Pelley pulls the strings in European golf's great puppet show

Pelley pulls the strings in European golf's great puppet show
Keith Pelley

Keith Pelley

It's a little after ten-fifteen in the morning and the European Tour's Chief Executive is speaking in hushed, breathy tones.

It's not that walls at Augusta National have ears, but there's a well-known face at every table, and many of them are green-jacketed members discretely chatting in cool, wood-panelled splendour.

Infiltrating the hallowed halls is one of the guilty pleasures that come with a working trip to the Masters Tournament. But in expressing condolences to Keith Pelley on the recent passing of his father, Walter, the conversation turns to what it takes, as CEO of the European Tour, to keep everyone happy.

When it comes to the venue for next year's Irish Open, for instance, how do you please the host Paul McGinley, the tournament sponsor Dubai Duty Free, the top draw Rory McIlroy and the European Tour bean counters, all at the same time? 

How do you deal with JP McManus's dream of hosting the 2026 Ryder Cup in Adare? And what would Pelley's late father, a successful businessman in his own right, have advised him to do?

"My dad? He was the King of Kindness," Pelley says. "He was a super guy, but that's the circle of life... the circle of life...

"He certainly led by example and was a great leader in business. He really was calm in dealing with stressful situations. To be honest, I'd love to be a little more like him."

Keeping calm when you are trying to compete with the biggest professional golf tour in the world — the PGA Tour — cannot be easy. 

But Pelley knows he has the tools to build a viable alternative to the monotony of the US circuit for Europe's stable of marquee players, aka, the Ryder Cup stars.

"I am in dialogue with them all the time, sure," Pelley says, speaking so softly that I have to sit forward on the plush sofa to bend a conspiratorial ear. 

"I ask them what works, what doesn't work. So pleasing them? Yes. But it's impossible to do it ever time."

He glances furtively over his shoulder at the former PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, resplendent in his green jacket just a few feet away, leafing through a newspaper.

"As Tim said to me earlier on," he whispers, "if you keep the last member in the rankings happy, you will keep the first member happy. That said, the more our top players can play in Europe, the more beneficial it is to all the members."

In other words, Europe relies heavily on its stars, who decide what they're doing based on what Pelley says is a five-point checklist: World rankings; prize fund; golf course; location; and schedule. 

"I tell our members, 'Every time you see a Ryder Cup player, thank them'," he says. "Thank them for playing the Ryder Cup because it brings so much to the European Tour and it is such a wonderful way of generating revenue and it allows us to fund some of the other tournaments."

The 11th at Adare Manor

The 11th at Adare Manor

Thankfully for Europe, Pelley's creation of the Rolex Series —  a suite of eight elite events (including the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open) offering prize funds of between $7-8.5 million — has kept the stars loyal at key stages of the season.

The next step is to expand that series further and to broaden the tour’s narrow fan base by introducing innovations designed to please kids and families, such as GolfSixes or this year’s Shot Clock Masters.

Add in music on the range and cutting-edge social media promos and you’re at least making some moves on an era when golf is no longer just a sport but entertainment and the Ryder Cup fuels the ship.

As Pelley himself wrote for last year: “If we don't continue to modernise, we're going to be left standing..."

Whether the good ship Ryder Cup sails up the River Maigue in Adare in 2026 is another question. But given the money that's already been invested in the mega-resort, its chances must be good.

Pelley himself is likely to be at the Limerick venue this Friday to see McIlroy and Paul McGinley play Pádraig Harrington and Shane Lowry for charity at the official opening but he insists no Ryder Cup promises have been made to McManus or anyone else.

Sure, the Limerick businessman and philanthropist has made a gargantuan investment in the five-star resort with “guestimates” about the final figure varying wildly from €60 million to well over €100 million.

The new-look course has been built to such high-spec with the 2026 Ryder Cup in mind that it could Augusta National itself with SubAir systems under the greens and 21km of fibre optic cable already installed around the course to make it “tournament ready".

“JP is a wonderful supporter of not only the tour but of golf in general,” Pelley admits when asked about the 2026 Ryder Cup in Limerick. 

"Has JP expressed interest? Absolutely. Have we had conversations? Absolutely. And I have said to him, 'JP, we have to do France first'.

"Are there another couple of groups that have expressed interest? Absolutely. But I literally don't have the bandwidth to seriously look at anything until after France. I am being dead serious."

All that is certain is that the bidding process for the 2026 and 2030 Ryder Cups will be far different to those state-backed bids for 2018 and 2022 when Spain and Germany were bitterly disappointed to lose out to France and Italy.

“We haven’t decided on the process yet but it probably won’t be the same process we’ve had before,” Pelley says, reflecting on the negative aspect that comes with dealing with the losers.

"Although it was probably the right process at the time, to have four federations come in and bid against each other and only one is victorious, and the next day you are calling them [looking for business] it is not a good model to follow.

"So we are deciding what the process will be and whether we want to announce 2026 and 2030 together. We have to decide what region we want to be in and who we want to be partners with. There are so many different variables. 

"We are fortunate that the Ryder Cup is such a proven commodity that can do so much for your business and Gleneagles is the perfect example of that and what transpired after the Ryder Cup with its sale." 

McManus’s dream venue could host the Ryder Cup tomorrow but Pelley's priorities are this year's match in France and other day-to-day business, such as deciding the host venue for the $7m Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in 2019.

The 18th at Adare Manor

The 18th at Adare Manor

Wherever it goes, it appears that 2019 host McGinley's preference for Lahinch is meeting some opposition despite the support he's getting in west Clare and the excellent prospects for its commercial viability.

"It's a complex decision," Pelley said. "If we were to rekindle the English Open we would just say we are going here and this is what we are going to do. 

"But with the host format we have for the Irish Open, the host is the person we go to first. The host has to be happy. 

"The call that's made a minute after the call to the host is to Dubai Duty Free, because the partner has to agree. Theoretically, the partner and host could not be in agreement and that would be problematic. 

"We are getting close to a decision, but you have to bring in the whole marketing perspective and bring in the quality of the golf course, so there are many variables. It is not a simple one. 

"The most important element is the tandem between Dubai Duty Free and the host."

With Portmarnock Links and The European Club potential alternatives to Lahinch, the complexity of the decision is not helped my the north-south hosting commitment and the relative dearth of viable links venues in Northern Ireland compared the Republic with the R&A taking Royal Portrush off the menu (for now).

Whatever is decided with regard to 2019, there is going to be no date swap with the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open, which occupies the choice slot the week before The Open.

"We have contractual obligations with Aberdeen Standard Investment for 2019-20," Pelley says, quashing talk of a pre-Open date swap with the Scots in 2019. 

"So a lot would need to go into that with first of all them deciding they want to switch; which might, in turn, affect NBC who currently carry it.

"The US market is very important for Aberdeen Standard Investments. Could those ever switch down the road? Anything is possible. But currently with the contractual obligation that we have, that decision would be made with Aberdeen Stanard Investment and they have said they'd like to stay the week before The Open."

Keeping the tour ticking along is hard work but Pelley knows that making golf attractive to youngsters is a must.

"The choice overload that the Millennials and Gen-Z have now is just enormous," says Pelley, who has already brought us music on the range, GolfSixes, the Shotclock Masters and host of other innovations.

"So if you are not looking to modify yourself and looking to get better and adjust and make changes, well you're standing still," he says.

JP McManus clearly hasn't stood still in Adare. Whether that's enough to bring the Ryder Cup his way, remains to be seen. But as a man who's seen a few favourites canter home, he knows the value of groundwork.