As the European Tour evolves with the huge financial support of DP World and their united global vision, we thought it was a fitting time to interview the Tour’s man at the helm, Keith Pelley.
The Chief Executive Officer took his seat at Wentworth in August 2015, having been President of Rogers Media in Canada, where he had successfully negotiated a $5 billion deal with the National Hockey League. Not one to fear change and going with his instinct, Pelley knew things needed a face lift.
Fighting back from the pandemic
The introduction of the Rolex Series with huge prize funds was a resounding success with the players. Trying new event concepts such as the Golf Sixes and the Belgium Knockout helped to attract new audiences to the game. Just as things were looking up, the Covid pandemic struck.
The sports and hospitality industries were devastated, and the European Tour, along with every other sporting organisation, went into survival mode to look after the players and keep fans fed with live tournaments.
As the world started to climb out of the pandemic, the European Tour Group looked to the future as it first formed a Strategic Alliance with the PGA TOUR and then announced Dubai-headquartered global logistics provider DP World as the title partner of the group’s main Tour.
The Middle East has always been a stronghold for the European Tour, ever since Mark James won the first Dubai Desert Classic in 1989.
Today those ties with the region have become much stronger, as the European Tour transitions into the DP World Tour. In 2022, three out of the five Rolex Series events are in the United Arab Emirates, and with the DP World Tour’s alliance with the PGA TOUR, things have never been stronger.
How important is the Middle East for the growth of the European Tour?
The European Tour has been playing tournaments in the Middle East for 33 years so we have a long-established presence in the region as well as a number of strong, long-term partnerships. The Middle East enables us to play at a time of year when it is not possible to stage events in Europe due to the weather, so it has been a very important region in terms of the development of the European Tour, but equally since that first Dubai Desert Classic 32 years ago, the European Tour has played a hugely significant role in putting golf in the Middle East on the global map. So it truly benefits both sides. On our 2021 schedule, we had six events in the Middle East, including the AVIV Dubai Championship and DP World Tour Championship at Jumeirah Golf Estates which concluded our season-long Race to Dubai.
The focus of global golf will be on the region then, and we will be back in the Middle East at the start of the 2022 calendar year for five consecutive weeks on the newly named DP World Tour, including back-to-back Rolex Series events with the addition of the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. We always play on first class courses and we receive terrific hospitality, while the players all enjoy the traditional start and end of year swings in the Middle East which have become fixtures in our schedules. The announcement of the DP World Tour further solidifies this relationship with the region. Although DP World, like the Tour, is a global entity these days, it is also proud of its heritage, having begun as a port operator in Dubai 50 years ago in 1972, the same year our Tour was established. That was one of the many synergies which we found when we first started discussing the deal as far back as 2019, and the start of the DP World Tour season really does herald a new era for both of our organisations.
Are you looking to expand into other countries in the region that want to develop or introduce the game?
One of our successes in the Middle East, and indeed around the world as golf’s global Tour, has been taking the game to new territories. The presence of the word ‘world’ in our title now affirms that and was one of many reasons why DP World was such a strong fit for us. As far back as my interview for this position, I said European Tour was a misnomer because of the number of events we play outside the continent. If you look at our 2022 schedule, which we confirmed as part of the DP World Tour announcement, we have 47 events in total and while 23 of those are in Europe, 24 are played in the rest of the world. Playing in new territories is an important part of what we and DP World are trying to do together.
For 2022 we have announced new events in Belgium, South Africa, Ras Al Khaimah in the UAE and the first event in our 50 year history in Japan. We have helped develop golf more widely across the Middle East region over the last four decades. We have played in Qatar since 1996 and Abu Dhabi since 2006, while more recently we have taken the game to Oman, having previously played in Bahrain too. Next year we will also visit a new Emirate in Ras Al Khaimah, while our Legends and Challenge Tour have also played in Jordan along with the LET, and Sharjah so the European Tour group has shown a deep commitment to golf across the Middle East over a long period now.
How is the European Tour looking to promote the professional game in these regions? As there hasn’t been a Middle East golfer break through on Tour.
When you visit new territories, it does take time for the effect to trickle down the golfing pyramid. As golf’s global Tour, we take the world’s leading players to different countries. This gives new audiences the chance to see the elite players up close and personal, which we hope, in turn, will inspire them to their own success or simply to take up the game, because participation is also a crucial factor. Golf has so many benefits for people and I’ve often said it is the most inclusive sport because anyone can play with anyone else
What positives have come from the pandemic for the European Tour?
