A Casualty Of The PGA Tour vs. LIV Battle, Is The European Tour's Time As A Top-Level Circuit Over?
Questions about the Other Tour have become commonplace at PGA Tour press conferences. Gone are the days when, in the words of longtime Associated Press golf writer Doug Ferguson, tour officials would go "batty" when media dared to ask about the Masters, a tournament outside their umbrella. Now, the enemy is openly discussed. The word LIV was used 23 times in commissioner Jay Monahan's press conference at The Players Championship on Tuesday.
This week, however, there were a number of questions about yet another circuit: the DP World Tour, the new corporate-sponsorey name for the old European Tour.
Back in November 2020, the PGA Tour and the European Tour announced a "strategic alliance" that would see the world's two biggest tours collaborate closer than they ever had. The move was widely seen as a proactive measure to strengthen the establishment in its upcoming battle with the challenger, LIV Golf. Beyond the PGA Tour pumping $100 million into European Tour Productions, details of what exactly the alliance would mean for both sides were sparse. They'd work together on "commercial opportunities" and the like. Corporate speak.
The following August, with rumors of LIV growing ever louder, they hashed out some specifics: there would be three co-sanctioned events, and some European Tour events would receive an increase in prize money. Then, in July of 2022, with LIV officially up and running, the two sides leaned even closer together—the top 10 finishers on the European Tour's season-long points race who don't already have one would receive PGA Tour cards.
That, then, was an official acknowledgement of a long-standing trend that LIV hastened: that the proud European Tour, which bred Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer, could no longer lay a serious claim to being a top-level tour. If the best players from your tour leave, you get the dreaded label: feeder tour. It's a difficult pill to swallow.
"I'll be honest, there is a definite sadness," says Matt Fitzpatrick, who won seven times on the European Tour before winning last year's U.S. Open. "I don't think the strategic alliance has been that useful. I don't feel like there's been enough help given to Europe.
"That's disappointing. No offense to Dallas, or random places int he U.S. that you're playing a generic golf course, that's not a patch on playing a golf course in Rome. That's not a patch on playing a golf course in Switzerland."
Not a patch on, as I learned, is British for "doesn't hold a candle too." Fitzpatrick might be a bit biased with Switzerland, as he's a two-time winner of the Omega European Masters, which is played at stunning Crans-Montana in the Swiss Alps. But his point is a valid one: the balance of power in world golf has shifted form the Romes of the world to the Dallases. LIV certainly sped up the process, but it's not like the European Tour was swimming in cash before this strategic alliance. Which is why some European Tour players were furious when Keith Pelley, the European Tour commissioner, reportedly turned down a massive influx of money from the Saudis.
“I think the worst decision we ever made on the European Tour was not signing with the Saudis," is what Sean Crocker, a 26-year-old American playing the European Tour, told me at last year's U.S. Open. “I think that’s absolutely ruined our tour because we can’t fight the Saudis, and we can’t fight the PGA Tour, so we’re going to be a backburner tour in the next two years. I think our best opportunity to thrive as a tour was with the Saudis."
Instead, Pelley opted to lean closer to Ponte Vedra Beach. A number of top European Tour players took matters into their own hands regarding Saudi cash: Lee Westwood signed with LIV less than two years after winning the European Tour's Race to Dubai. Sergio Garcia signed. So did Ian Poulter, Paul Casey, Laurie Canter, Martin Kaymer, Richard Bland, Sam Horsfield, Thomas Pieters, Henrik Stenson, and Bernd Wiesberger. While LIV players are still, pending ongoing litigation, allowed to play European Tour events, they're also required to play LIV events, which frequently conflict. They also don't need the money. Sergio Garcia, for one, withdrew from the BMW PGA Championship last year's because he "didn't feel welcome."
So, to review: a bunch of the best players went to LIV, and a bunch of the best players left for the PGA Tour. That's weakened the field of the rank-and-file European Tour event considerably. Compounding that problem is recent changes to the Official World Golf Ranking that got rid of minimum point totals for winning events on certain tours. Winning a European Tour event used to guarantee 24 world ranking points no matter who was playing. The winner of this week's Magical Kenya Open, for comparison, will receive just 14.
As such, getting into the top 50 in the world rankings—which is still the magic number for major-championship qualification—by playing solely on the European Tour is much, much harder than it used to be. Not impossible, as Ryan Fox will tell you, but harder. And it's only going to get more difficult with the PGA Tour's top players competing 16 times in mega events, with mega points. It's why someone like Aaron Rai, born and bred in England, felt no choice but to move his life overseas to advance his career.
"I'll be honest, it wasn't a big goal that I had to move to America," says Rai. "For me, I always viewed the European Tour and the PGA Tour as both the top two tours in the world. One's based on this side of the world, one's based on the other. My route was always try to progress through the European ranks. But the main focus for me has been trying to improve my golf and to compete against the best. And the process has happened quite naturally where I performed well in Europe, which got me into a few events out here, did well enough to get into Korn Ferry Finals, which was an amazing opportunity to try to earn status out here. It happened quite organically.
"After earning my PGA Tour card, I very much wanted to figure out what is required out here. What the level is like, what the conditions are like, what kind of shots I need to develop and how I can become competitive over here. It's a different style of golf to what we play in the U.K. and what we play in Europe as well. At first, because the U.K. has been my home my whole life, I'd gravitate toward going back there on a week off. But going into 2022, just the level, the nature of the golf out here, the facilities that we have out here, the weather, which is very different, it's so much easier on my body, on time zones. I can then translate my practice more into tournament golf. The table is stacked not against, but there are more things to have to overcome if you live in Europe. It's doable, but it makes it harder."
That's the new model, it seems, for top European players who don't make the move to LIV. Eventually, they'll make their way over here, typically settling in Orlando (Tyrrell Hatton), Jacksonville (Rai) or the Jupiter area (Rory McIlroy, Matt Fitzpatrick, Viktor Hovland). It's easy to see why European Tour lifers like Lee Westwood don't find much strategy in the strategic alliance.
He tweeted his thoughts: "So.. Do away with the WGC’s. Load the OWGR in your favour. Create 10 limited field events for just PGA tour members (like WGC’s). Add to that 4 majors, Players, FedEx cup. That’s a full schedule for a top player. That’s growing the game. What Strategic Alliance?"
It's why a number of European journalists sought an explanation from Monahan on Tuesday. Predictably, he defended his organization's actions.
"We're spending a lot of time looking at the DP World Tour schedule and opportunities that we have going forward. I'm not going to comment on those today, but when you look at what has happened over the last couple of years, when you look at this year, you know, the DP World Tour is playing for $141 million in prize funds, which we are underpinning. We have made a $100 million investment in European Tour Productions. We as a team are rolling up our sleeves and working with Keith and his team every single day on that important part of the DP World Tour's business.
"I think what we've done from a co-sanctioning standpoint at Genesis, the two crossover opportunities we have with Barbasol, Barracuda, if you look at their —if you look at the portfolio of sponsors and you look at those that share a relationship with the PGA TOUR and DP World Tour, our sponsors are interested in partnering with the DP World Tour."
You'll notice that, in trying to underscore the growth of the European Tour, Monahan spoke only in the context of the PGA Tour. They can play in our events! They can use our sponsors! We're underpinning their purses! He could be talking about the Korn Ferry Tour for the same price.
Now, players on the European Tour have a more direct path to the PGA Tour and its ever-growing riches. That's what Rory McIlroy stressed—that all these changes are better for the actual golfers. But the tour itself? The unfortunate truth is that, for decades, the golfing ecosystem has only been able to support two truly top-tier tours. One of those tours has stayed put. The other has been replaced.