Friday 9 April 2021 7:30 am

Keith Pelley interview: European Tour chief on PGA Tour alliance, why 2021 is even tougher than 2020, and when fans can return to golf

Since 14 April 2020, Keith Pelley has been getting used to a new way of starting each day.

At 7:45am the chief executive of golf’s European Tour dials into a conference call with 14 colleagues to discuss which tournaments are on, which are off and need replacing at short notice, and which hang in the balance due to ever-changing Covid-19 rates around the world.

After that, the 57-year-old gets on his Peloton exercise bike. Early in the pandemic, Pelley read that getting in shape was the best way to cope with what would be coming professionally and personally. The Canadian has lost 10 to 12 lbs. The workout also gives him time to think.

Read more: Sam Torrance Masters 2021 preview: The five players I expect to challenge at Augusta – and why I’d love to see Rory McIlroy or Lee Westwood triumph

Pelley has had plenty to chew over during the past year: kick-starting the European Tour following a fourth-month hiatus, including creating 15 new events from scratch, and weighing up the relative merits of a tie-up with the PGA Tour and a blockbusting offer to become partners in the breakaway Premier Golf League (PGL).  

“From a work perspective, it has undeniably been the busiest, most challenging time I’ve ever had,” Pelley tells City A.M. “The thoughts of the business never leave you.”

The European Tour’s existential decision

For most of 2020, Pelley was juggling the immediate concerns of day-to-day tournament operations with a long-term, existential decision over who the European Tour would be best served by getting into bed with.

The PGL, backed by US private equity house Raine Capital, brought matters to a head by tabling what Pelley calls “a show-stopping offer” in July – reported to be worth £150m.

A partnership with the European Tour would have provided the PGL with the clout and talent pipeline to get off the ground. For the Tour, it would have represented a significant gamble on PGL’s success while placing it in more aggressive competition with its richer transatlantic rival, the PGA Tour.

Pelley and PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, meanwhile, had long discussed greater collaboration. PGL’s offer hurried the PGA Tour into making a counter-proposal, and in November a “strategic alliance” between the two tours was announced, to no little surprise.

The deal saw Monahan join the European Tour board and the PGA Tour take a minority stake in their counterparts’ successful media production arm. It also shut out PGL for the foreseeable future.

“Overnight the PGA Tour went from being competitors to partners,” says Pelley. “It was the right decision for our tour, global golf and the consumer. I’m excited about what the future holds.”

Talks with PGA Tour ‘frank and unguarded’

Exactly what this alliance will mean is still unknown – remarkably, even to Pelley himself.

The common consensus is there will be co-sanctioned tournaments and greater cooperation over scheduling. He says the first changes are likely to be in 2022. Some believe it is the first step towards an inevitable unified elite tour. 

“I think anything is possible. We are in the infancy stages of the conversation,” he says. “I won’t get into speculation on what can and cannot happen. I just know both sides are willing and it comes back to what is best for our respective memberships and our sport.” 

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has joined the European Tour board as part of their recent "strategic alliance"
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan (right) has joined the European Tour board as part of their recent “strategic alliance” (Getty Images)

Four months after agreeing the deal, Pelley met Monahan face to face for the first time at last month’s Players Championship in Florida.

The former TV reporter turned media and sport executive has remained in the US to attend the Masters this week and says his dialogue with Monahan has been “frank, open and unguarded”. “The deal may be light on detail but it is not light on planning because our teams are in constant conversation.” 

How the European Tour fought through 2020

Pelley has previously rubbished suggestions the PGA deal was hurried through out of financial necessity. The European Tour furloughed staff, made some redundant and borrowed £30m from the government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme last year.

Its most recent accounts, filed in November, noted that “2020 has seen significant market disruption but cash remains strong”. “Our balance sheet has probably never been stronger,” he says. 

Keeping the show going came at a financial cost, however. Pelley is justifiably proud that, after resuming in July, the tour ran uninterrupted for 27 consecutive weeks.

All but four of those weeks were European Tour-run tournaments and 15 of them had to be created from scratch due to other cancellations. The bill ran to “£35m-£40m”, plus almost £5m on making the events Covid-secure – with no ticket or hospitality sales to compensate.

“We had a choice,” he says. “We could have shut it down for three or four months but we said no, we’re going to find a way to play.”

Hopes for 15k fans at BMW PGA Championship

While the UK is slowly reopening society, the picture is very different elsewhere – and it continues to cause obvious problems for a travelling show that visits 24 countries. This week, the Open de France was cancelled with barely a month’s notice.

“2020 was a daunting and difficult year, but 2021 is proving to be potentially even more challenging,” says Pelley, who took up his post in 2015. “One of our greatest advantages is our diversity. That, undeniably, is also our biggest challenge.”

Pelley hopes to welcome back spectators by the time the European Tour's flagship event is held in September
Pelley hopes to welcome back spectators by the time the European Tour’s flagship event is held in September (Getty Images)

Pelley is optimistic that, by autumn, there will be spectators at European Tour events again, perhaps in time for the tour’s flagship event at Wentworth in early September. “At the BMW PGA Championship I’m really hoping we have a great crowd, 10-15,000.”

He expects a similar number at the Ryder Cup in Wisconsin later that month. “We miss the fans and we’re ready as soon as we get the green light.”

‘We need Plans A, B, C, D and E’

For the rest of this year, Pelley has a simple, pragmatic goal. “It’s safe to say the schedule we’re planning will not be the one we end up playing,” he says.

“But I’m committed to playing every single week on our schedule. That means we need Plans A, B, C, D and E.” Tournaments in nearby locations will be played at similar times of year to minimise travel for players. 

After the Masters, Pelley will return to Wentworth. He has often been the only European Tour employee at its headquarters during the pandemic and he is looking forward to a full office again soon. “I miss seeing people,” he says. “It energises you.”

Pelley is a former TV reporter turned media and sport executive who took over at the European Tour in 2015
Pelley is a former TV reporter turned media and sport executive who took over at the European Tour in 2015

His personal life has also been affected, with much more time at home. “I don’t think I’ve ever played so much Uno.” Being unable to visit his 91-year-old mother has been the biggest struggle, he says.

For now, those 7:45am calls will continue. They always finish with a quote, and Pelley found a recent offering by the European Tour’s chief financial officer particularly resonated. “‘You can’t control the uncontrollable’. And it’s true.” 

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