The pandemic is something nobody could foresee and something nobody wished for. You can’t control the uncontrollable and there was no playbook for it, but it happened, and it is how you respond and adapt that is important. I have to say, I was hugely impressed by our staff, our players, our caddies, broadcasters and our partners in that respect. During Covid, unquestionably we became more agile as an organisation, responding decisively to the various challenges we encountered, and we showed incredible resilience too. To go from our schedule being essentially a blank sheet of paper in April last year to playing what will be 67 events during Covid times – 27 in 2020 and 40 in 2021 – across so many different countries, is a remarkable achievement.
We also played a Ryder Cup too, and while it wasn’t the result we wanted, the event itself was another huge success. Over the last 18 months we have also announced Strategic Alliances with the PGA TOUR and Sunshine Tour, announced the DP World Tour deal and added a significant number of new partners, all of which means our business is now more financially robust than ever before, even surpassing pre-pandemic levels. So there have been so many positives to emerge from what was without doubt the most challenging situation most of us have faced professionally, and I am also energised by what lies ahead too.
Would you look to bring WGC events back to Europe or even the Middle East?
Through our Strategic Alliance with the PGA TOUR, we are working together across all aspects of scheduling. Earlier this year we announced three co-sanctioned tournaments – the Genesis Scottish Open, the Barbasol Championship and the Barracuda Championship – as part of our 2022 schedule, and we will continue to collaborate on the global calendar to provide the best product possible for all members and all fans.
The PGA Tour players have both the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, for this reason would the European Tour look to reinstate the Seve Trophy? If so could it be played in the Middle East or UAE?
I know Paul McGinley and Thomas Bjørn, who sit on our board, often speak about how beneficial they found either the Seve Trophy or EurAsia Cup in terms of their own Ryder Cup captaincies. So another team event is something we have discussed, but the challenge, as with so many of these things, is finding the right time and place in a packed global schedule to do it.
The latest R&A ruling to limit shaft lengths is a step in the right direction to tackle the distance issue but what can the European Tour do in addition to safe-guard iconic courses such as St Andrews?
Our Tournament Committee voted through the local rule announced by The R&A and USGA to limit shaft length, so that will be adopted across events on all our Tours next year. Those two organisations have also been conducting a wider Distance Insights Project, and so while it is not the role of the European Tour to proactively “do” anything, we have obviously contributed to the project and given our views as part of that process too.
The European Tour leads the way in regards to fun content with the players. Would you look at working with other sports to cross promote each other?
We have a phenomenally talented team which has produced some terrific content over the last five or six years. That content has really resonated with fans and it has brought a wider recognition to the our brand. Fundamentally, we are in the entertainment business, and we have successfully developed a culture where our staff, players and fans have bought into that. Our team has the full trust of our players and it’s great to see that people outside the Tour wanting to be part of it. It’s helped us bring in new partners and in terms of crossing over, we’ve had a number of other athletes from cricket, football, rugby and other sports feature in our videos, but we also have had a lot of celebrities who love their golf. At the BMW PGA Championship in September, we posted a video of Spiderman star Tom Holland playing alongside Padraig Harrington, which got a lot of traction online, and it all helps golf and the our Tour reach new audiences. People like Niall Horan and Gareth Bale, who are involved in our tournaments in Ireland and Wales have been terrific for the promotion of our game to different audiences too.
You have the fortune in playing with the players during the tournament pro-ams. How is your game and what’s the best tip a player has given you?
Whenever you tee it up alongside one of the professionals it is always a fantastic experience. You never fail to be impressed by just how good they are, and you always learn something from watching them play. How is my game? Well, if I could improve my short game it would be better! I played in a father-son competition this summer in Waterville, in south west Ireland, with my 18 year old Jason, who is now playing college golf in America. We really enjoyed it and we actually did okay, but let’s just say he contributed more than I did.
How essential are the Pro-Ams for tournaments?
I said it in one of my earlier answers, but golf really is one of the most inclusive sports, which enables anyone to play with anyone else, and the Pro-Am truly is the perfect illustration of that. In which other sport would you get the chance to stand side by side with the best in the world. You can’t play alongside Lionel Messi or hit with Roger Federer, but Pro Ams give amateurs the chance to play alongside Jon Rahm or Rory McIlroy. It’s one of the things that makes our sport unique, and for our partners it is an incredible asset to have.
Golf hero growing up?
First car you bought?
Last concert you went to?
Favourite James Bond?
Howe or Gretzky?