Popularity is a science of diminishing returns. Ask, for example, 20 people in your office their thoughts on a given co-worker and it’s inevitable that someone will have something negative to say, no matter how popular said co-worker may be.
Keith Pelley, however, appears to be the mathematical exception to that rule, at least if an unofficial poll of players, coaches, caddies and managers two weeks ago during the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship is any indication.
Pelley was named the European Tour’s new chief executive officer last April and in less than a year the Canadian has shaken the circuit in all the right ways.
“It’s impressive how much energy he has and the ideas he’s brought to the table,” said Chubby Chandler, the founder of International Sports Management, one of Europe’s most influential agencies.
Late last year, Pelley spearheaded a move to reduce the minimum number of starts required for European Tour membership from 13 (including the World Golf Championships and majors) to five (excluding the World Golf Championship and majors).
With the exception of Paul Casey – who correctly contends that for a top player who is exempt into the WGCs and majors the minimum number really didn’t change – the move was widely applauded.
Pelley followed with a sweeping overhaul of the tour’s pace of play policy that was unveiled two weeks ago in Abu Dhabi. A telling part of his popularity is why Pelley put the bull’s-eye on five hour-plus rounds.
“I told you we were going to tackle the challenge. As I’ve said all along, this is a member’s organization and I tried to solicit as much feedback as I could from the members,” Pelley recently said. “We continue to work with our players and the R&A in other ways in making our game quicker.”
The new commish wants to trim 15 minutes off the average tour round in Europe because, well, that’s what his members want.
The same could be said for Pelley’s push to allow players to wear shorts during practice and pro-am rounds.
“I asked the question, why don’t we wear shorts? And no one could give me an answer why not,” Pelley said. “It puts our players first and our fans first, as well.”
It was a similar motivation that prompted Pelley to dig in last year when the PGA Tour unveiled it’s 2016 schedule with the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, a co-sanctioned event, penciled in the same week as the French Open in July. To protect the French Open and organizers at Le Golf National, which will host the 2018 Ryder Cup, Pelley removed the Bridgestone from the European schedule and offered players double Ryder Cup points to play the French Open.
But it’s more than the recent transatlantic tiff that suggests the divide between the two tours has never been so vast, and much of that is the byproduct of Pelley’s leadership style.
Pelley is a player’s commissioner. Particularly when compared to Tim Finchem, who at times throughout his career has appeared to be more concerned with protecting the PGA Tour brand than the individuals who play under that shield.
“Hearing player feedback is something I take very serious,” Pelley said.
The new European chief leads by consensus but make no mistake he wants to lead, whether that’s with a progressive style of management or via a bottom line that more closely aligns his circuit with the PGA Tour.
Pelley explained to The Guardian last year his desire to challenge the status of the PGA Tour and the lucrative purses that set the standard in professional golf: “[The BMW PGA Championship] is €5 million [about $5.5 million]. The other event, in the U.S. that week, is $6.7 million,” he said. “That’s unacceptable. Wentworth needs to be $8 million - $10 million.”
Closing that cash gap depends largely on Pelley’s ability to convince sponsors his product is comparable to that in the United States on a more regular basis.
On just seven occasions last year the European Tour enjoyed a stronger field, at least according to the Official World Golf Ranking, than the same week’s PGA Tour stop, starting with Abu Dhabi.
The European Tour had a higher total rating at the BMW PGA Championship (played opposite the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial), Irish Open (AT&T Byron Nelson Championship), Scottish Open (John Deere Classic) and the circuit’s final two playoff events (BMW Masters and DP World Tour Championship).
The point is, the European side rarely enjoys center stage – one could argue the Continent is the main attraction every four years at the Ryder Cup as well, but that’s a column for another day – and Pelley has made it a point to give his tour more chances to compete.
Those calling the shots in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., have noticed Pelley’s outside-the-box approach, starting with his move to allow players to wear shorts.
“They asked where we were going with it,” European Tour chief rules official John Paramor said in Abu Dhabi.
Pelley has also broken with the PGA Tour when it comes to player fines, which in the U.S. are strictly confidential with the exception of violations of the circuit’s policy regarding performance-enhancing drugs.
“We have nothing to hide,” Pelley said. “It is not only a penalty from a monetary perspective, you won’t want to see, and your peers won’t want to see someone be fined. Nobody likes to be highlighted for slow play and I think this is a deterrent for that.”
The European circuit has another chance to take the spotlight from the PGA Tour this week with the Dubai Desert Classic, which will include world No. 2 Rory McIlroy and No. 6 Henrik Stenson. Last year, the Waste Management Phoenix Open narrowly clipped Dubai in the world ranking math, 394 total points to 330.
Despite the differences and divergent paths taken by each tour, it’s probably not an all-out turf war that concerns PGA Tour officials – the circuit is far too entrenched for that –as much as it is the emerging perception that Pelley and Co. are becoming the game’s trendsetters.