BELEK, Turkey – In a brief lull in his day before conducting a wide-ranging interview with Morning Read at the recent Turkish Airlines Open, Keith Pelley browsed the sales rack for yet another golf shirt.
"It's the last thing I need. It's really a sickness," he said. "But I like to support the golf shop at the courses that host our tournaments."
Pelley, 53, the chief executive of the European Tour since August 2015, has wasted little time putting his thumbprint on making the circuit a viable alternative to the PGA Tour. The Canadian-born former Rogers Media president is the European Tour's agent of change. He already has shown a willingness to try new things, from taking on golf's glacial pace-of-play problem with a 40-second shot clock to breaking from the monotony of 72-hole stroke-play competition with events such as GolfSixes and next year's Belgium Knockout. And to hear Pelley tell it, he's just getting started.
Morning Read: What drew you to the job?
Keith Pelley: I turned it down the first time, turned down going to the interview process because I was quite happy, quite content. Loved Rogers (Media), loved the Blue Jays, loved sports, loved the NHL, the deal we had just done. And then they called back about two or three months later, and when they called at that time, I said, 'Probably not, but give me 48 hours.' And that night I was out for dinner with my wife, and I said, 'You know, I got a strange call today,' and she looked at me and said, 'Let's go.' I said, 'What do you mean?' She said, 'You know, you're 51 years old, and life is about adventures. That would be an epic adventure.' After the first time I came over, I went, Yeah, this would be kind of fun. I'd really enjoy it. And it has been. It's been great.
MR: How did you decide that music at the driving range and walkup music would be a good thing for golf?
KP: Standing behind the range in May 2015 at the BMW PGA Championship with my 12-year-old before I took this job, I went, Huh, this is a wonderful place. The two places that I thought were the most underdeveloped in terms of the fan experience, which I still believe, are the range and the first tee. It's a little thing, but it's one of the things I believe that our game needs to do is it has to have a better fan experience here, and it needs to be a stronger television product, as well, because unless you want to appeal to only golfers – we want to appeal to a wider audience – so music on the range is all about our philosophy of we're in the entertainment business, and as long as it is not a hindrance to the players, it works. But listen, we had a couple players that did not like that. And I said, well, it's impossible. You're members of the organization. You're not going to get every single player to go, check mark. But as long as you have 85, 90 percent going, I understand it. That's OK.
MR: So, you think adding music, those types of things, can bring a different audience to the tournament?
KP: Yeah, for sure. People still get mesmerized seeing themselves on the jumbo board.
MR: Are you going to bring the kiss cam to the European Tour?
KP: The kiss cam at the European Tour on the first tee would be pretty funny. The kiss cam on the first tee at the Ryder Cup would be pretty funny, wouldn't it? I've done so many game days in my life, and I cringe at the kiss cam. I remember saying to one of the producers, a game-day producer, I said, 'Can you please not do the kiss cam?' But it's the most popular one. People like to see other people kiss. It's bizarre.
MR: What are your goals and what are your concerns for the debut of the Shot Clock Masters next year in Austria?
KP: Well, the goal is merely to see if it is a significantly betterpaced tournament with a monumental entertainment element to it. The challenge is, how would you implement it week in and week out if it is ridiculously successful? But then again, that would be a good problem to have. We're comfortable experimenting. We're also comfortable if something doesn't work. Then, we just say, ‘It didn't work.’ And that's exactly what happened when we launched our new website and app. We might have been too aggressive and ambitious in terms of what we were trying to accomplish there and maybe geared away from a little bit of the actual critical mass of the golfers that still needed this, this, this and this. So, there's a fine line, and understanding that balance is key, but not being worried about making a change or making a mistake is critical. As long as you make more right decisions than wrong decisions, you'll be OK.
MR: What do you see as wrong with Thursday and Friday?
KP: I won't say, 'What's wrong.' I'd say, 'How do we improve it?' They need to have more relevance, in my opinion, to the fans. But I don't have the answer. I've just identified, in my opinion, one of the issues is, Thursday and Friday need to be a little bit more meaningful.
MR: Your television-production unit has pushed the envelope and scored with original content that has gone viral. What should we be looking for in 2018?
KP: Well, I think we're pretty proud of our content that we produce digitally. We made a commitment early that we were going to be leaders in producing digital content. Now the question is, How can we grow it and how can we build it and how can we produce more? We have the trust from the players, and when you have the trust from the players, then they will allow you to do something differently because they know that you're going to have their best interest in hand. What we're talking about right now is, How do we double the output? Because right now, we're on the right track.
