DUBAI, U.A.E. — First, the good news, at least for the players involved. The prize funds on the European Tour have been getting bigger and bigger over the last three weeks. At the Turkish Airlines Open, $7 million was up for grabs. That figure rose to $7.5 million at the Nedbank Golf Challenge. And this week the season-ending DP World Tour Championship, the last of eight Rolex Series events on the Old World circuit, sees the 50-man field competing for $8 million, with first-place worth a record-breaking $3 million.
All of which would, at first glance, seem cause for celebration and a pat on the back for European Tour executive director, Keith Pelley. But, while there has been some of both on display as the Race to Dubai concludes over the Earth course at the Jumeirah Estates, concern over the level of absenteeism in Turkey and South Africa has lingered. At the first, 16 players eligible to compete turned down the chance, despite the enticing prize money payout. And at the second, eventual champion Tommy Fleetwood, No. 18 in the Official World Golf Ranking starting the week, was the highest-ranked player in attendance. Neither fact was a good look for a tour that lives for much of the year, financially at least, in the shadow of the PGA Tour.
This week things are better. Only Tony Finau, hardly a European Tour regular, declined to make the trip to the United Arab Emirates. All of which was energizing Pelley during a 30-minutes sit-down with members of the press during day three of the DP World.
“Talk of player participation is very important to us,” said the 55-year-old Canadian. “It is important to all tournaments. But it’s not the only thing that defines a great tournament. Look at what transpired at the Nedbank. Look at the set-up, the hospitality, the way it was promoted and the spectacular finish. And look the week before when we had a six-man playoff finishing under floodlights.”
Expanding on his point, Pelley pointed out the modern reality of professional golf in the 21st century. Awash with cash, the top players are tending to compete less often than they used to. On average, that very best performers teed-up 24.9 times as recently as 2015. That number is now 22.3.
“If we expected the top players to play on a weekly basis, then out expectations would be unrealistic,” Pelley said. “There is unbelievable optionality for the players right now. There are probably less than 10 golf tournaments in the world now that are mandatory. And there are 35 tournaments offering prize money of at least $7 million. So there is no point in us obsessing over any of the above.”
Indeed, Pelley prefers to measure success and/or failure by comparing events on a year-to-year basis. Where the 2018 Nedbank had only two of the top-10 players on the Race to Dubai, this year five pitched up at Sun City. And there would have been six had Tyrrell Hatton, the winner in Turkey, not felt the need to rest the wrist that will require surgery later this month.
Where Pelley does share wider-held concerns is in the travel required to compete in all of the season-ending events on his 47-week almost-worldwide schedule. Towards the end of a long, hard season that fact is only exacerbated. What is one of the European Tour’s strengths—its diversity and cosmopolitan nature—can also be perceived as a weakness. This year, for example, the distance between the three FedEx Cup playoff events was 1,301 miles. Turkey to South Africa to Dubai adds up to 8,071 air miles.
“We really have to have that conversation,” Pelley said. “I recently had an interesting discussion with Victor Perez. who is ninth in the Race to Dubai. He got into the WGC-HSBC Champions in China but didn’t want to play four events in a row. So he made a decision not to play in Turkey or South Africa. I understand that. Going forward, a better option for us might be to end with two Rolex events rather than three.”
Summing up, Pelley acknowledged that he is fighting a battle in which there can really be no winners. Not even the PGA Tour can guarantee the presence of every big name on a weekly basis.
“If top-player participation was the only metric that our sponsors and partners look towards, then we are setting ourselves up for disappointment,” he concluded. “But Rory [McIlroy] is here this week and Justin [Rose] is here and Jon [Rahm] is here. We have 49 of the top 50 [in the Race to Dubai rankings], and we celebrate when they play. But we recognize the multiple choices they have about where to play. There is no simple solution. And that is being realistic.”