The absence of Keith Pelley as the DP World Tour’s year got under way in Abu Dhabi this week was explained by the man himself in a note to players. “Unfortunately, the majority of my time has been, and is being, occupied in preparing for next month’s arbitration hearing,” said the chief executive of the European Tour Group.
In February, Pelley’s business will face off with LIV rebels who believe they should retain the right to play on this platform in addition to their own. Pelley said: “The hearing is also taking up a considerable amount of time for several other senior members of our staff, as well as a significant amount of financial resource, all of which in the ordinary course of things would have been more usefully deployed across our business to further benefit all our members.”
That remark irritated Lee Westwood, who criticised “propaganda” being used against him and his fellow LIV converts. Pelley’s comment was harmless enough; his organisation views LIV as a competitive rival, one with a bottomless cash pit which could plunge golf’s traditional ecosystem into irrelevance. A jab or three back is fair.
Where Westwood was on stronger ground was with his audible concern over the pull of the DP World Tour. The Abu Dhabi Championship, a $9m curtain raiser, features only one player from the world’s top 20. Rory McIlroy will add lustre to next week’s Dubai Desert Classic but Viktor Hovland will not defend his title. Major winners Jon Rahm and Matt Fitzpatrick, poster boys for European golf, are skipping the Middle East swing entirely. Has LIV, plus the demands of the PGA Tour, materially harmed the DP World Tour?
The answer, as with everything in this sport just now, is far from straightforward. The last set of accounts filed by the European Tour Group – for the financial year 2021 – showed cash in hand of £79m. Profit before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation was in excess of £17m. While the 2022 figures are unknown, this year will enjoy coffers boosted by the Ryder Cup in Rome. While other sporting bodies had their finances decimated by the impact of Covid, it is difficult to portray the European Tour’s business as anything other than strong. The situation has been helped by strategic alliance with the PGA Tour, which bought into and has subsequently increased their stake in the European Tour’s media production wing. Rank and file golfers have never had it so good.
“Look at the numbers,” says the Ryder Cup vice captain, Nicolas Colsaerts. “People just lose sense of reality. Take a step back and look at where we were five, 10 years ago compared to now.” This season, DP World Tour players will compete for a record $144.2m. Growth has been promised by Pelley, to $162m by 2027.
If the DP World Tour’s duty is to provide opportunity for a membership in excess of 400, that undoubtedly exists. As does a new minimum earning guarantee of $150,000 for anybody who competes in 15 tournaments. “When you get a tour card, you get a bill for a minimum of 80-100 grand for expenses,” says Marc Warren.
In BMW, HSBC and Rolex, Pelley has maintained long-term partnerships with illustrious companies. Hero MotorCorp, a huge backer of golf on both sides of the Atlantic, stepped in to the breach after Slync’s sponsorship of the Desert Classic collapsed. Broadcast deals, an ongoing problem for LIV, are a DP World Tour strong suit.
These are matters of commerce. There is also an emerging player element. “I think the European side of golf is in very safe hands,” says the 2018 Open champion, Francesco Molinari. “There’s loads of young talent coming through. Yeah, some weeks you’re going to get better fields than others. It’s not really anything different from the last few years. When you get to the top of the game, you play a little bit more in America, but we have got young European talent coming through.”
Still, the inability or unwillingness of so many top players to travel to Abu Dhabi or Dubai raises questions. “This is a great event but it has half the prize fund of 25-30 events around the world,” says Bernd Wiesberger, the 37-year-old Austrian, who hopes to continue to juggle LIV and the DP World Tour. “None of the top guys will play more than 18-20 events.” Wiesberger believes the world ranking standing of tournaments such as Abu Dhabi is “troubling.”
Worthy of question, too, is the failure of the PGA and DP World Tours to agree elevated status – meaning a purse of at least $20m – to any tournament in Europe and especially the UK. There are soft runs and competitions with no broader reach, although that has always been the case. Last year’s Scottish Open pulled a marquee field because of geographical proximity to St Andrews and the Open Championship; with the third major of 2023 taking place on the Wirral, East Lothian may suffer.
Speculation continues that Belgium’s Thomas Pieters, the defending champion in Abu Dhabi, will be coaxed to the LIV scene. Such a scenario would be a blow to Pelley but far from a fatal one. The chief executive has high-profile support. “We got sidetracked to thinking that $100m is normal,” says the 2019 Open champion, Shane Lowry. “Everybody is throwing out these figures that are just astronomical. As a tour, could this tour be better? We could all be better in anything that we do. But I think that with a steady growth over the next number of years, this tour will keep improving.” Different golfers are applying different metrics. Golf’s battle for hearts and minds continues apace.