DUBAI — Virtually no debate involving a large number of professional golfers ever comes to a unanimous conclusion. Certainly not on the cosmopolitan DP World Tour. Take that as a given. But sometimes the majority view is clear enough, as it was Thursday at the Dubai Invitational when word spread that Keith Pelley would be leaving after eight years as the tour’s CEO to take a job in his native Canada. The general reaction of players was almost universally magnanimous and only occasionally malevolent.
Appropriately, the man atop the leaderboard, Rory McIlroy—whose nine-under-par 62 was at least two shots better than anyone else in the 60-man field—led the way with some warm words for the soon-to-be departing Canadian.
“The journey the European Tour has been on for the last five or six years has been navigated really well by Keith,” McIlroy said. “He’s played it really well. He was always able to see the bigger picture. Keith is a smart guy. People listen to him. Not everyone in golf is capable of that. He’s been great in that sense. We’ll be able to judge just how good he has been in maybe 18 months time, when we know how everything has fallen into place.”
"Keith's greatest period in charge was probably COVID. … If he had not been there, I don't think there would have been a tour."—Thomas Bjorn
McIlroy was soon joined by a host of his colleagues, past and present. Former Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley—a past member of the DP World Tour board—emphasized the importance Pelley has placed on succession planning. It’s why the Irishman thinks Pelley’s deputy, Guy Kinnings, will move seamlessly into the top role when he officially takes the post April 2.
“I am slightly surprised that Keith is leaving while the deal between the PGA Tour, the Saudi Public Investment Fund and the DP World Tour is being negotiated,” McGinley said. “Keith has been a big part of golf getting to where it is and he’s been an even bigger part of the European Tour getting to that table. We are in a strong position, even though golf has shifted on its axis in the last five years. It started with the PGA Tour’s television deal that basically doubled their prize funds. Then they doubled again in reaction to LIV. For the European Tour to survive that onslaught is phenomenal.”
Thomas Bjorn, another former Ryder Cup skipper, was perhaps most effusive in his praise of Pelley. The Dane was chairman of the tour’s tournament committee when the new boss arrived in Wentworth back in August 2015.
“Keith's greatest period in charge was probably COVID,” Bjorn says. “I saw him at his absolute best then; how he managed the tour, the finances of the tour, the staff. He was amazing in that period, a real leader. If he had not been there, I don't think there would have been a tour. Obviously, there's people out there that could have done the same, but I don't think I could find somebody within the game today who would have done a much better job than he did. So he's got to take a lot of credit. He has great qualities. It's a shame at this point in time to lose him.”
As for the occasional discordant note, there are players who harbor concerns with the general direction of the DP World Tour under Pelley’s stewardship. One thing in particular seems to grate with a few.
“The older guys are happy about the deal Pelley made to send 10 DP World Tour players to the PGA Tour at the end of each season,” says one pro who asked to remain anonymous. “They get rid of 10 really good players from the top of the pile, which gives them a chance to move up or stay on tour. Fine. But from the outside that reflects badly on what was once a great tour. For example, not that long ago a Spanish Open in Madrid was packed with top players. It was a proper field. Now not so much. Too often the television people are at events like that just because they want to cover the Ryder Cup every two years. There is a level of indifference now.”
Ah, but there’s one more point, again delivered anonymously and highlighting the one thing no one—including Pelley—has ever been able to solve on the DP World Tour: too many events with mediocre fields.
“I would like us to be in a place where we play fewer events,” says another pro. “We have too many right now, which dilutes our product. We can’t be strong across 42 events. Most of us play around 25 events. So they miss 17, which is a lot to miss and makes field strengths even weaker. They are just not a very attractive product for sponsors. I get why not many are interested in most of our tour. Hardly anyone cares about at least 20 of our events.”