Many have called the Keith Pelley era at the helm of the European Tour a success. A recent poll of tour players saw most of those polled grade the job he’s done as 7/10 or better and Pelley points to the increase in playing opportunities for the Tour’s members as a key metric of his success.
However, it’s not all plain sailing. With characteristic candour, Rory McIlroy has said that the European Tour is just a stepping stone to the US PGA Tour and has dialled back his European outings this year. On top of that, Pelley’s jewel in the crown, The Rolex Series, appears to be floundering.
The Rolex Series was introduced with much hoopla in 2017. It was designed to create a top tier of events in Europe that would help fend off competing demands from the PGA Tour and deliver strong fields to capture the viewers’ imaginations. So, two years in – how’s it doing? Well, not brilliantly if truth be told.
This week’s Abu Dhabi Championship has the weakest field it has seen for the last 6 years. This comes, perversely, at a time when the prize money has doubled and the event is upgraded to Rolex Series status. Only 3 of the top 10 European players in the world have entered this week. Millions will no doubt have been paid to Koepka and Johnson to make the trip across the Atlantic - apparently an understandable source of McIlroy’s ire. But this propping up of the field only serves to highlight the problem.
Abu Dhabi is not alone. I have plotted a chart to illustrate the point. This shows in any given Rolex event since inception how many of the Top 10 ranked European players at that time played in it. The trend is alarming.
Last year saw only 2 players ranked in the top 10 European players at the time appearing in each of the Irish, Scottish and Turkish Opens and the Nedbank Challenge. The Italian Open was boosted to Rolex Series status as part of the deal that sees the 2022 Ryder Cup heading to Rome, but only four top 10 players made the trip.
Also, ask yourself what does the ‘Rolex Series’ actually mean? Is it Europe’s Fedex Cup? (Answer, no). Is there a separate order of merit for Rolex Series events with a bonus? (Answer, I don’t think so – not sure really). I suspect it means virtually nothing to any casual follower of European golf. Is this what Rolex were bargaining for when they signed up to their multi-year deal?
Much has been said about how the changes to the US PGA Tour schedule this year may help strengthen the European Tour. I’m not so sure.
The Desert Swing has clearly found it difficult to get many of the US based Europeans over to play. None of McIlroy, Molinari, Rahm, Rose or Casey are teeing it up in Abu Dhabi or Dubai – only the second time that has been the case since 2004.
While the event in Saudi Arabia has bought a strong field from the US (Johnson, Koepka, Reed, deChambeau et al will be pocketing ludicrous sums to turn up in this state-funded PR exercise) this will surely create such controversy that some European Tour sponsors will question the judgement of Pelley dragging the Tour through such a gratuitous act of sportswashing.
(As an aside, the players seem to be falling over each other to see who can make the most ridiculous comments to justify their participation in the Saudi debacle. After Justin Rose’s bizarre ‘I’ve heard a lot of good things about Saudi Arabia’ quote, Bryson DeChambeau may have trumped it with his ‘I don't think it's a bad decision as long as they want us there. That's what I've heard — they want us there’. Well yes, they do Bryson. They want you there to try to normalise them as a regular state rather than one of the most oppressive regimes in the world.)
Anyway, back to the European Tour schedule. What comes after Saudi? Well, it doesn’t look great. If you take out the WGC events (none of which are in Europe) and the Majors, there isn’t much to lure any of the US-based European stars to the Tour –
Vic Open (Victoria, Australia)
Super 6 (Perth, Australia)
Maybank Championship (Malaysia)
Trophee Hassan II (Morocco)
Made in Demark
Golf Sixes (Portugal)
BMW International Open (Germany)
Andalucia Valderrama Masters (Spain)
There are a couple of events here that will be interesting – the Vic Open will run men’s and women’s events on the same course at the same time and Tommy Fleetwood is hosting the British Masters at Hillside. The latter is the week before the US PGA though which will impact who we see turn up on England’s Golf Coast. Beyond that these are low level events which will attract few viewers on the TV, and often, on the course.
We then have a couple of great weeks before The Open at the magnificent Royal Portrush. The Irish Open will showcase the wonderful Lahinch the week before the Scottish. Even then, I think the Tour’s decision to move the Scottish event to the relatively unknown Renaissance is a bit of a gamble.
Both of these are Rolex Series events, but the Irish Open really struggled to put together a good field last year and host Paul McGinley must be worried about rumours that Rory McIlroy may not make the trip to Ireland in July. McIlroy was in East Lothian at the end of last year and visited the Renaissance Course, he has already said that he will only play one of these events. While the European stars stayed away from the Scottish Open at Gullane, the event normally gets a strong list of Americans warming up pre-Open at least.
After that, the attention turns back to the US for the lucrative climax to the Fedex Cup before the European Tour packs in a strong finish to the season. It kicks off in the third week of September with the PGA at Wentworth followed by, among others, the Dunhill Links, Italian Open, Turkish Open, Nedbank and the season-ending event at Dubai.
I am sure that we will see some stronger fields in these events but my worry is that it is all a little ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’. For anyone but the hard-core European fan the interesting bit of the golf season takes place over the Majors, with the Ryder Cup extending it by a month every other year.
There is a real risk that these Autumn events will be seen as just a prolonged wheelbarrow season. Beyond the BMW the top players may just pick and choose which events to play based on the scale of the appearance fees on offer.
Justin Rose didn’t turn up to the Tour Final at Dubai in 2018, despite being third in the Race to Dubai rankings at the time, but managed to get on the plane to Indonesia a couple of weeks later. Go figure.
Rather than strengthening the European Tour, there is a real risk that these changes will diminish it further.
McIlroy’s words in Hawaii on the subject must be chilling for the European Tour. He said ‘The European Tour is a stepping stone. That is the truth. It’s so one-sided. You can talk about all these bigger events in Europe but you can go to America and play for more money and more world ranking points. Why would you play over there?’.
In the anonymous survey of European players 70% of of them said they would play the PGA Tour if they could only play one of them. One player said that 99% of players should be aiming to play there.
Keith Pelley said to The Times before Christmas that he was in talks with Jay Monahan, head of the PGA Tour, about the creation of a World Tour. That may be the inevitable place we end up.
For those who are worried that the creation of a World Tour would lead to the European Tour just being a feeder tour for the PGA Tour it’s too late, that’s happened already.
The European Tour could still exist in much the way it does today for the vast majority of players but serve as a formal feeder tour to the ‘World Tour’. Its members could have first dibs on spots at those events where World Tour members don’t want to play. Likewise, the smaller events on the PGA Tour could become a feeder with an amped up Web.com Tour in the States.
This may be some way off though as the PGA Tour have longstanding contracts with sponsors, including Fedex, through to 2027. However, where there’s a will, there’s normally a way and the PGA Tour would love to be the custodians of a World Tour. Whether Pelley will be around to see it though is debatable. There is a natural successor in place in the shape of ex-IMG man Guy Kinnings.
The way things seem to be going, Pelley may protect his legacy best by getting out before the music stops.