Two years ago, Keith Pelley took on the challenge – or as he prefers to say, ‘opportunity’ – of resuscitating an ailing European Tour. We talk to the Canadian about the many initiatives he has implemented and how he plans to continue carrying the fight to
Two years into his task of resuscitating the European Tour, Keith Pelley sits down with John Huggan to assess the journey so far.
European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley is a dapper fellow. Always immaculately dressed – the outfit invariably set off by a pair of matching eye-glasses – the 53-year old Canadian stands out among professional golf’s generally dull administrators. He’s full of ideas, too. During his two-year tenure, several trend-setting initiatives have brightened the European Tour landscape. By way of example, the Tour’s social media team has created a series of fun and informative features that highlight the human and humorous side of the players. And next year, the Austrian Open will feature a shot clock, with penalties in place for anyone taking longer than 40 seconds to hit the ball.
But is Pelley really making any significant progress in his quest to create a product that can really compete with the financial juggernaut that is the PGA Tour? On the eve of the 2016/17 season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, Pelley sat down with John Huggan to answer those questions and a few more besides. A day later, Pelley asked if the interview had gone well. “I’m not sure I was on my best form,” he said. You can judge for yourselves.
You’ve been in your job a wee while now. What are the things you are most proud of so far?
I think we’ve made some positive steps as of now. But there is still a lot of work to be done. I’m very excited at how well the Rolex Series of events has turned out this year. It has been a very positive aspect of our business, one that has certainly been very well supported by our players.
Our commitment to innovation is something that has really resonated with our staff. They and the players have all embraced what we are trying to do. And it has been nice to see how our incredibly talented digital content producers have been recognised worldwide for the great work they have done and continue to do. We have progressed and we are certainly headed in the right direction. You have to be always moving forward, to improve and to get better. I’m a perfectionist, so that is a big thing for me.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
There are different challenges, depending on which way you want to look at the business. I tend to look at many of those challenges as opportunities. For example, the 2019 and 2020 schedules. We
collectively in the world of golf face the challenge that the game is somewhat fractured with so many different tournaments and governing bodies across the globe. That is true here, as well as in the US.
It is like an alphabet soup out there.
It is. But what we at the European Tour face are the same problems... no, make that challenges – I don’t like to call them problems – that the overall golf landscape faces. We’re not alone.
How much can you tell us about what is going to happen in 2019? What will the revamped schedule look like?
I can tell you that we have probably had maybe as many as 25 different conversations with players here at the DP World Tour Championship. A lot of players have sat down and looked at what lies ahead. We have given them the schedules for 2019 and 2020 and even 2021. We are looking that far ahead. I usually say to the players, ‘Let me talk to you about this for 10 minutes and walk you through it.’ Then an hour later they are still saying, ‘Okay, but what if we did this or did that.’ It’s a wonderful jigsaw puzzle. That’s exactly what it is.
So what can you tell us about what is going to happen?
I can tell you that we know emphatically which way we are going to go.
So which way is that?
Here is what I can tell you. We came in this week knowing I was going to meet with a number of players and share with them the schedule that will change in 2019 when the PGA of America moves its PGA Championship to May. That follows many comprehensive internal meetings with Keith Waters, our chief operating officer. In fact, we put together an internal committee to look at the various options.
We came in with a couple of thoughts. Should we do this here, here, here, here and here? Now, after meeting with the players – who have such incredible insight – we have now decided to listen and gain as much information as we can. Once we have done that, in a couple of weeks we are going to have a couple of two-day sessions and sit down to try to determine what is the best way going forward.
That’s a perfect example of one of the things I am incredibly proud of – the relationship we have developed with our
players throughout the tour. We are using them as our best sounding boards.
Okay, I get it, you’re not going to tell me what’s going to happen in 2019. Moving along and speaking of relationships, how has your relationship with the PGA Tour evolved since you took over?
Our relationship is pretty good. I went to the Presidents Cup this year to show respect for [commissioner] Jay Monahan. We share the same challenges. And we both want to grow the game globally. But at the same time we are competitors.
The PGA Tour wants to grow the game globally? Really? That’s a real shift from what it has done historically. It has never really been about growing the game anywhere except America.
You would have to ask Jay and the PGA Tour about that. I believe the growth of the game globally and the part the Olympics has played in that gives us opportunities to think more globally. I think all businesses are doing that. Especially with new technology, it is easier to be a global business, which we are, but at the end of the day we all want to grow the game as much as we possibly can.
I look at the PGA Tour as competitors, but I look at them as partners as well. We are partners in the World Golf Championships, for example. But more so than the PGA Tour, our competitors are other sports, with whom we compete for audiences. Audiences, at the end of the day, are nothing more than a form of currency.
The engagement of different demographics, different income tax brackets and different ethnic groups is something we are all trying to increase. We hopefully can work together to achieve all of those things.
Are we inevitably edging closer and closer towards the almost mythical ‘World Tour?’
I’m not sure about that. We have not had any concrete conversations about it. It is something that is generated by the media and their stakeholders.
Would you like to see a World Tour? If so, would you lose your identity if it came to pass?
I guess you’d have to start with what the definition of such a tour would be. We are a world tour now, playing in 27 different countries. So, what is the definition? No one has ever been able to tell me exactly what the definition of “World Tour’ is.
What I will say, though, is that I believe at some point – whether that’s two years, five years or ten years away – a consolidation or at least a coming together and streamlining of the number of tournaments around the world will happen. That is something that could benefit all tours.
In fact, that is what we are trying to do with the Asian Tour. We are talking about a combined Money List, for example. But it’s not easy. Again, I believe that is one of the biggest challenges golf faces – that it is so fractured.
So you think it will happen?
It’s a possibility that conversations could happen over the next two to four years.
Wouldn’t a possible format involve an elite tour into which the other tours would feed? There would be promotion and relegation.
In my first two years here at the European Tour, I have to say I haven’t given that any consideration. We have been busy building our own business. The only question we have looked at is possibly expanding the number of World Golf Championships. But at this point, we haven’t had any serious discussions at all regarding a World Tour.
You mentioned the Rolex Series and how successful that has been. But some of the lower-ranked players appear to have been victims of that success? There does seem to be two or three distinct European Tours going on at once, depending on what level of player we are talking about. Is that something you see as an issue going forward?
To be honest, that was why we came up
‘GOLF IS SOMEWHAT FRACTURED WITH SO MANY DIFFERENT TOURNAMENTS AND GOVERNING BODIES ACROSS THE GLOBE’
Pelley flanked by the 2018 Ryder Cup team captains Thomas Bjorn and Jim Furyk during a recent visit to Paris.