The Revival of the European Tour
Two years after being compared to the Nationwide Tour, Europe's worldwide circuit has found new life
Last year marked the 25th anniversary of Ken Schofield's first attempt to take the European Tour on the road. Tunisia isn't Dubai, but it represented the start of a concept that led in some ways to a change in the game's power base. Schofield, the tour's chief executive, adopted a "beyond our boundaries" strategy and remembers the Tunisian Tourist Board offering £60,000 provided the 1982 Tunisian Open became an official tour event. Done deal.
The 1982 Players Championship was also the first held at the TPC Sawgrass, and Schofield's tour was represented only by Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo. It was not hard for the Europeans to feel like second-class citizens when they arrived at Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., that year. But times have changed.
George O'Grady, who succeeded Schofield as tour commissioner, brings a juggernaut of the world's best players to the 2008 Players next week. Moreover, a tour that just two years ago was left for dead by the PGA Tour's new multimillion dollar FedEx Cup has revitalized itself and become, in many ways, a tour of equal importance with the U.S. circuit.
The genesis of the resurgence was a meeting O'Grady called with his players at the 2006 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. The talk focused on the direction of global golf and their tour's stake in it. At the time Tim Finchem was finalizing plans for the PGA Tour Playoffs and no World Golf Championship events were scheduled outside the U.S. through the end of the next television contract. O'Grady and the European Tour felt snubbed.
Tired of being dictated to by the PGA Tour, O'Grady led a group discussion that banded together his best players and ultimately led to the Race To Dubai and the Dubai World Championship, a FedEx Cup knockoff with a $10 million payoff in a year-end extravaganza scheduled to conclude the 2009 season. Among the leading voices that night: the definitive global golfer, Ernie Els.
Essentially, Els pointed O'Grady to where the money was: the United Arab Emirates and Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum. O'Grady's relationship with Mohammad, the Prime Minister and Vice President of the UAE and the Ruler of Dubai, spawned an upgrade to the events in Qatar and Abu Dhabi, with talks of a fourth Middle East event in Bahrain close to being finalized.
Mohammad was the European Tour's answer to FedEx, and by promising a reported £100 million to the Race to Dubai over a five-year period -- with a five-year, £150 million option to renew -- gave O'Grady not only a toehold in one of the fastest-growing hubs in the business world but also a war chest. As part of the relationship, O'Grady announced plans to open an international office in the United Arab Emirates. This will provide a pipeline not only to Dubai, but also the rich markets of India and the Far East.
The rest of this success story was a case of all the pieces coming together: World economic strength shifted overseas, the dollar lost value and Euro Tour officials made a concerted effort to schedule the best events opposite soft spots in the PGA Tour schedule. By taking advantage of the shortened U.S. season, O'Grady's tour moved into India, South Korea and the next great frontier in golf, China. Throw in appearance fees, which are not allowed on the PGA Tour, and the result is an attractive circuit that, because it also includes the majors and the World Golf Championships, many players and agents consider an unofficial world tour.
Twelve of the top 25 players on the World Ranking are members of the European Tour (six others have exempt status), including 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson, who took the option extended to a major champion in case he wants to play Europe after the Tour Championship in September. (Tiger Woods has elected not to take this option, although his relationship with Mohammad -- one that will pay Woods a reported $25 million to design a course in Dubailand -- may ultimately change his mind.)
That's quite a position of strength for a circuit that until recently often was mentioned in the same breath as the Nationwide Tour as far as its standing as a global golf power. Sergio Garcia used that claim as a point of motivation at the 2006 Ryder Cup, the second consecutive nine-point victory by the Europeans over the U.S. "Hopefully we won't get asked if the Nationwide Tour is the second best tour in the world anymore," said Garcia at the post-match press conference. Now it is more than just the top 12 players from Europe having an impact once every two years; the depth of the tour is being noticed at WGC events and at majors. Forty-two of the 79 players in the WGC-CA Championship field at Doral were European Tour players. At the Masters a record 36 European Tour players were in the field, 20 of them European-born. A similar number will appear at the Players. "If you went back a few years, those numbers would be almost unthinkable," said O'Grady, crediting Schofield for paving the way by co-sanctioning tournaments with other members of the International Federation of Tours in Australia, Asia and South Africa.