News & Opinion

Pelley’s Saudi sand trap: Cancel or play?

Since taking over as CEO of the European Tour in 2015, Keith Pelley has proved to be an innovative, creative, forward-thinking leader. He knew from the start that business as usual would not only fail to enhance the tour’s future but would move the organization backward.

In the face of increasingly lucrative purses on the PGA Tour, which understandably attracts most of Europe’s stars, Pelley has had the challenge of finding ways to keep the top players at home. The most effective idea has been the Rolex Series: eight events on the 2018-19 European Tour schedule with purses of $7 million or more each. Most European Tour events offer much less than half of that amount.

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Keith Pelley, the European Tour’s chief executive officer, faces a no-win situation regarding the inaugural event in Saudi Arabia.

However, now that the next season’s schedule has been announced, Pelley faces a real quandary. The first new event on the calendar is the Saudi International, scheduled for Jan. 31-Feb. 3 in Saudi Arabia. The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, allegedly by operatives close to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, leaves Pelley with a critical decision.

If he were to cancel the event, the economic impact would felt by the tour, its players and Saudi tournament organizers, plus future relationships with potential sponsors in the region. The Saudi International is scheduled to be the third of a trio of Middle East events in consecutive weeks.

If Pelley decides to carry on with business as usual, it could send a message that would reverberate throughout the golf world that he and the tour are willing to turn a blind eye to the slaying of a Washington Post contributing columnist.

It’s a particularly troublesome spot in which to be. Of course, the signing of the contract for the Saudi International occurred well before this tragic news out of Istanbul, about 450 miles north of Belek, the site of this week’s European Tour event, the Turkish Airlines Open. But Pelley no doubt will be scrutinized by not only the golf world’s leaders but by people well outside the game.

"It's a difficult decision. I'm sure it was not taken lightly," Ireland’s Padraig Harrington told Phil Casey of The Irish Independent. "The European Tour, like a lot of people, are trying to build relationships around the world and looking to move forward.

"Then, of course, the question comes when you go to something like this: Are you helping by going or by not going? Are you pushing them away and making society poorer and weaker and less open by shutting them out?

"It's an age-old question and probably for a lot more qualified people than me to know if it's a good or a bad thing.”

The rest of the European Tour schedule is more straightforward and much less problematic. The BMW PGA Championship, the tour’s flagship event, moves from May to September in response to the PGA Championship’s shift to May from August on the PGA Tour calendar.

The thinking was that the PGA Tour schedule ends in August, and a shift to September for the BMW PGA would attract more of Europe’s top players as they pursue the Race to Dubai, which ends next November at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.

The Rolex Series events begin with the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in January and include the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at legendary Lahinch and the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open at the Renaissance Club in North Berwick, which come in back-to-back weeks immediately before the British Open in July. That’s two events on links courses before the Open at Royal Portrush in Ireland.

In addition to the BMW PGA, the Italian Open, the Turkish Airlines Open and the Nedbank Golf Challenge join the DP World as the Rolex Series events.

The British Masters, which with the BMW PGA will be the only tournaments to be held in England, was said to be in serious danger of falling off the schedule. It was saved when England’s Tommy Fleetwood stepping up to host the event, which will be held at Hillside Golf Club, in Fleetwood’s hometown of Southport.

Strangely enough, the French Open has been moved to October and lost its Rolex Series designation. It’s particularly head-scratching given the wildly successful Ryder Cup at Le Golf National near Paris five weeks ago.

However, given the emotional weight that Pelley is carrying around these days, the French Open might be the last thing on his mind.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf