The Road To Dubai

September 29, 2008

The PGA Tour likely did a double take when the European Tour said last year it would open its international headquarters in Dubai. You don't have to be a geography major to know Dubai isn't in Europe. The Euro tour, however, realized Dubai is where the money is. Next November, it also will be where many of the world's best players are.

Shrewdly, the Euro circuit has not only expanded globally but now could do the once unthinkable and get top American-based players to take a membership. Suddenly, guys such as Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh are looking to schedule a few Euro tour events.

The newest lure is the Race to Dubai and the Dubai World Championship. In November 2009, the top 60 players on the European Tour money list will qualify for the Dubai World Championship, where first prize will be $1.7 million. In addition, the No. 1 player on the regular-season money list will earn a $2 million bonus (No. 15 will win $250,000). That's attention-getting cash.

A key will come this week when Euro tour players meet at St. Andrews to discuss the minimum-event rule, which is currently 11. Since that includes the four majors and the three WGC events, only four more are needed to earn membership. The rank and file wants the minimum to go to 13 while the top players, realizing the impact of having Mickelson as a member, want to keep it at 11. The PGA Tour, for its part, says it is not concerned.

"Players like Phil, Vijay and even Tiger have averaged around nine events on the European Tour," said the PGA Tour's Ty Votaw. "If the minimum stays the same, it won't take very much for such a player to meet the minimum. We don't see it as a material issue for us." Time will tell.

How did we get here? As Deep Throat said during Watergate: "Follow the money." And the European Tour never has been shy about doing that (just look at some of its Ryder Cup venues).

Now follow this: The Euro tour headquarters will be at Jumeirah Golf Estates in Dubai. The developer of that real-estate project is Leisurecorp, whose parent company is Dubai World, whose chairman, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, called the deal "another step in Dubai's evolution as one of the most important golf centers anywhere in the world." He also says it will extend "the Leisurecorp brand across the globe."

So not only does the Euro tour win, but Dubai does as well. In 1996 when the PGA Tour, European Tour, Japan Golf Tour, PGA Tour of Australasia and Sunshine Tour created the International Federation of PGA Tours, it was understood that the stronger PGA Tour would not encroach on the turf of the other tours. The European Tour felt no such obligation.

In 1996 the tour had six events outside Europe. This year it has 17: China (3), South Africa (3), India (2), Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Dubai, Indonesia, Malaysia and Korea.

Among recent lessons is that the U.S. economy will likely recover slowly and require some belt-tightening, perhaps impacting PGA Tour events. Meanwhile, money is still flowing in the Middle East and Asia. It's only a matter of time before PGA Tour players follow the money—and that time could be now.