Keith Pelley steers tour through pandemic, an alliance with PGA Tour, a new global era and toward a Ryder Cup unlike any other
Keith Pelley has been the chief executive of the European Tour since 2015. In that time, he has elevated the tour’s status, including the establishment of the Rolex Series, increasing purses and events, innovative promotion of the tour by social media and now directing the tour through the COVID-19 pandemic, which included creating numerous new events.
Pelley sat down with Morning Read’s Alex Miceli earlier this month at the Saudi International, a 3-year-old event that has grown in stature quickly as European Tour and PGA Tour players compete in the Middle East.
Some of the answers to the questions have been edited for brevity but retained the context of the response.
Alex Miceli: How long can you keep this up? Under the current health scenario, adding in the variants and everything else that are involved with this pandemic, this isn't going to end in 2021.
KEITH PELLEY: Well, what you can't do is continue to speculate what will happen. You just have to keep monitoring the situation on a daily basis, and it is all about scenario planning and having a number of different options. For me, it's utilizing some of the critical players that we have on our board, Thomas Bjorn and our tournament committee, David Howell, who are still playing here, spending time in the player lounge, and then making decisions about it. COVID will tell you that you have to be decisive and you have to be agile and you have to be able to react quickly. That's what it will teach you. And in order to do that, you need phenomenal people around you, have to be able to listen to different opinions and then evaluate and make a decision. And not all your decisions are going to be right, but being decisive is critical because time is of the essence and it happens quickly. And we learned that in last March, and now it just is moving at a completely different pace.
The whole challenge this year seems to be what's going to happen in travel restrictions and quarantine. The biggest challenge for us still is the fact that we play in so many different countries, and we have so many players that are different nationalities that want to get home. I'm not sure if you have heard the Ryan Fox story. Ryan Fox has to get Sunday night to Dubai to get on a flight first thing Monday to New Zealand, and if he misses that, based on the protocol, he can't get home until May, and he's got a 6-week-old baby. [China’s] Ashun Wu has got an early flight; he's got to get home to see his baby. Now, 13 chairs are all set up; 13 South Africans yesterday, and there was one caddie it took him 72 hours to get home because he kept getting canceled and diverted and a lot of different ways.
So, we now have people in our travel area to deal with the different questions and provide as much information.
The other key is to be as transparent as possible. Understanding that all the information that you give people, players, and caddies is not always going to be the information they want to hear, but they have got to hear the information still and the decision that you've made. So, how long can you keep it up? We've had some terrific partners broadcast and partners that have not only stayed with us but stepped up and supported us, and we'll keep it up as long as we possibly can. We have done 24,000 PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests with players and caddies and have had seven positives. So, we have played 30 tournaments in 13 countries; something like that – 27 last year, and we'll be up to 30. We have created 15 or 16 from scratch. This year, we raised the purses on the ones that we have created from scratch. So, yeah, we're trying hard. It's not easy, though. I've done a lot of difficult things through my career, but nothing compares. Nothing. And I think that's the same for everyone. Same for your job. It's different countries, the travel. Take, for example, Jason Scrivener, who finished second in Abu Dhabi. His wife's 33 weeks' pregnant. He's not getting home until March 17th in Australia. That's tough. It's tough on the players. But you just have to stay positive, and if you're not resilient, then you will fail, and if you're not constantly willing to adapt and even follow a lot of ideas and suggestions that are not yours. It's a test that you need resilience, for sure. So, the answer is, as long as we need. As long as it takes.
AM: You had looked in the past at going to the Trump course in Aberdeen, Scotland, and almost signed a deal and then didn't because some comments that then-President Donald Trump had made. Then, most recently, there was something coming out from the R&A that [CEO] Martin Slumbers has said he doesn't see them going to Turnberry while the name Trump is on the buildings or he's involved in the event in any way. Do you feel the same way?
KP: We're in a different position, based on the fact that we have no events involving Trump courses on our 2021 schedule or our 2022 schedule. So, it's not a discussion point at any time right now. We haven't had a discussion internally, and we haven't had a discussion externally, so I don't see it in the foreseeable future.
AM: Turkey was a popular event that is not on the schedule this year or last year. What is the situation with Turkey, and do you foresee going back there in the future?
KP: Turkey is a prime destination for golfers and for tourism golf, and some of the resorts are first class; the golf courses are first class. Turkish Airlines is our partner, and as soon as they're ready to come back, I said, ‘Well, you let us know and we'll be ready to discuss an event again in Turkey.’
