonial was in the 1940s. You are really going to love it. And we love where we’re at with Charles Schwab as a title sponsor. We’re in a great spot, and I think the fans are going to love it. 

JD: We have plenty of reasons to come out. First and foremost, it’s a lot of fun to come to the Nelson. Whether you are a huge golf fan or not, you’re going to have a great time. If you want to bring family and friends out and just enjoy a day outside, or whether you want to follow your favorite player for all 18 holes, it’s a great time. There really is something for everyone. We’re a sport where every single fan can have a front-row seat, you just need to find it on the rope-line.  On top of that, we always want to make sure everyone understands what we do with Momentous. May is Mental Health Awareness month, and we really want fans to understand they’re supporting something that is very important. 

MT: We both also offer tickets to PGA of America members, Golf Course Superintendents Association members, and kids under 15 get in free. And we both support our military. At Colonial we have the Patriot’s Outpost, where active or former military members can hang out. 

JD: I would also say, with all the noise out there surrounding the PGA TOUR, LIV, the TGL, elevated events and non-elevated events, that week while tournament is being played, all that goes away and it’s just about the community and the competitors.