(Note: This interview was conducted prior to Adam Hadwin’s win Sunday at the Valspar Championship).
Keith Pelley has been at the helm of the European Tour for just 20 months (“a fast 20 months,” he says) but in that time, he’s shaken up professional golf and the European Tour establishment.
The 53-year-old’s ideas – like allowing golfers to wear shorts during practice rounds, playing music on the driving range, and introducing some radical new tournament formats alongside the usual 72-hole stroke play events – have been largely well received.
But the bespectacled Canadian (whose colourful frames have been a talking point in European Tour circles) thinks there is still much more to be done to bring golf to larger, younger audiences.
We recently caught up with Pelley — former president of Rogers Media — over the phone to discuss Tiger Woods, the changes he’s made to the European Tour, Mike Weir’s role in Canadian golf, and his ongoing struggles driving in England.
SN: You’ve been in your role with the European Tour for nearly two years. How has it been going so far?
Pelley: I’m thoroughly enjoying it, thoroughly enjoying the challenge. I’ve learned a lot about the inner workings of the game, and how the industry works and have had an opportunity to spend significant time with our top players and key stakeholders in the game. Every day I learn a little bit more, and every day we get a little bit better.
Have you got many people following the NHL?
I don’t know if there are a lot of National Hockey League fans (laughs). But I keep correcting people almost every day that it’s just ‘hockey’ and not ‘ice hockey.’
Have you picked a soccer team to support yet?
I have not selected a team yet, nor has my 14-year-old. And we don’t know if we’re going to (laughs). Right now we’ve experienced all kinds of different European sports. We like the rugby, we like the Twenty20 Cricket, we like football (soccer), but we haven’t selected one team. If we did, it would probably be in Scotland, and it would be Dundee F.C.
You’ve come in with a ton of big and different ideas. What has been the reaction to those ideas?
Our players, I’m in conversation with them frequently and they’ve been very supportive of everything we’ve been trying to do on the European Tour. They’ve been incredibly supportive of the Rolex Series (a series of seven tournaments with larger-than-usual purses). They’ve embraced the innovation. I can’t say enough of the players and how they care, and the passion they have. You could see that certainly when I attended my first Ryder Cup. The magnitude was incredible to witness, but the passion and the unwavering love for Europe that our players had was incredible. Your athletes want you to be successful, they take the time to give you thoughts and opinions. It makes things a lot easier to shape ideas and formats and they’ve been terrific.
Has there been any pushback from the guys on your ideas?
We haven’t received any pushback. It’s been terrific. The likes of Sergio (Garcia), Rory (McIlroy), Henrik Stenson… they are fantastic, very bright, intelligent guys with really strong opinions and have been very supportive. If you were going to do everything unilaterally, ‘OK, this is what we’re doing,’ then it’s difficult to bring people into a concept after the fact. But I think we started talking about the Rolex Series about three or four months into (my tenure). I had significant dialogue with those top guys. When you have athletes that care, and want to contribute it makes it a lot easier. The ‘professional golfer’ is a real pleasure to work with.
The ISPS Handa World Super 6 Perth was a big change in terms of professionally sanctioned golf events (it featured a mix of match-play and stroke-play). What was your biggest takeaway that week?
Any of the new formats or new innovations we’re trying you have to look at it with an open mind and look at it as a proof of concept. Obviously I believe golf needs to embrace change and modernize to appeal to a wider market. As the gatekeepers of the professional game, the traditional 72-hole format will always have a significant presence in our sport, but we must look towards new formats, geared toward the millennial demographic, for our sport to evolve.
The Perth Super Six was an example of that. We’re in the midst of debriefing on that tournament, to make it easier for fans to follow, have some more riveting content on different platforms, but there’s no question whatsoever that event was a success.
The GolfSixes is another one of those different events (it is a limited-field, two-man team tournament)
I’ve been incredibly encouraged by the reaction of the players, and very pleased by the field that’s coming together. But again, this is another example of proof-of-concept, and we will look at the event and go deeper into (the research) after the event and fine-tune it. It has a real opportunity to be very successful.
Can you reveal anyone who is in that field yet?
Will Canada have a team?
Canada will not have a team. We don’t have any Canadian members of the European Tour. Richard T. Lee is on the Asian Tour so he plays in our co-sanctioned events, but no European Tour members who are Canadian at this particular time.
Mike Weir is going to play in a couple of (European Tour) events through invites. He’s going to play in the event in Austria, I believe. Mike was named assistant captain for the Presidents Cup, and for everything Mike Weir has accomplished, even outside the Masters win in 2003 – the fact that he won the Masters and the fact that he’s the only Canadian (male) to ever win a major – you would expect him, based on a very golf-crazed environment, to be a much bigger superstar than he currently is.
Has there been a discussion around having a European Tour event in Canada?
There are no plans for that at this particular time. The (RBC) Canadian Open has just renewed with the PGA TOUR. Our priority is building our schedule in Europe and building it worldwide and we haven’t looked at Canada at this point.
Tiger Woods went to Dubai and played one round before withdrawing at the Dubai Desert Classic. Did you have a chance to talk to him?
I was there. I saw Tiger at the Ryder Cup as well. Obviously with what happened – I got there kind of late on the Thursday and with what happened on the Friday – we didn’t get a chance to spend anytime together.
Do you think Tiger is still as relevant as ever in golf?
He’s a star that transcends the sport. Tiger, wherever he goes in any sporting arena as a spectator or a competitor, he’s going to be a monumental star. He is special. He’s obviously been such a great historical part of our game, and we hope he can play and compete again at a high level. If not, then we’d love him to be part of the U.S. Ryder Cup team like he was at Hazeltine. His presence adds a lot to the game of golf. It was a privilege to have him play in Dubai and I hope he plays again. Emphatically yes, he makes a difference everywhere he goes.
Had you ever gone to the Ryder Cup before?
I had purchased the Ryder Cup rights when I was President of TSN many times, but I had declined, regretfully, many times, an invite to the Ryder Cup. If I had known the magnitude and how emotional it was, and what a spectacle it was, I would have been going for years. It was absolutely sensational.
Are you brushing up on your high school French for next year’s Ryder Cup in Paris?
I am taking some French lessons now, to be honest with you. Every time I do, I think of my Grade 10 French teacher Ms. MacIntyre, who must be absolutely cringing to know my pronunciation is just as bad now as it was in Grade 10.
I read you were having trouble getting adjusted to driving in England. Any improvements in the nearly two years time?
My driving is much better, but I still park by sound (laughs). What I find is the cars are too big for the parking lots. It’s happened to me twice now, I’ve tried to get into a parking spot for 10 or 15 minutes, I’m perspiring profusely, and I finally just drive away completely embarrassed, and hope that no one saw me leaving the parking lot.