Northern Irishman says the coronavirus pandemic should provide the impetus for the PGA Tour and European Tour to simplify the business of golf, for the good of the professional game
In a month, the European Tour will get back to competition with the first tournament on its six-event “U.K. Swing.” The combined purses will be less than the $7.5 million at stake this week at the PGA Tour’s Charles Schwab Challenge.
Two weeks ago, the European Tour announced the U.K. Swing in England and Wales, beginning July 22 at the €1.25 million (about $1.42 million) Betfred British Masters hosted by Lee Westwood. The other five events, all sponsored by the tour, will feature purses of €1 million (about $1.14 million).
It’s not unusual for European Tour events to offer smaller purses than those on the PGA Tour, but this dramatic disparity has to give anyone pause, especially Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy, 31, a four-time major champion from Northern Ireland, is No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking and a member of both tours. He resides primarily in Jupiter, Fla., and has spent the time off from the coronavirus pandemic in Florida, not in his native Holywood in suburban Belfast.
At his core, McIlroy is a European, so he wants to see his home tour survive this pandemic-fueled economic downturn.
“Of course, I'm concerned,” McIlroy said on Wednesday at Colonial, where he will be the oddsmakers’ favorite to win his 19th PGA Tour title. “It's not great when they're having to do things and they're taking such a financial hit because of the coronavirus and this pandemic. So, am I concerned? Yes. But I don't know what else I can do. I don't feel like I'm responsible for the health of the tour. I'm a player; I play on the tour, and I'm very grateful for the opportunity that they've provided me over the years.”
McIlroy said the pandemic highlighted the fact that the business of golf needs to be simplified at the highest levels, because there are too many channels.
“The major-championship organizations and the bigger governing bodies in the game of golf have realized that there's so many moving parts, and I think more cohesion in the game is better,” McIlroy said. “I'm not saying that it's been a good thing, but at the same time, I think it's opened some people's eyes up to the fact that we can all sort of work a little bit better together in this world.”
Keith Pelley, the European Tour’s chief executive, said June 2 on the McKellar Golf Podcast that his organization has been affected by the pandemic but thinks the tour is in a position to regain its recent momentum. In the past five years, he said, the tour has expanded its tournament schedule and purses.
“As a result, we have been able to increase our prize funds by 15 to 20 million [dollars] per annum for our players,” Pelley said of the five-year tour expansion. “I do get a kick over some people thinking that we were going to go bankrupt, because that’s not going to happen. And I had quite a chuckle over people saying it’s essential for the European Tour to merge with the PGA Tour to survive financially, and I would say absolutely not with that.”
Pelley concedes that the landscape for his tour is challenging, and he adds that he holds a good relationship with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. Pelley said they have talked a lot about the future, without committing to anything.
At the same time, McIlroy has been calling for more cooperation between the world’s two main men’s professional tours. That could be a merger or, short of a formal alliance, some sort of pact that would make the lives of the dozens of players who compete on both tours easier to navigate.
“For the health of both tours, a world tour is something I've always wanted, but it had to be done the right way,” said McIlroy, who declined an interest earlier this year in the proposed Premier Golf League. “The PGL coming in and trying to do it their way wasn't the right thing, so trying to make change from within the game already and not letting an outsider come in is the right way to do it. I'd be supportive of that, for sure.”
The PGL, backed by an upstart group out of London, was all the rage earlier this year but seemingly has lost momentum because of the pandemic and many top players’ declining to risk their careers for a quick payday.
Instead, the fact that the PGL was being debated among elite players and the media earlier this year, before the pandemic shut down the professional game, has shined a light on the benefits of consolidation at the game’s highest levels. Those recent developments could push the game’s leaders toward that end.
“Whether it's some European Tour events offering FedEx Cup points and some PGA Tour events offering Race to Dubai points, I don't know,” said McIlroy, noting potential common ground. “But, yeah, just a little bit more cohesion, and then, I think, as well, trying to figure out the schedule going forward this year. The major bodies – USGA, R&A, Masters, PGA of America – they're thinking about one or two weeks a year, and speaking to the PGA Tour, speaking to the European Tour, having everyone together and trying to figure this out has definitely opened some people's eyes to what actually goes on and how many moving parts there is. So, I think the more that all these bodies can sort of work together for the greater good of game can only be a good thing.”
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