DCSIMG

John Huggan: Asia must play a major role in the future of ‘European’ Tour

George O'Grady, Chief Executive of The European Tour. Picture: Getty

George O'Grady, Chief Executive of The European Tour. Picture: Getty

  • by John Huggan
 

APART from that never-to-be forgotten come-from-behind Ryder Cup victory at Medinah last month, good news has recently been in short supply as far as the European Tour is concerned.

It’s only two years since a triumphant 2010 season widely viewed as perhaps the best ever. Indeed, chief executive George O’Grady was moved to call it “the most successful in our history judged on the biggest events”. But a variety of factors have since combined to make life a little more complicated for the Wentworth-based organisation.

For one thing, as many as seven tournaments have been lost in the last 18 months, five of them in economically devastated Spain. And, for another, on a circuit that has forever been built around its star performers, it is becoming increasingly difficult for O’Grady to guarantee the presence of his very best players on anything more than a very occasional basis.

Take next year. After January’s always-popular (and highly lucrative) Middle East swing through Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Dubai, it is more than likely that most of the biggest names in European golf will not be seen again in the flesh until late May, when the BMW PGA Championship is held at the aforementioned Wentworth. That’s a long time to be deprived of the tastiest morsels in even a well-stocked larder.

“I don’t see us competing with the PGA Tour as a ‘battle’,” insists O’Grady. “Our aim has always been to make ourselves as good as we can, then let the players decide where to play. You only become a top player by being able to compete everywhere, so you have to play in America as well as here. But you don’t have to play the whole season there, you can raid.”

Still, it is a disturbing fact that more and more European Tour members are currently either moving their bases to Florida – Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood being the latest highest-profile examples – or signing up for the PGA Tour (as many as 23 lesser lights are presently trying to gain their cards through the various stages of this autumn’s last-ever qualifying school). So it is clear O’Grady is fighting a losing financial battle to hold on to the cream of his crop.

Already, England’s Oliver Fisher, Frenchman Romain Wattel and Tim Sluiter of the Netherlands have made it safely through the first stage of PGA Tour qualifying.

Given that the clue is in the name – O’Grady’s members are “professional” golfers – it is difficult to see what can be done to reverse that trend.

Which is not to say that O’Grady is giving up the fight. The recent announcement that a new Turkish Open will immediately precede the tour’s climax at the 2013 Dubai World Championship is just the start of what the European Tour sees as an end-of-year schedule capable of attracting even the best of the best.

“Over the next five years, I think there will be big changes to our schedule,” O’Grady reveals. “The end of the year, especially is up for grabs. We’d like a run of events in Asia with a big one at the end of that run.

“Ideally, we’d like to ‘own’ January and February. But we know that most of the top players are then going to America through the Masters. The summer is pretty much in place. Guys come back here for a bit, go to the States for the US Open, then are back here for a month through the Open. Then they head back to the States through the Fed-Ex Cup.

“So there already is a world tour. It just isn’t called a world tour. But, if you look at where the top players go, that’s the world tour. And we want as much of that as we can get. We want to expand our reach.”

For all his battling rhetoric, O’Grady is currently powerless to do much about either the disappearance of his best players at one end of the golfing spectrum, or the difficulty even highly talented youngsters have in breaking through on to a European Tour that too closely resembles a closed shop.

Just recently, for example, his membership voted not to reduce the total of all-exempt players from the current 115 to a number that would allow more promising new professionals to break through on an annual basis.

Of course, an instinct for self-preservation is nothing new on the European Tour. In a world largely populated by those of a right-wing political persuasion, the sudden adoption of a “closed shop” mentality represents nothing more than blatant hypocrisy. Instead of introducing “free-market” competition in its purest sense – the philosophy they preach for the rest of us – these men are perfectly happy to ignore their supposed principles (and the mediocrity of their own performances) in order to preserve their cosseted lifestyles.

All of which means that, every year, the 115 leading money-winners on the European Tour do not represent the 115 best players in Europe. Not even close.

Things are only going to get worse in 2014, at least at the sharp end of the game. With a Ryder Cup appearance at Gleneagles counting as one of a player’s 13-event commitment to the European Tour, we are going to see even less of the likes of Luke Donald, Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell, McIlroy and Justin Rose on this side of the Atlantic.

One of these days, in fact, one of those guys is going to win the Order of Merit without actually setting foot on European soil other than for the Open Championship.

Such an eventuality does give rise to an opportunity, however. Given the general state of the Old World’s economy, the “European” tour needs to be looking outside its traditional borders.

“I do think they should do something with the whole of Asia,” says agent Chubby Chandler, whose International Sports Management company’s clients include Westwood, Darren Clarke, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel. “They need to buy the rights and have a sales team out there. That’s the future. We’ve known that for ten years but they need to be out there working on developing Asian events with an Asian Tour that becomes part of a world tour.

“They are not in competition with the PGA Tour for that part of the world but the PGA Tour is going to try to get their brand into Asia. They’re going to open shops in China. And they’ll do other stuff. But Tiger goes where he wants to go. Phil [Mickelson], for medical reasons, might not be around much longer. What’s their brand then? Their brand is Europeans. I think it will be difficult for the PGA Tour to grow in Asia beyond small-field events that have a lot of non-Americans in them anyway.

“Let people go where they want to go. Trying to restrict players is crazy, on both tours. Why are they fighting each other? Having said that, you do need to have a minimum number of required appearances. You don’t want someone to win two events and qualify for membership. The best number is what it has been unofficially set at in America – 11. That’s true for both sides. Then players should be allowed to do what they want, wherever they want.”

Sounds like a plan.

 

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