The European Tour’s last roll of the dice or a new era of competition for the PGA Tour?
After 44 years, the European Tour have finally acknowledged what others have known for some time. In many significant areas, they are losing both the financial and popularity battle to the PGA Tour. For the 2017 season, it seems as if they are taking big strides to narrow the financial gap, and thus – they hope – narrow the popularity one too.
Their star attraction? The Rolex Series. Brainchild of European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley, it demonstrates the genesis of a plan to have European tournaments that can compete with the riches on offer from across the pond. As a Canadian who once negotiated the National Hockey League’s TV rights for an estimated £3.5 billion, Pelley is clearly no stranger to big numbers and big gambles.
The BMW PGA Championship, the Irish Open, the Scottish Open, the Italian Open and the French Open will merge with the previously-named ‘Final Series’ events, the Turkish Airlines Open, the Nedbank Golf Challenge and the DP World Tour Championship to create the star-studded Rolex Series. The combined prize-pot? An estimated £50+ million.
The aim is primarily to stop the ‘talent-drain’ of big players that currently flood overseas in the crucial summer months, and one of the Rolex Series’ biggest advocates is none other than world number two, Rory McIlroy. Clearly delighted that the Irish Open (which McIlroy’s foundation benefits from) is part of the new Rolex Series, he opined: “It gives guys an incentive to maybe play a little bit more on this side of the pond leading up to the Open Championship and hopefully get some great fields.”
We spoke to Golf Care ambassador and three-time Ryder Cup captain, Bernard Gallacher, about the impact the new series would have on the European Tour. “I think it’s a a good idea and quite overdue”, he said. “The only issue I foresee if is the players don’t support it. It’s clearly been done to encourage the big players who play in America – Russel Knox, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey, Rory McIlroy and many others – to come back to Europe. It’s given them a viable alternative. The prizes are now as big as anything in America, but if they decide to stay over there or only play one or two – it will make it difficult for sponsors to keep funding these big events.”
The move comes at an interesting time when it seems the PGA Tour is, if anything, starting to move slightly away from their own financial focus in favour of player development – evidenced by the changes to their Tour cards. As of this season, ranking in the top 125 money list alone will no longer be enough to keep your Tour card.
Instead, players must finish in the top 125 for FedEx Cup regular season points to keep their place. The thinking behind this is clearly to encourage talent development through the Web.com Tour Finals. While it’s not a seismic shift, it is interesting to compare with the European Tour’s new aim – one playing up finances and the other playing them down. If anything, it should help (over time) to level the playing field somewhat, and lift the standard of competition on both sides of the Atlantic. That is, however, if the Rolex Series can keep the cash flow going.
What do we mean by that? Well, as the Guardian’s golf correspondent, Ewan Murray, pointed out – since the increase in prize money is being borne by both the European Tour and Rolex, “a much-heralded European Tour project actually looks like costing the body – who announced a 2015 loss of nearly £8m – money.”
The gamble is that the short-term financial hit will be offset by the Rolex Series being a success throughout 2017, thus making both corporations their loss back and some. “In short, this appears a commercial punt taken on the basis that the rebranding of certain competitions may fly,” Murray continues. If, for whatever reason, the Rolex Series doesn’t take off – the European Tour could very quickly be back to square one, if not further back.
All eyes will be on the first tournament in the series, the BMW PGA at Wentworth, which isn’t until May. If there is waning interest, combined with further security issues like those seen at last year’s Turkish Airlines Open, it could spell trouble. All golf fans dearly want fiercer competition between the European and PGA Tours, as it can only lead to better play and viewing all round. Will it happen? Only time will tell, but we’ve got our fingers crossed…