The world of professional golf has grown up with two dominant tours; the PGA Tour and the European Tour, which has maintained balance in the world game either side of the Atlantic. However over the last few years there seems to be a gap opening between the two, with the PGA Tour now in a far stronger financial position. There is currently more prize money available to be won on the PGA Tour with players having to travel less than their European Tour counterparts. As a result the majority of highly ranked European’s play the minimum number of events on the European Tour calendar, in order to keep their card, and then hop back over to America to play for the remainder of the season. This creates a serious issue for the European Tour; if the top players do no participate in enough events outside their mandatory obligations, sponsors, broadcasters and fans will lose interest as many of the tournaments suffer from a drop in competitive credibility. This becomes a self-perpetuating issue with the US becoming increasingly appealing to the top players, attracting more investment as result. If the European Tour want to stop the rot and maintain their position in world golf they have to start getting tough on their members.
Under current rules, European Tour members have to play in 13 sanctioned events throughout the year in order to maintain their card. Included in the European Tour sanctioned events are the 4 majors, 4 WGC events and the Ryder Cup. Additionally, the end of season series dictates that players have to compete in three final events to qualify for the Race To Dubai payday. This means that they only have to play in one other European Tour sanctioned event for the rest of the year, however assume that most will play the BMW PGA Championship (European Tour’s flagship event) and/or The AAM Scottish Open (good preparation for The Open Championship). As a result, for much of the remaining season the highest ranked European Tour members return to play on the more lucrative PGA Tour leaving the sponsors of the 30+ remaining European Tour tournaments with few, if any, top players despite investing millions of Euros to stage the events.
The nature of professional golf breeds players who are going to chase the money irrespective of the impact for the rest of their Tour (which once they desperately needed to get themselves to the top of the world rankings!) However the future sustainability of the European Tour is dependent on depth of quality throughout with the highest ranked players competing regularly against the rest of the membership. Guaranteeing this will achieve a conveyer belt of happy and engaged sponsors seeing a return on their investment, renewing their contracts and ensuring future prize money. However if the top players aren’t competing regularly, sponsors and broadcasters will go elsewhere.
So the European Tour has to make a decision. They can either allow this decline to continue, succumb to market pressures and accept their second tier status behind the PGA Tour, or they can redress the balance. In order to do this they will need to get tough with their highest ranked players for the sake of all members and the future of the Tour. This comes with risks of losing the highest ranked players permanently to the PGA Tour, but surely the biggest risk is inaction and acceptance of their own long term decline.
The one thing that seems to really motivate European professional golfers is the Ryder Cup. As a result, any solution must leverage the appeal of this event for the top players and create an obligation for them to play in more events on their own Tour. The European Tour could dictate that every member must to play in three tournaments (of the Tour’s choice) each year in order to be considered for selection at the next Ryder Cup; six events over two years doesn’t seem too much of a demand for the top players to support their own Tour. This would result in a guarantee of at least a couple of high ranked players for every European Tour event keeping sponsors, broadcasters and fans engaged. This will halt the decline and, in the longer term, ensure their future financial sustainability and greater parity with the PGA Tour.
This may seem like a simplistic solution to a complicated problem which exposes potential issues around players schedules and is open abuse, however without draconian measures and the European Tour’s willingness to get tough with its members, it will continue to fall behind allowing the PGA Tour to become the primary sanctioning body in the world game able to dictate the future of the sport at a time of such potential growth, particularly in Asia. Its time for the European Tour to stand up and be counted.