The tricky business of restarting the European Tour
On the European Tour, the scorecard for the 2019-’20 season makes depressing reading: Played 11, postponed 10 (if you include the Olympics), canceled seven. Tournaments, that is. Stalled since the Qatar Masters in early March, the next scheduled event on professional golf’s second-largest circuit is the British Masters at the end of July.
Other than that, the news from the tour’s Wentworth base in England is that there is no news. Unlike the PGA Tour, which hopes to re-start without fans as soon as June, European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley has had little positive to say to his membership. There have, for example, been no re-scheduling announcements, only a memo to players earlier in the month warning of a “radically different” look to tournaments when play resumes.
“The reality is, the pandemic is going to have a profound impact on the tour financially, as well as many of our partners, both in sponsorship and broadcast areas,” Pelley spelled out.
And with the United Kingdom under lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, chances are the British Masters will soon be the latest event to be canceled or postponed.
Still, it is difficult to be too hard on any administrator in the current and unprecedented climate.
“If I was Keith, I would have done exactly what he has done so far,” says former European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley. “I’m a great believer in ‘under-promise, over-deliver.’ He has set the scene for what will be tough times when we come back. He has lowered expectations and made people realize that the world is going to be very different. The economy is going to be devastated over the next few months, if it hasn’t been already. In the tour’s case, that is inevitably going to lead to a reduction in prize funds. When the tour does resume, the players are going to be under no illusions.”
All of which leaves questions to be answered with regard to the future of golf’s most international and cosmopolitan circuit.
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Why has the European Tour been so slow to announce plans for the future?
“One of the biggest problems Keith Pelley has right now is that he deals with so many different countries and governments,” says Nicolas Colsaerts, a former Ryder Cup player and member of the tour’s tournament committee. “Every country has been thrown into our current situation at slightly different times, so it is difficult to know what is going to happen in those places. Planning anything with any certainty is almost impossible. There are so many different scenarios. While you may be able to play golf or start to play in one place, you might not be in another.”
Rest assured, Colsaerts says, the European Tour has a plan in place, but nothing official yet. “We are waiting for the governments to tell us what we can do—or can’t do,” he said.
Despite this, Pelley’s silence does seem to underline the notion that just about any information he has for his members is only going to deepen the prevailing downbeat mood. Which is not to say players are not understanding.
“I think Keith has actually made a lot of good decisions,” says European Tour veteran Lee Westwood. “In contrast, the PGA Tour’s plan to play in June is very ambitious. No one has ever seen anything like this. So we have to be so mindful of what is going on in the world. Forget about golf. Yes, we’d all like to have live sport on television, but is that really so important compared with what is going on in society worldwide?
Westwood believes that by holding out on announcing a formal plan, what Pelley and the European Tour have done is give themselves a bigger window of time to assess the situation and give integrity to what would remain of the season. “There is an opportunity to schedule events at the end of the year,” Westwood says. “The longer you wait, the more chance you have of actually making things happen. And I look at the biggest events and think, if you have to hold them, do it 100 percent. Do them right, or not at all.”
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Does the European Tour’s scheduling strategy actually make sense?
According to one source, representatives from the four majors (Augusta National, USGA, R&A and PGA of America), PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan and Pelley have been in regular conversation about scheduling for the rest of this year. The group has talked at least twice a week for the last month.
To no one’s surprise, first on the agenda was mapping out the majors. Everyone was pushing for them to get played, with only the Open Championship ultimately being canceled for 2020. They were the priority, so getting them aligned would then allow the other tours to build schedules around them.
That the PGA Championship and U.S. Open landed in August and September rather than later in the year (the Masters finding a home in November), provides a surprising opportunity for the European Tour, McGinley says.
“The further down the road [events] are scheduled, surely the more chance they have of being played,” he says. “The closer we get to Dec. 31, the more chance they have of happening.”
As things stand, the European Tour is free to take the later dates this year, right up to Christmas. It is easy to imagine tournaments in Dubai and South Africa in the lead-up to holiday season, events that potentially have way more chance of actually being played on time than those scheduled for August and September, which could still encounter additional delays.
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How has the relationship between the European Tour and its main broadcast partner, Sky Sports, been affected?
From a business perspective, for the European Tour to come out of the pandemic with hope of eventually returning to normal will require keeping its broadcast partners happy. “The television money is huge,” says Iain Stoddart, founding partner of the Bounce management company, which represents former Ryder Cup player Stephen Gallacher and 2019 European Tour rookie of the year Bob MacIntyre. “So it will come above every other priority.” That includes playing tournaments without fans to make sure there are events to televise.
Both Pelley and Jason Wessely, the head of golf at Sky, declined to be interviewed for this story, perhaps an indication that agreement has yet to be reached on exactly how their long-standing association is going to look going forward. But it would be strange indeed if Sky were playing financial hard-ball with the tour to the extent that it could go out of business. Clearly, that would make no sense for either side.
“We are looking at innovative ways to get things moving,” says one tour insider. “And we are talking to Sky. The tour has great relationships with Sky, Rolex and the Dubai royal family. They have all been supportive rather than demanding. Sky are looking to maintain the partnership. There is no point in them cutting our legs out from under us. They want the product to come back. So the tour is not going to be cash-starved.”
That “great relationship” still has to exist within a business environment, though. As many have pointed out over the years, business and friendship are two very different things.
“Sky will be putting pressure on us to play,” says Robert Rock, a tour player and swing coach. “Contracts are in place. We have to deliver, for example, a certain amount of U.K.-based events. If we don’t, there are penalties. Or at least we don’t get the same money. Still, you’d think that Sky will realize that severe financial penalties would put us in real trouble. So I hope we are working together.”
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Are players going to be forced into premature retirement because they simply can’t afford to continue?
With no events to play in for several months, and Pelley’s warning of less prize money to be had when tournaments resume, it’s natural to believe that players will be worried about their financial futures.
“During my first few years out there I struggled to keep my card,” Rock says, using his example to explain a tour pro’s predicament. “I was earning around €200,000 on the course. But after expenses and taxes, I wasn’t making a lot of money. Things were not super-tight, but it was a lot of work to clear around €40,000. Playing the tour is a big financial risk. There’s a lot to play for every week but a lot to pay for, too.
“Those who have been on tour for a while and have done all right, they will be OK,” Rock says. “I’m 43 now and close to finishing. And I’m fine. But younger lads and those who have over-spent early on might be struggling. I can see the ‘teams’ that work with players getting smaller. Players will make cuts to their expenses if the prize money falls.”
“Financially, the European Tour needs tournaments to be played sometime this year, especially the Ryder Cup,” says former Ryder Cup captain Bernard Gallacher, a 10-time European Tour winner. “Even if it means playing behind closed doors. Otherwise, I fear many of the staff at the tour will lose their jobs [as many as 60 have already been furloughed]. And many of the players on the main tour, senior tour and challenge tour will be lost to the game forever.”
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Can the Challenge Tour and Senior Tour survive? And what about the tour school?
Logic dictates that, if the European Tour is struggling financially, the Challenge and Senior circuits are likely to be in an even deeper economic hole.
The senior (Staysure) tour in Europe exists largely because of the pro-ams that precede every event. As long as nostalgic souls wish to pitch up and play with the heroes of the past, it has a chance of continuing.
The Challenge Tour is a more complex entity. But Rock—via former Ryder Cup player Peter Hanson—may have a possible solution.
“I played with Peter earlier this year, and he had a great idea,” Rock says. “Elevate all the national mini-tours, and at the end of the year have a final series where the top guys qualify for their tour cards. That sounds like a better option than the Challenge Tour, which is just a grind for all concerned. But British lads playing the EuroPro Tour would have way less expenses but still have the prospect of making the European Tour if they do well.”
As for the tour school, none of the news is good. Not for those wishing to play their way onto the European Tour through the three-stage and eventual six-round marathon. And not for the tour itself. Given that it is impossible to see the school taking place this year, young up-and-comers are going to have to be wait another 12 months for their chance at glory. And the tour will do without a substantial cash cow. Last year, 1,064 players paid £1,800 each to enter the process. That’s £1,915,200 for anyone counting.
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So, what will the tour end up doing, schedule-wise?
First up, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, the tour’s flagship event, will have to move from its September date. As things stand, the tournament sits one week after the Tour Championship in Atlanta and one week before the U.S. Open in New York. It is also safe to assume that high on the priority list are the Irish and Scottish Opens. Significantly, both are on the “postponed” list rather than sitting alongside those “canceled.” Although if and when either get played, they are unlikely to boast the strength of fields they would have done in the original dates.
“The Scottish Open will not look anything like it would have,” Stoddart says. “The field won’t be as good because it won’t be the week before the Open. The field will likely need to be reduced, or a two-tee policy will be in place, because there will be less daylight. It might be played behind closed doors. And the tee times won’t be set to suit the television viewers in America. There will be adjustments at every other event, too. And that might be the case until the end of 2021. There won’t be any point in thinking about what has been the norm until now. That’s history.”
Elsewhere, as McGinley pointed out, the second half of November and all of December up to Christmas is available to reschedule events. And Pelley, in his memo to players, has already hinted at some possibilities:
“We are looking at options such as, (a) multiple tournaments in the same location; (b) two tournaments in the same week, or three in a fortnight; or (c) three or four tournaments back-to-back in the U.K. with a 14-day ‘quarantine’ period ahead of that to allow players not from the U.K. to come over and self-isolate in advance, if that health requirement is still in place then.”
“I’ve heard that the Nedbank in South Africa and the DP World in Dubai will be pushed back into December,” says Eddie Pepperell, on tour for eight years and ranked No. 65 in the world, also mentioning the potential for expanding the Race to Dubai to encompass two years’ worth of tournaments. “We might also have a great run of events in the U.K. in the autumn. That would be brilliant. So there are positive scenarios. But we need to play, if only because of the financial implications of not playing. Maybe we only have 25 events next year, just to maintain a level of quality. But if that’s what we have to do, we must do it.”