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Keith Pelley's ambitions for growth continue but equity for all players remains an obstacle for the Old World circuit

November 19, 2017
during the final round of the 2017 DP World Tour Championship on the Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates on November 19, 2017 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Golf being a game of numbers, it was perhaps appropriate that Keith Pelley, chief executive of the European Tour, began his annual “State of the Tour” address with some of his favorite figures from the 2017 season that ended with the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. In particular, the 53-year-old Canadian was keen to talk up the eight-strong Rolex Series of $7 million events that have dotted the worldwide landscape of professional golf’s second-biggest tour.

“This has been a good year,” Pelley said. “The 100th-ranked player in 2016, Pelle Edberg, won €275,000. The 100th-ranked player in 2017, Lasse Jensen, made €389,000. A significant increase. The Rolex Series, which is something we are incredibly proud of, has been remarkably successful, too. In terms of the strength of field, there’s been a 12-percent increase in the strength of field across the events, if you compare the 2017 events to the 2016 events. Seven of the eight events were the strongest events that particular week in the world of golf in terms of strength of field.”

Pelley continued: “The social engagement saw an increase of some 87 percent year over year. And, as far as media value goes, the Rolex Series saw some 35 per cent increase in media value.”

Great stuff. But only if you are one of the elite players on the Old World circuit. Despite the advent of a so-called “Access List” (now abandoned) that was open only to those unable to play in the big-money events, that the European Tour is now effectively three tours in one has never been more apparent.

By way of example, England’s Eddie Pepperell was the only 2016 European Tour Q-School graduate to make the top 60 on this year’s money list and qualify for the DP World finale. Similarly, only three from the annual 108-hole grind—Pepperell, Ashley Chesters and Edoardo Molinari—kept their cards for 2018.

Much of the blame for such a situation must lie with the disparity between the money available to the top players and the cash the rest get to play for. In places, it bordered on the unfair. Another Englishman, Tom Lewis, earned less for a top-three finish in the Czech Masters than did Germany’s Marcel Siem for his T-27 place in the French Open (not coincidentally a Rolex event).

Recognizing such an inequity, some adjustments will be made for the new season, which begins in four days time in Hong Kong (like the PGA Tour, the off-season has become extinct). Q-school graduates will now be re-ranked twice during the year, helping them get into some of the bigger events as the season progresses.

“If you are playing well, you can get access to Rolex events,” Pelley insisted.

As for judging the chief executive himself, two years before in the same forum he announced an ambitious goal: making the European Tour “a viable alternative” to the PGA Tour. So how is he doing on that front? Cue more Rolex talk.

“The Rolex Series was a monumental step in making that a viable alternative,” Pelley said. “But the reality is that there are 150 72-hole golf tournaments around the world each year when you look at all the different tours. So the choices the players have are enormous. And what we have done with the creation of the Rolex Series is provide a wonderful option for the top players. And they have embraced it.

“Look at the fields at, for example, the HNA Open de France, the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open. In those three weeks, if a top-20 player played competitive golf, he played on our tour. And that’s something we’re incredibly proud of.”

Still, even the Rolex riches are not always enough to attract the very best to play. Masters champion Sergio Garcia—ending the summer with a decent chance of finishing atop the Race to Dubai—skipped both the Turkish Airlines Open and the Nedbank Challenge in the two weeks leading up to DP World Championship. And the climax to the season took place without Rory McIlroy (who was seen playing socially at the nearby Emirates Club earlier this week) and Henrik Stenson, albeit both were absent because of injury.

So marks out of 10 Mr. Pelley? Let’s say 6 alongside a “tries hard but could do better” in the comments’ column.