Turkey is missing an opportunity, because we went to Cyprus and we showcased Cyprus, and we're going to Gran Canaria and we're going to Tenerife. Those resorts could benefit from the work that we could bring there.
(Miceli's note: In 2019, Turkish Airlines was struggling to commit to European Tour sponsorship for 2020. Many journalists who have covered the Turkish Airlines Open thought the event would not take place in 2020, but then Turkish Airlines committed for one more year. Once COVID hit, the airline immediately pulled out. The financial situation is such in Turkey that the government and the airline reportedly fell behind in payments on some debts, and sources indicate that the European Tour is still owed money for past Turkish Opens. Pelley would not comment on the situation.)
AM: Broadly, can you explain the relationship with the PGA Tour?
KP: Well, I can tell you emphatically that it is working even closer than we were before. Everyone now really understands that it is a partnership. There is no question. And maybe that's because there is a financial investment, because everything that we do and everything that they do, I am so wildly impressed and excited with the communications and how we are working together.
I'll give you an example that even something along the lines – and we didn't ask them to do this – our “Angry Golfers” [video]. They posted [a link] on their social sites, and then the next thing you know, we’re up to 3 million views. That never would have have happened before. We have a number of strong work streams working. In a COVID year, you can't meet face-to-face, and meeting face-to-face is always better, but that's changed. I said that our competitor became our partner, and I meant it. I just didn't think it would happen this quickly and that we would cooperate and work together on every single aspect of our business on both sides and both parties.
I passed that along to all our people, and obviously [PGA Tour commissioner] Jay Monahan has done it, as well. So, very optimistic. There's nothing concrete that we can tell you, but we are promoting, our production people are talking, our marketing people are talking, our commercial people are talking, scheduling people are talking.
AM: Does it help that Stu Nicol [the managing director of European Tour Live TV] used to be at the PGA Tour [as head of programming]?
KP: There's nobody that understands the inner workings of the European Tour and the PGA Tour better than Stu. He's the only employee that has worked at a senior level at both organizations. He's a terrific asset.
AM: Could you see, down the road, the FedEx Cup expanding to Europe?
KP: I can. Every concept, every idea is on the table. Every really good idea comes with the need for a strong execution plan. When you start building your execution plan, you find your challenges and such. But if there's a way to find a way to build global golf, which is what our mandate is, it's for us to make the game and the professional game better, and we'll find a way to do it.
AM: This isn't a PGA Tour thing; this would be more of a PGA of America thing. American players don't get Ryder Cup points when they play overseas versus European players under your points structure get credit when they play in the United States. Would you try to push that, change that?
KP: Well, I think that's a conversation. I don't think it is unilaterally a conversation that we need to have. I think it's a conversation with the PGA Tour and the PGA of America. In the last couple of days, I've been in the player lounge for hours, and 90 percent of the questions have been around schedule and travel, but 10 percent have been around the PGA Tour. Of those 10 percent, I would say a good solid half of that have been suggestions and questions. And there is something that you just brought up – it's a new one; I hadn't contemplated that. But what I can tell you is, the PGA of America and the PGA Tour would both need to be involved in that conversation. It's never been discussed. That doesn't mean it can't be, but it just never has.
AM: It's more likely now that we're going to have a Ryder Cup with a limited fan base. How do you think that will help or hurt the event?
KP: Well, it's interesting with the limited fan base. In Dubai [in late January], there was a limited fan base. A limited fan base is much louder than I ever remembered them before. We played so many tournaments last year that our starter would introduce the player, and I was the only one clapping. So, by the end of it, I get some of our staff around and we would, for the final group on Sunday, we would all try to get 10 people around and clap. Now, you even have a small group – and that's what we had in Dubai – it provided really much better atmosphere than I thought. And it was really noticeable in the speech by Paul Casey, after his victory, when there were people in the hospitality, and it wasn't even remotely at the same level that it would have been in a normal year. But it still added the atmosphere. So, I honestly believe that maybe we have become accustomed to having no fans, so any fans and any noise is a real welcome addition to the tournament. So, the Ryder, anything's possible, but it's probably highly unlikely that it will feature the roars of yesteryear, but any type of roar will be greatly appreciated, and that's what we learned. You have to look at the opportunities, and this is where I really hat's off to Augusta [National Golf Club]. Augusta played [the Masters] behind closed doors, and what they did is played with no roars. Drones and overhead cameras showcased the golf course like never before and showed some beauty like never before. Maybe the ability to have limited fans would provide us some opportunities from a television perspective to capture moments that we have never captured before, because crowds have been there and we haven't been able to get different camera angles. So, we're looking at everything, but you have to look at every challenge as an opportunity. Limited fans is much better than I anticipated it would be. Any fans are better than no fans.
AM: Are you potentially looking at an alternate COVID list, if in fact a player on either Ryder Cup team comes down with the virus, or his caddie?
KP: That's the scenario planning. It's the same thing as I gave you at the beginning with Ryan Fox. If Ryan Fox is prohibited to travel back for an event and he can't be penalized, so we have to have a way of looking at giving him some type of reprieve. It's all about being fair. Those conversations are ongoing, and without getting into the detail, I think we're looking at everything as far as scenario planning.
AM: How is Italy looking for Ryder Cup? Does it help that you got an extra year?
KP: The golf course [Marco Simone, near Rome] is ready to open; it's getting really close. We're just determining a date right now. We would have a full plan, inviting everybody to see it. We're excited about having the Italian Open this year. You've been here before in Saudi at Royal Greens. You were here the first year. Talked to the players about the golf course the first year; you talk to the players about the golf course now. They will say it's filled in. It's matured. It has its legs. That's what the delay in the Ryder Cup has done. We have opened it the exact same time, but now it has a chance to grow. It's the best course in Italy by a country mile, and that's exciting. It has been a challenge finding a golf course at the level that we needed in Italy for the Italian Open. So, we're really excited about it.
AM: In the equipment release from the R&A and the USGA, they said that they had been in contact with stakeholders, which I'm assuming you knew it was coming. But what was interesting is usually when the stakeholders are in support of something, they all will line up together and there will be numerous press releases coming out from everybody. There was nothing said from you, the PGA Tour or one equipment company about what the USGA and the R&A have come up with. I know that you're always willing to listen, but?
KP: Well, has the decision been made? If there was a decision made, then perhaps you would have, but we're in the comment stage. The way I look at it is, the USGA and the R&A are our partners and their role is to do exactly what they are: evaluating all facets of the game. The relationship that the six of us developed during the COVID period will serve us well during this time. We will follow closely, speak behind closed doors with our respective partners, not make any comment public, not give any opinion at this particular time because it's not our position to do so, and I feel very strongly on that because that would defeat the purpose of what we're trying to do. When it comes time to make the announcement, all the comments have been evaluated. We are in contact with them all the time, with the USGA and the R&A. They call it the comments; we call it the listening stage. That's the role. You have to put out some type of concepts and ideas and thoughts to generate the comments. That's what it is. I have no opinion on any of the rules and regulations at this particular time.
AM: Just to clarify, we won't know what your comments are or your thoughts are until after they finally announce it?
KP: Well, I hope we're all aligned.
AM: The French Open, what's interesting about that is not too long ago, Pascal [Grizot, the president of the French Golf Association] had some completely different thoughts about the European Tour coming out of the Ryder Cup. How has that changed?
KP: Well, that would probably be a question for Pascal. Listen, I have the utmost respect for Pascal. He's the president of the golf federation, and he combines an entrepreneurial spirit with passion for the game like no other, and we're indebted to him for what he did for the Ryder Cup in 2018. We have now spent the last couple of months working and striking what I call a solid partnership as we will build for the future. The past is the past, and we're moving forward.
AM: Oddly, the sponsor of that event has left and gone to Evian?
KP: Yes, that's correct. And that was the predominant reason why we had delayed the announcement. There are very few partners that stay in events over the global period in one sport and one event for a long time. They're always moving around, depending upon senior management and also different audiences and different reach. The great thing about the decision is they're staying in our game and they're staying in golf, so that is the first thing. But that's why we had not put it on the original [schedule] announcement, because we have always wanted the French Open. It's got three things going for it right now. It's an iconic city in Paris; it's got a world-class golf course [Le Golf National]; and you got a boom right now happening with the young French players. You have 13 that have qualified for the French Open, and all 13 have said, yes, they're playing. So, those three things make it a tournament we must have on our schedule. Whatever differences that we had, those are in the past, and we are now only looking forward to the future. We have struck a really good relationship, and now we're in the strategic planning and building. Players want to go there. Wives want to go to the city. The golf course is spectacular. That's really two of the key things: golf course for the players, the city. It's a world-class city and a world-class golf course. We have to be there.
AM: One last thing: Premier Golf League?
KP: PGL, yeah. Yeah. I've heard of it.
AM: So, obviously you and the tour have your position on this, and I don't think it's changed at all, has it?
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