Having decided it was time to take action instead of just moaning about the European Tour’s top players disappearing to compete in America, David Williams believes the “fearless” Keith Pelley is making good early progress as a sea of change sweeps through the Wentworth-based organisation.
Pelley, the circuit’s new chief executive, will announce his plans for the 2016 campaign during next week’s season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai and is believed to be giving serious consideration to a radical change to the membership criteria.
According to a report at the weekend, the plan is to drop the majors and WGCs as counting events and, instead of having to play 13 tournaments, a player would have to compete in five regular events to retain membership and, therefore, be eligible for the Ryder Cup.
It has also been suggested that Pelley, a former president of The Sports Network in his native Canada, is looking at the possibility of moving the Tour away from the traditional diet of 72-hole stroke-play events by introducing more match-play tournaments like the one hosted by Paul Lawrie at Murcar Links this year.
We will need to wait until Sunday week at Jumeirah Golf Estates to find out exactly what lies in store next season – when, incidentally, there will be a change to the Final Series as the BMW Masters and, possibly, the WGC-HSBC Champions both drop off – but Pelley has certainly made a positive impression so far with his bosses.
“From an extraordinary list of candidates for the role of chief executive, Keith was the standout one and has continued to impress in the 11 weeks that he has been in the job,” Williams, the European Tour chairman, told The Scotsman in Oman during the Challenge Tour Grand Final. “He is quite fearless. I think some of the stuff he has discovered, as new CEOs often do, frankly could faze some people. Not him. He’s just got on with it. He’s improved communications tremendously and is demonstrating leadership.”
In Shanghai last week, Pelley joined Tim Finchem (PGA Tour), Martin Slumbers (R&A) and Mike Whan (LPGA Tour) on a “Guardians of Golf” panel as part of the HSBC Golf Business Forum. “From what I’ve heard, Keith was the standout guy on that,” added Williams. “He talks eloquently and he talks with sense. I think the other thing, which is really important, is that he has demonstrated not just a huge passion and interest for golf but is also going about his business with real energy and enthusiasm.”
For many, of course, the proof will be in the pudding, but bold and positive steps have already been taken. One of the new man’s first moves was to announce a “joint vision” with the Asian Tour, which, in effect, was a step towards stopping the PGA Tour taking any more bites out of that market. The European Tour has also refused to sanction next year’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational due to it clashing with the French Open as a result of a schedule shuffle because of the Olympics.
“2016 will be a build year, so to speak, and I think possibly it will be 2017,” said Williams in reply to being asked when we could really expect to see Pelley make his mark on the tournament front. “With the French Open, we stood up to the PGA Tour. That caused all sorts of phone calls and consternation. But the French Open has been around for 100 years, so why wouldn’t we support it? We want to build a sense of big tournaments as part of building something to keep our players more aligned to Europe.
“There’s a lot of things to do in that respect. I don’t blame our players for going to play in PGA Tour events. What we have to do is get our Tour to where, in monetary terms and career terms, we are a genuine alternative. It is no good us moaning about the fact the PGA Tour attracts people. We’ve got to decide what it is we can do and go after it. With or without a new chief executive in place, there were going to be changes because we know that has to happen.”
As luck would have it, Pelley’s first full year at the helm will coincide with two-times major winner Martin Kaymer and former world No 1 Lee Westwood concentrating more on Europe again after either losing or deciding to give up their PGA Tour cards. After his recent Turkish Airlines Open win, Victor Dubuisson also said he had no intention of focusing on the US circuit in the near future.
“No matter what the reasons are – be it personal, golfing or family – we don’t really mind as we are just delighted to welcome Martin, Lee and Victor back,” said Williams, who is equally excited about the emergence of Matt Fitzpatrick, the recently-crowned British Masters champion at just 21.
“Matt is the ‘real deal’, isn’t he,” added the first chairman of the Tour who is not a professional golfer, having been appointed as the successor to Neil Coles, who’d held the post for 35 years, just under two years ago. “He showed nerves of steel in the British Masters. We are delighted to see players of that ability on the European Tour and here on the Challenge Tour it is great to see someone like Ricardo Gouveia from Portugal showing such talent and confidence without being over-confident.”
The spotlight may be on Pelley, but equally significant in shaping a bright future for the Tour has been the appointment of three non-executive directors in Damon Buffini, Jutta af Rosenborg and Sophie Goldschmidt. Hugely impressed by what each of them has brought to the table, Williams said: “I happen to love golf, but I come from a commercial background and it was clear to me that whilst we had some non-execs on the board who were not golfers, frankly they hadn’t been in the business industry for a long time and it was time to make a change. That’s what we did and we’ve made real progress. It doesn’t mask what we still have to do, but we are on the right road.”