MR: What's your biggest challenge in 2018?
KP: I want to make this the best Ryder Cup from an entertaining perspective, fan engagement across all platforms worldwide and obviously want to be successful on the course, as well. It's incredible how much time I'm spending now on Ryder Cup, and if I was to have one concern, it is the fear of spending so much time on Ryder Cup that I end up spending less time on the tour and its growth. Ryder Cup is so important to everything that we do, and it is such a massive challenge. I want it to be spectacular. The biggest challenge is executing a flawless Ryder Cup.
MR: How have you dealt with some of the security concerns coming to Turkey, Qatar and other places, to ensure the players' safety?
KP: We take security very seriously. For the first time, we have an internal security department. Last year, we started going through some of the challenges that we had, and it really put me in a territory I had not been in before. I'm always a big fan of when you're not an expert in an area, find somebody who is an expert in it as opposed to trying to just guess. There's so many differences in terms of political circumstances between countries. If you look at the decision for Matt Kuchar [not] to play here, that is the political circumstances between the U.S. and Turkey. There's not a security or a safety problem at all in Turkey, but there is a political circumstance between the United States government and the Turkish government, and unfortunately that affected one of the top players in the world not coming here, and we have to be respectful of that. But it's easier to understand that now with the system that we have in place, where it might have taken us a little longer to understand that before.
MR: With the base of the tournaments' financial backing shifting further east, any consideration of rebranding the European Tour to better reflect the nature of the tour?
KP: We've done a lot of research on that. Originally when I came in, I had that as a high priority. However, we have 70 percent of our golfers come to Europe, and as I went through my travels, the brand internationally for the European Tour in the golfing world was very strong, as well as it very well holds up with what is the goal of our portfolio, which is the Ryder Cup. So, at this point, I put that on hold.
MR: Originally, you had merger talks with the Asian Tour, and now I guess you call it an alliance with the Asian Tour. What does that mean?
KP: It's fascinating right now, the whole development of golf in Asia. Some people have said that it is going to grow at a torrid pace over the next 20 years, and somebody else said that's what they said 20 years ago. It's a key market for us based on the fact that I believe it's a growth opportunity. It's important for our worldwide distribution of television rights, and this may come as a shock: you can't play in Europe all year. You need different places to play. Originally it was going to be more of us operating them, and their players were cautious about that and would rather us enter into more of a strategic partnership versus what it is now. So just in the last couple months, we've now hired joint people together. So, we have commercial people based out of Singapore that are paid by the Asian Tour and by the European Tour. Their goal is to develop corporate partnerships and to develop tournaments that we can cosanction together. First one we have is the Philippine Golf Championship next year.
MR: If your players came to you and wanted to merge with the PGA Tour, what advice would you give them?
KP: I wouldn't give advice, at first. I would listen. You know, at the end of the day, people have asked me about a world tour, and a world tour might be the answer down the road. It has some merit. The responsibility that I have would be to do all of that, if, in fact, that was ever to transpire, with the backing of our members. At the end of the day, it comes right back to us being a members’ organization, and I work for the members, and whatever is best for the members is the path that I will take. So if, in fact, they came and asked me that, I would say, take me through what is the logic behind it. It is critical to remember that we have a wide range of different types of members. So, it has to make sure that it just doesn't work for the 10th; it has to work for No. 120, too, of our members.
MR: What golf-industry concerns keep you up at night?
KP: I don't think we can play on 8,000yard golf courses. The modernday athlete is an incredibly welltoned individual that is in incredible shape, and they hit the ball so long and they're so talented. I have confidence in the R&A and the USGA. It's either the ball or the clubs, but we can't start hitting 425yard drives. We can't make 8,000-yard courses, because the actual opportunities to play golf courses will change dramatically.
MR: You've been branded as this agent of change, and traditionally agents of change come in, they implement some change …
KP: And then they leave. Yeah, some people say that to me.
MR: How long do you envision being in this role?
KP: As long as they'll still have me and as long as I still enjoy it. Right now, I really enjoy it, and they still want me here. So that's a good combo. I don't know how else to answer that.
MR: Are you the type who gets bored easily if things aren't moving quickly enough?
KP: I'm really enjoying this interview, but yes. If there comes a time when I can't make the product better, when I can't lead to its change, yes, then at that particular time. But right now, I think we have great momentum. We have great support of the players. I very much enjoy and respect our board and our tournament committee, and I'm having fun. I have no plans to go anywhere at this point.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak