09 Nov 2017

EXCLUSIVE: European Tour’s Keith Waters on planning the global game

Keith Waters, Chief Operating Officer, the European Tour, talks to Worldwide Golf about the ongoing success of the DP World Tour Championship and the expansion of the Tour in the region with the NBO Oman Golf Classic being elevated from the Grand Final of the Challenge Tour to a significant spot on the 2018 European Tour International Schedule:

WG: The European Tour’s relationship with Dubai, the UAE, and the Middle East region has grown steadily over the past 28 years. Has this been a particular strategy for the Tour?

Keith Water: It goes without saying that the Middle East has played a significant part in the development of the European Tour for the past 28 years. The Omega Dubai Desert Classic dates back to 1989 and, since then, our ties with Dubai have strengthened significantly with the introduction of the Race to Dubai in 2009.

We have a mutually beneficial relationship and one that continues to strengthen, not only in Dubai but in Abu Dhabi, Oman and Qatar. We fully appreciate the importance of the Middle East as a destination for us, and there is no doubt that our relationship with those countries will only continue to grow as we see golf grow in these areas as well.

With the addition of Oman to our schedule next year, we now have five European Tour events being played in the Middle East in 2018, which again highlights the importance of the region for the Tour and for golf in general. It has a superb climate, fantastic golf courses, great hotels, and we are able to travel there when it’s difficult to play golf in Europe due to the weather. It has really been a great addition to the Tour and contributed considerably to our ongoing success.

WG: By adding Oman to the 2018 schedule, do you regard this a prime example of how a Challenge Tour event can gradually grow into a European Tour event? 

KW: The Challenge Tour has hosted its finale in Oman for three years now, as well as playing the penultimate event in Ras Al Khaimah, with both of these tournaments proving enjoyable for our players. We have built a great relationship over the years and it’s exciting to now see the NBO Oman Golf Classic as a new event on our schedule in 2018, ultimately providing vital playing opportunities for our members and providing a world-class event for some of the best golfers in the world.

Of course, it is great to see a venue we used for a Challenge Tour tournament stepping up to the plate to deliver another great event on the European Tour. We know the course is well designed and will prove a good test for the players, so we are very much looking forward to working with the team in Oman to help deliver an amazing tournament in the coming months.

WG: Is the strategy of grouping together certain events like the Open de France, Irish Open, Scottish Open and then The Open in succession, aimed at enticing the European-based players to stay in Europe?

KW: The Rolex Series brings together eight premium tournaments on the season-long Race to Dubai and these events provide a truly different experience for the players and for the fans, both at home and at the venue. Grouping the tournaments together in the lead-up to The Open is certainly a way of attracting the best players in the world of golf – regardless of whether they are from Europe or not – and the other factor at play here is the history and prestige of these tournaments for the players. Not only are they played on some of the best golf courses in the world, our players enjoy playing in these events and now, with the additional Race to Dubai and Ryder Cup points on offer, it holds a crucial place on the European Tour calendar. All eyes turn to Europe in June and July as we deliver some of the biggest tournaments of the year for the best players in the world.

WG: With the emergence of young players like: Jon Rahm, Matt Fitzpatrick, Thomas Pieters, Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton, do you think we are seeing the beginning of a changing of the guard on the Tour?

KW: The depth of our stars on the European Tour is impressive right now and the majority of names mentioned above are products of the European Challenge Tour. We are seeing now, more than ever, our younger players beginning to flourish on the world stage and winning some of the big events on the European Tour, like Tommy at the HNA Open de France and Tyrrell at the Italian Open. Both came through the Challenge Tour pathway – Fleetwood actually winning the Rankings in 2011 – and were conditioned ready to take the next step. Getting used to that lifestyle of playing week-in, week-out, 72 holes, is incredibly important and it definitely has its benefits for those players when they move onto the European Tour.

WG: The British Masters supported by Sky Sports has been an overwhelming success over the three editions so far – does this highlight the fact that having a leading player as host or ambassador, those events attract bigger crowds and stronger fields. McIlroy, Garcia and Stenson have also shown that it makes a difference at their respective events.

KW: We have seen in the past how much the support and backing of our leading European Tour players benefits the overall success of our tournaments and there is no better case in point right now than Lee Westwood hosting the British Masters supported by Sky Sports in Newcastle. We had record crowds in the north east and raised more than £450,000 for charity, so you can imagine how excited we are that this event is continuing to gather momentum among golf fans.

Along with the likes of Rory hosting the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, now a Rolex Series event and major fixture on the sporting calendar in Ireland, and Sergio at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters – our players’ support of these events is vital for us.

We are also looking forward to working with Thomas Pieters, one of our most exciting young players on the European Tour, at the Belgian Knockout next year. We are always looking for new avenues in which we can appeal to a new generation of golf fans and this event, with a star like Thomas backing it, will certainly get people talking.

WG: With the US PGA Championship moving to an earlier date in the 2019 schedule will this enhance the relevance of the DP World Tour Championship and the Rolex Series events?

KW: The shift of the BMW PGA Championship from its traditional May date into September will be central to a strong and robust end of season schedule on the European Tour.

With the changes to the global golfing calendar providing us with the opportunity to move the tournament to a more favourable date from 2019 onwards, it will be a new chapter for the event, and we still expect similar interest in the autumn, as was shown historically by the World Match Play Championship when it was played at Wentworth Club at that time of the year.

It is an iconic location in the realm of British sport and the BMW PGA Championship is always hugely popular with the public as was seen earlier this year when it launched our Rolex Series with 110,000 spectators in attendance over the course of the week.

We anticipate the move to September, along with our other Rolex Series events coming into play towards the end of the season – the DP World Tour Championship Dubai being one of those – to further enhance the narrative of crowing the European Tour Number One and winner of the Race to Dubai.

WG: With the opening of Ayla in Jordan and Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in Saudi Arabia are these areas of the Middle East the European Tour would look to expand in strengthening its ties with the region?

KW: Golf in the Middle East is continuing to rise and with the opening of these golf courses in countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, it is clear there is an appetite there for the game. Next year the European Tour will travel to 30 different countries –working in different cultures and dealing with different types of business practices to grow the game – which means there are many new avenues for our consideration.

As I have said before, our relationship with golf in the Middle East has strengthened significantly over the years and we will continue to monitor the growth of the game in this region.

WG: We’ve seen the Tour develop new formats for 2018, with events such as the Belgian Knockout and the European Golf Team Championships, is this a move to make the game more engaging with the younger audiences and are there other initiatives on the cards?

KW: The Belgian Knockout and the European Golf Team Championships are another opportunity for the European Tour to continue to lead the way in innovative approaches to tournament golf.

Earlier this year we debuted the GolfSixes concept in England, we have delivered the Hero Challenge at multiple events, and we introduced the inaugural ISPS HANDA World Super 6 Perth, which featured a mixture of stroke-play and match play, similar to what we will see in Belgium next year.

We are in the entertainment content business where golf is our platform, and if we can showcase our game in a very entertaining light, then that is the best commercial we can produce to grow our game and keep it successful in what has always been a crowded sports market.

We understand we need to adapt in order to generate new fans of our game so we are always looking at new ways in which we can achieve this goal. We are very experienced in running golf tournaments and we will continue to do that as we look to showcase the game in the best possible fashion. n

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