During an interview at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship last week, PGA Tour star Rickie Fowler made headlines by suggesting he was considering a full-time membership on the European Tour. Citing his love of travel and the recent ability to actually gain membership, Fowler could be the first American of “star” stature to become a full-time European Tour member.
The man to thank for this development? Keith Pelley.
Pelley became executive director of the European Tour in late 2015, inheriting a golf tour treading water amidst economic unrest in some of its host countries. The tour’s homegrown stars are sometimes known to flee for the greener pastures of the PGA Tour.
Pelley, the former head of Rogers Communication, made a name for himself by brokering a $5.2 billion deal with the NHL for Canadian broadcasting rights through 2023. Upon his appointment, Pelley vowed to focus his efforts on creating a player-friendly environment in order to lure Europe’s best back to their home turf.
At the time, Pelley championed a push to create a viable alternative for European stars. But one of the unforeseen outcomes of his efforts is that young American stars are beginning to become more prominent fixtures on the European Tour.
One of Pelley’s first moves was to lower the event requirement for European Tour membership from 13 to 5. In comparison, the PGA Tour requires players to play a minimum of 15 events to retain full status. Prior to Pelley’s amendment, a player would have to participate in 28 events over the course of the year in order to maintain full status on both tours. To put that in perspective, only two out of the current top ten players in the world competed in 28 official events or more in 2015 (Justin Rose at 28 events played, and Patrick Reed at 32). By lowering the total amount of events a professional is required to play to be a member, Pelley is no longer making the world’s best choose us or them.
During the EurAsia Cup in Malaysia last week, Captain Darren Clarke’s request that his players be permitted to wear shorts during practice rounds was granted by Pelley. The decision was met with overwhelmingly positive feedback, so much so that this week the European Tour made a landmark decision to allow shorts during all practice rounds — a historic modernization of one of golf’s most outdated and long-standing traditions of always donning pants.
Across all levels, slow play is one of golf’s largest issues. As pressure mounts during competitive rounds, slow play is magnified. Traditionally, slow play was monitored at a group level: if your group was slow, the group was penalized, no matter how fast individuals in the group played.
This week, Pelley instituted a new “monitoring penalty” to the rule. Now, if a group falls out of position, they will be warned and the individuals will be monitored and penalized for slow play with a public-facing fine (unlike the PGA Tour, who keeps fines private). Pelley’s goal is to cut 15 minutes off each round of tournament play, making a more enjoyable playing experience. The rule caught its first unsuspecting victim this week in world number 1 Jordan Spieth, who was penalized for taking too long over a birdie putt in his first round.
One area that Pelley certainly has his work cut out is leveling the purse discrepancy between the European Tour and the PGA Tour. To give perspective of how large the gap is, consider professionals Brendan Steele and Joost Luiten. Steele ranks 81st in the world and finished 50th in the 2015 FedEx Cup, while Luiten, ranked 87th in the world, finished 50th in the 2015 Race to Dubai. While their rankings and play look eerily similar, Steele played 24 events on the PGA Tour earning over $1.8 million, while Luiten played 20 events on the European Tour and netted a mere $845,000 in earnings. By virtue of playing on the PGA Tour, Steele earned more than double what Luiten pocketed, despite playing at about the same level.
This is a problem that can’t be solved overnight by Pelley, but the early momentum is good. With countries bidding hosting rights for the 2022 Ryder Cup in late 2015, Pelley chose Italy and the Marco Simone Golf Course — the same course that hosts the annual Italian Open. While Italy got their Ryder Cup, Pelley got his money, and the Italian Open announced its plans to increase the purse of the event from last year’s $1.5 million to $3 million this year, with a forecasted jump to $7 million starting in 2017. This increase takes the Italian Open from just another pit stop to one of the most competitive purses on the European Tour.
Astronomical purses and success at a younger age have changed the dynamic of today’s professional golfer. Ten years ago, at age 25, a promising young player was just starting to carve out a name on tour, grinding at Monday qualifiers or dominating mini tours. Today, at age 25, that promising young player is making $10 million-plus per year and flying private from event to event. With no financial burdens and the comfort of flying on private jets, international play is no longer a hassle but rather a pleasure and an opportunity for golf’s best to see the world. Today’s crop of young players are prototypical millennials, often referred to as “the wanderlust generation.” According to a Boston Consulting Group study, millennials are more interested in traveling abroad than any other generation, 23% more than the next closest generation.
An archetypical player who embodies the millennial generation’s propensity for travel is former number one ranked amateur, Peter Uihlein. Uihlein has played almost exclusively on the European Tour and Challenge Tour since turning pro in 2012. In an interview with the Golf Channel this week, Uihlein said he had “no extra motivation” to come back to America and compete with his good friends and PGA superstars Spieth, Fowler, and Brooks Koepka. Preferring the travel opportunities granted to him by the European Tour, Uihlein estimates he played in more than 20 countries in 2015.
If the early indications stand true, Pelley is guiding the European Tour in the right direction at exactly the right time. As more and more millennial golf stars burst onto the scene, Europe’s 27-destination, worldwide tour will continue to become a more popular option — not only for top European players, but also for top Americans.
Only time will tell if a world tour is brewing...