Keith Pelley: We’ve made progress but still have a long way to go

Keith Pelley has shaken up the European Tour schedule since taking over from George O'Grady. Picture: Getty Images
Keith Pelley has shaken up the European Tour schedule since taking over from George O'Grady. Picture: Getty Images
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In keeping with the frames of his glasses, Keith 
Pelley is a colourful character. The man who succeeded George O’Grady as the European Tour’s chief executive in August 2015 is also very committed to his job. He may be a Canadian, but there was no hiding Pelley’s passion for Europe and its leading golfers as he hosted an annual dinner during The Masters.

“It (the European Tour) is now a part of me,” he said to The Scotsman in an exclusive interview. “I really enjoy it. I find it incredibly rewarding working with these type of athletes and their response, intelligence and desire to make it better has been incredibly gratifying.

“I love the game and I have really enjoyed living in Europe, to be honest with you. More than I would have imagined. So my family is incredibly happy, which makes life a lot easier. We are really enjoying our time travelling all over. 
I love the sport and I love the European Tour and I still think we have growth potential, so the combination of 
all these things means I am really enjoying both my job and life.”

Pelley, who previously served as president of Rogers Media, a Canadian media conglomerate, and oversaw its ownership of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team, has been fearless in trying to shake up golf over the past two-and-a-half years. He’s introduced innovative events like GolfSixes, the second staging of which takes place at the Centurion Club near St Albans this weekend and involves a handful of Ladies European Tour players, including Catriona Matthew and Charley Hull, and a tournament in Austria later this year where a shot clock will be in operation for the first time in a regular European Tour event in a bid to combat slow play.

Equally pleasing for the chief executive has been the creation of the Rolex Series. Now in its second season, it involves eight events this year, each with a minimum prize fund of $7 million. One, of course, is the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open at Gullane in July, where a star-studded field is set to include Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson, Tommy Fleetwood and Justin Rose.

“We are pleased with our progress, but there is so much further that we need to go,” insisted Pelley. “We are incredibly proud of the Rolex Series and how that changed our Tour. At the end of the day, the player in 100th position at the end of 2017 compared to 2016 was financially much stronger off. I think that is certainly a testament to the Rolex Series and some of the other new partners we have garnered.

“Our commitment to innovation is unwavering. I think consolidation of a lot of the infrastructure in golf is critical going forward. We are now talking about how we can take some of our innovations - GolfSixes is one we believe can be a format that can be adapted globally. I am curious to see what transpires this year at the Centurion Club with the ladies involved on this occasion. We are excited. We have made some progress, but we have a long way to go.”

While still to be finalised, next year’s European Tour schedule is set to have a fresh look. The BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, is moving from its traditional May slot to September to allow the US PGA Championship to become the year’s second major rather than the last. It has also been announced already that a new event will take place in Saudi Arabia.

“The 2019 schedule will be completely different and it is coming together pretty well,” said Pelley. “We had the opportunity to re-imagine it and had quite a bit of time to digest it. We’ve been able to spend a tremendous amount of time analysing what is the best way through significant conversations with our players. I think it will be different and modified but, at the same time, it won’t be revolutionary. The BMW PGA Championship will be in September. One of the things we looked at was all the dates on calendar and what are the best dates. What was undeniable from everyone that participated in the brainstorming session and scheduling is the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open, there is no question about that.

“September was seen as a pretty good date for the BMW PGA Championship and 18 of our top 20 players felt that. And we listen to our players. That was the case with the concept of moving the Irish and Scottish Opens into those two weeks before the Open Championship, which started with a conversation I had with Rory McIlroy, and now you have three incredibly strong tournaments in a row on links courses.”

Pelley revealed to our sister title Scotland on Sunday during The Masters that a bid by McIlroy for the Irish and Scottish Opens to switch slots next year to accommodate the Open Championship being at Royal Portrush had been a non-starter due to contractual obligations with both Aberdeen Standard Investments and NBC. That is certainly great news for the Scottish Open, but where will it be held in 2019?

The recent announcement by Royal Aberdeen that it could be about to bring down its men-only barriers appeared to have boosted hopes of the event returning there, having been the host in 2014, when Rose beat a field that included McIlroy. It has also been rumoured that the Renaissance Club, which is located next door to Muirfield, is in the frame.

“We are still in discussions,” revealed Pelley. “We are getting closer and closer, but nothing has been definitively decided at this point. It’s not a simple decision that we make. We make it with Aberdeen Standard Investments and the Scottish Government. We have a bit of a challenge in Scotland – and Ireland – in that we can’t go to Open Championship courses.”