If the basis for judging Keith Pelley is the bottom line, the European Tour’s chief executive appears worthy of high praise.
A year ago, Graeme Storm retained his tour card when 111th in the rankings with seasonal earnings of €247,000. Marcel Siem has survived into 2018 while lying 101st in the order of merit; his 2017 winnings are €388,000. Tom Lewis, who finished 135th, headed to qualifying school with the hardly insignificant fallback of €227,000. Boosted by the introduction of Rolex Series events, with prize pots a minimum of $7m, there is a legitimate argument that Europe’s leading players – and even those in the second tier – have never had it so good. Access to the Rolex Series is available to a broad spectrum of players.
And yet, there are matters worthy of debate. Money available through Rolex Series events – there are eight on the European Tour’s schedule – renders them highly significant in European Ryder Cup qualifying context. So, too, does the rule that says no qualification points are available from tournaments played elsewhere in the same week as a Rolex Series competition. This affected Graeme McDowell, for example, as he shared 10th at the PGA Tour event on the same weekend as the Turkish Airlines Open.
In Turkey, the sponsors continued with a theme of handing appearance fees to select players, with Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Matt Kuchar understood to be among them, in a specific nod to those who won medals at the 2016 Olympics. Rose fully justified such faith by winning the tournament and the trio formed an integral part of publicity in the lead-up to the event. Kuchar did not travel to Turkey, though, after problems with the country’s relationship with the United States meant he could not obtain a visa.
The offering of appearance fees is not new in Turkey; Tiger Woods has benefited while Rory McIlroy would have done a year ago but for a late decision not to play in the tournament. It also happens elsewhere; at the HSBC Championship in Abu Dhabi, for example, where a relatively small prize pot is offset by seven-figure appearance sums handed to players such as Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler. It remains to be seen whether or not the disappointing departure of the hugely influential and respected Giles Morgan as HSBC’s head of sponsorship has an impact on affairs in the Middle East. The European Tour rightly stresses that tournament promoters, rather than the Tour itself, pay appearance riches.
Sergio García’s arrival at next week’s Hong Kong Open – the Masters champion has cited scheduling issues as a reason not to wildly chase a Race to Dubai title – is not without high cost to the tournament host. On the PGA Tour, appearance fees are virtually accepted as part of the week-on-week scene – in stark comparison to Europe. In the United States, incentive comes in various forms: paid for travel, accommodation or even meals with sponsors. Golfers are very quick to assert how money does not supply motivation, which should not be mistaken for those individuals not appreciating their own value.
There is little or nothing by way of complaint from other players. Everyone benefits, for example, from the participation of the world’s leading players and the knock-on boost to ranking points. Woods, albeit a different commercial animal to all others, collected appearance fees all over the world for years, with a tournament’s appeal enhanced by his presence or even just his picture on billboards. From players themselves, there would be the not unreasonable point that use of their status – and time – to promote a tournament should not be on voluntary terms.
Nonetheless, the situation raises questions. It seems fair to ask what standard of field would participate in Turkey were enticement not given to stellar names. If the answer is that the competition would become the domain of only lower-grade golfers, does that not undermine its Rolex status? There is also an ethical argument regarding why golfers, or any sportspeople of a certain financial level, should be paid simply to appear. In many ways, this surely contradicts the ethos of sport, albeit that such a point could be applied to money’s tight grasp of football, tennis and so many other enterprises.
This week in Dubai, Pelley and the European Tour will look to emphasise all that is good about what has long been regarded as the PGA Tour’s poor relation. They are perfectly correct to do that, even if some means by which Europe boosts its status raise questions.