Asian Tour has gone from partners to competitors - European Tour chairman David Williams
He’d just completed one of his most enjoyable tasks. On a bright but chilly Mallorcan morning, David Williams, the European Tour’s chairman, had stood on the first tee at T-Golf & Country Club for around two-and-a-half hours to welcome all 45 players taking part in the Rolex Challenge Tour Grand Final.
Set to be joined by his CEO Keith Pelley on this occasion, it’s an exercise that Williams will repeat next Sunday for the concluding round of the DP World Tour Championship, the final event of the season on the main tour, on the Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates in Dubai.
On the surface, it may look like just a hand-shaking drill, but it’s way more than that. Like Pelley, Williams enjoys meeting players and getting to know them. He’s done it since taking over as chairman from Neil Coles in 2014 and will be on those tees having chats until his time is over.
It’s been quite a journey so far for the man who brought considerable commercial experience to the role, having held senior positions at Whitbread Group, Diageo, PepsiCo Restaurants, Mothercare and the Royal London Mutual Insurance Group.
He oversaw a revamp of the board, established a more robust governance, helped steer his executive team through the Covid-19 pandemic, played his part in a strategic alliance being formed with the PGA Tour and, last but certainly not least, just signed off on the European Tour becoming known as the DP World Tour next season in a mega-money deal.
“Of all the things I have done in business, I am probably as proud of what we have achieved in a business sense with the European Tour and a governance sense as well because it wasn’t easy to make the changes we have made,” Williams told Scotland on Sunday.
That wind of change included Sophie Goldshmidt and Jutta af Rosenborg being appointed as the tour’s first women board directors, with Martha Brass and Penny Avis having subsequently followed in their footsteps.
“When I became chairman in 2014, I looked at a board that was completely male and, frankly, the governance was shockingly bad,” added Williams. “It turns out, I’ve become quite big on governance because the way in which you govern something and the way in which you manage something leads to integrity, correctness and the rest of those things and I am very proud of what we have done.
“We have brought in people who are much more experienced in business terms because the world of golf is changing in a world that is changing. We bought in our first women directors and they got their jobs because they are good at what they do and it just so happened we were ahead of the diversity curve a bit.
“This has made a major difference to us. We get a very diverse opinion around the boardroom table now and a much broader view of life more generally when we are discussing things about golf and it’s not just about courses and operational stuff. It’s about where golf fits in the wider system.
“We are also very lucky to have Thomas Bjorn, Paul McGinley and David Howell - three current players with tremendous experience. We also have people like David Jones, who has been a huge influence on me since I became chairman, as well as DJ Russell, Paul Eales, Mark Roe, Rob Lee, Chris Hanell, Ove Sellberg. These are people who have given 10-15 years to the European Tour and know what it is about.”
Dealing with a pandemic was a new challenge, though, for everyone. “I remember talking to Keith Pelley when it struck and we looked at each other and sort of said, ‘what the hell do we do now, how do we deal with this?’ But I am really proud of what the team has done,” said Williams.
“We had a tremendous focus on our cash, suddenly cash was king in a way it probably almost was but never as strong as this, and we put a plan together led by Keith and the other members of the executive team to try and keep the tour going.
“I think we’ve done something like 85,000 tests and all of that has had to be paid for in order to keep the tour on the road. We have been very quiet about it; we’ve haven’t particularly made a big deal about it. But we kept playing when other people weren’t playing sport in incredibly good clinical conditions. We felt people were safe and it’s a testament to everyone - our members, our caddies, our staff.”
Announced just under a year ago, the strategic alliance with the PGA Tour may have raised the odd eyebrow, but Williams believes it has already delivered “tangible” evidence to members about it being the right decision. He highlighted, for example, next year’s Genesis Scottish Open being co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour and two events on the US circuit becoming part of the European Tour schedule.
“We took a long, hard look at some of the alternative forms of the game and we decided that the alternatives were not going to work,” said Williams. “The business model was flawed and that, by the way, remains my absolute belief. But, at the same time, we were talking with the PGA Tour.
“The timing was right when we came together. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to be in the relationship we are in and, contrary to some stuff I read, this is not about decisions being taken in Ponte Vedra about the European Tour.
“This is much more of a partnership than I ever thought it would be and, given what is happening in the world, I think the alliance between the PGA Tour and the European Tour is going to be very important.”
That, of course, was reference to the elephant in the room, namely former world No 1 Greg Norman, in his new role as CEO of LIV Golf Investments, having $200 million of Saudi Arabian funding to pump into the Asian Tour over the next 10 years. The European Tour had a relationship with both the Asian Tour and Saudi Golf, but not any more.
“I will say little on that,” said Williams, as was the case during the announcement on Tuesday about the rebranded DP World Tour, which will boast a record total prize fund of more than $200m next season.
“But what I will say is that the Asian Tour has gone from being partners to being competitors. And we are fierce competitors. Let’s leave it at that.”
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