Of the 48 tournaments on the newly-announced 2019 European Tour schedule, one sticks out like a sore thumb. The inaugural Saudi International had already raised eyebrows when it was floated earlier in the year and is now firmly in focus due to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul last month and the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.
It probably wasn’t fair for Padraig Harrington, the man who will almost certainly be Europe’s 2020 Ryder Cup captain, to be put on the spot during last week’s Turkish Airlines Open last week, but it was certainly a topic that Keith Pelley, the European Tour chief executive, needed to talk about, and he did so during a visit to the Regnum Carya resort in Belek.
“I can simply say the Saudi International is on our schedule and, with the Ras Al Khalmah Challenge Tour Grand Final also taking place this week in the UAE and with the DP World Championship coming up, the region is very important to the European Tour,” said the Canadian.
“We have heard some of the criticism of the region, we have listened and will continue to monitor the situation. We have had no dialogue with our partners, our own government, the golf federation or anyone from Saudi Arabia.”
On hearing that, you would think the European Tour membership would be urging Pelley to at least open some dialogue with them on the matter. This has not been the case so far.
In fairness, though, Pelley handled an awkward situation with the Turkish Airlines Open a couple of years ago following a rocket attack in the Antalya area well and, unsurprisingly, used that as an example of the European Tour always aiming to look after the best interests of players and staff at every event.
“I flew over here [to Turkey] to see the status of the venue, working with the security and safety and I felt and we monitored the situation closely and we felt that the event was safe for our members, safe for our staff. So we proceeded with the golf tournament,” he said. “We put on the golf tournament.”
Referring to the players, he added: “Their individual contract is that they decide that they want to play, or not want to play, regardless of where the tournament is, and that is their prerogative.”
It will be exactly the same with the Saudi Arabia event and some, of course, will already have decided to give it a miss due to the country’s poor human rights record. At the same time, though, others will be there in February and that is indeed their prerogative.
Of those other tournaments on the 2019 schedule, a number of events do not have title sponsors. They include the Oman Open, Qatar Masters, Kenya Open, British Masters and Open de France, the latter having lost its status as a Rolex Series event and also a prime summer slot as a result of Chinese company HNA ending its backing after just two years.
Has Pelley fallen asleep at the wheel is a question some might be asking, but that is certainly not the case. The colourful Canadian admits the schedule being released a lot later than normal was partly down to him being focused on delivering both a successful and profitable 42nd Ryder Cup in France, but he remains driven in his bid to revolutionise the European Tour.
In an hour-long sitdown in Belek, there was no hiding Pelley’s passion for the job he took on after succeeding George O’Grady just over three years ago and one of the many topics he chatted about was a changing business model.
“The way the European Tour works is quite simple,” he said. “Our revenue continues to grow from a digital perspective, a sponsorship perspective, a broadcasting side. I think our number was somewhere around 40 million in 2016, and it was 70 million in 2017. We use that to fund that tournaments that we feel that are beneficial to our players; that are beneficial to that particular region.
“However, our philosophy is also changing based on the fact that it is tougher and tougher to create golf tournaments. IMG is no longer taking the risk in golf tournaments. Lagardère has come out of Sweden, so it’s tougher and tougher. So now we operate and run 15 tournaments, which is significantly up from the four or five when I got here. We’ve just taken over the Porsche European Open from 4 Sports and we’ve taken over the Scandinavian Invitational from Lagardère.”
On the Ryder Cup, Pelley insisted that the 2022 event will definitely be played as planned in Italy and revealed that discussions have started to use the Colosseum for the opening ceremony, while the success of the event at Le Golf National outside Paris prompted “three or four calls” regarding the 2026 venue, which is expected to be announced early next year.
With investment bankers interested in the innovative GolfSixes, which is heading to Portugal this year, the future looks bright for the European Tour. “I think we’ve made a lot of strides,” said Pelly. “We’ve done a lot of good things. We’ve tried a lot of things. But we still have a long way to go.”