The European Tour has a full-fledged defection on its hands.
Top players want to play on the PGA Tour as much as possible and fill gaps in their schedules with European Tour events only to pad their wallets. This is deeply problematic for the European Tour.
There are a number of actions the European Tour must take in order to ensure the long-term viability of the tour.
Professional golf has continued its trend of international growth. PGA Tour players are playing as many events internationally as ever. Even so, top players from the European Tour continue to jump ship and join the PGA Tour. Only two players (Francesco Molinari and Paul Lawrie) from the triumphant European Ryder Cup team will play full-time on the European Tour next year.
Martin Kaymer and Nicolas Colsaerts are abandoning the European Tour for 2013. Conversely, no PGA Tour standouts indicated a desire to play primarily on the European Tour in the upcoming season. When Tiger Woods was asked recently whether he’d consider joining the European Tour, he was dismissive of the idea.
As Michael McEwan of Bunkered writes regarding the European Tour’s predicament, “The weaker the field, the poorer the turnout. The poorer the turnout, the lower the incentive for deep-pocketed companies to lend their backing. The lower the incentive for deep-pocketed companies to lend their backing, the smaller the prize fund. The smaller the prize fund, the weaker the field.”
To this we might add, “The weaker the field, the fewer Official World Golf Ranking points."
When Rory McIlroy announced his PGA Tour membership in 2009, he laid out the (non-economic) reasoning behind his decision: "I will be playing in world-class fields with more world ranking points on offer, and the only way for me to get better is to play alongside better players."
That about sums it up.
The Chief Executive of the European Tour, George O’Grady, in an admirable spin effort, acknowledged the superior purses of the PGA Tour. However, he saw the defection of top players as “testament to the quality of players in Europe." "We are concerned, but not panicking," O'Grady said. "We have to improve our game back here in heartland Europe, make our tournaments better and that also means richer."
O’Grady isn’t going to rehabilitate tournament play in “heartland Europe,” given the present economic climate. He can, however, consider the following suggestions to improve the European Tour in general.
Accept that country-hopping is here to stay
For his part, Luke Donald cited the ease of travel on the PGA Tour, compared with the necessary jet-setting on the European Tour, as an advantage. Donald also acknowledged the double-edged sword of an uptick in big money events in Asia. Such events promise big paydays and strong competition but necessitate a substantial roundtrip flight and certain jet lag.
Even so, the tour has done what it can to cluster events geographically. Playing ball with the PGA Tour and co-sanctioning events with the US will always mean that players will fly to a tournament in the United States and then head off to South Africa, China or Morocco. Given the trajectory of the game, there is no way around this.
To pursue a solution to the frequent-flyer imperative would be a red herring.
Say goodbye to all but a few events in continental Europe
Less than half of the 45 tournaments on the 2012-13 European Tour are due to be played in mainland Europe, where many countries are going through a recession. Unfortunately, this number needs to decline further. Another event in Russia, for example, rather than Scotland would ensure the larger purse.
From Michael McEwan once again: “The tournaments in the likes of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and so on typically attract the game's top players because they are bankrolled by outrageous wealthy benefactors.”
Reshuffle the calendar
The European Tour has done well in this regard for 2013. The climactic “Final Series” begins after the FedEx Cup, which, theoretically, allows top players to participate in both series of tournaments.
For 2013, players still must play a minimum of 13 European Tour events to qualify for the “Final Series.” This isn’t a huge number, considering that the four majors, the four WGC events and the Ryder or Presidents Cup count towards the total. The Tour must feel that lowering this number would cause more players to play more PGA Tour events, as they have been consistently raising it.
However, lowering the minimum number would likely inspire more PGA Tour players (in the OWGR top 50) to try and fit the “Final Series,” with its substantial purse, into their calendars, thus raising the overall strength of field in European Tour events.
Continue “promotional service fees”
Otherwise known as appearance fees, such payments are legal on the European Tour, whereas the payment of players just for showing up is prohibited by the PGA Tour.
Bob Harig elaborated on the situation at the recent Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship: “The competition is good, the tournament facilities excellent and the purse -- $2.7 million -- is on par with other European Tour events. But there is something else luring the best players in the world to this faraway place. Money.”
Tiger Woods, for his part, is presumed to have received $1.5 million for participating in the event. In other words, that’s a lot of incentive to skip the Farmer’s Insurance Open, that week’s PGA Tour event, which offered a $1 million first prize but no additional incentives and no guaranteed money.
The lack of a prohibition against sponsors paying appearance fees is the most powerful weapon the European Tour has in its arsenal.
Woo Web.com standouts
The Web.com tour is only going to improve in quality given the impending changes to the Q School. Attempting to poach the preeminent players from the PGA Tour’s minor league may be in bad form, but having a select number of slots in each tournament reserved for Web.com players may not be the worst thing in the world.
Sure, doing so wouldn’t send the best message to the European Tour’s own Challenge Tour, but the tour hasn’t produced a notable money winner since Henrik Stenson in 2000. The Web.com Tour, conversely, has produced the likes of Zach Johnson, Jimmy Walker and Casey Wittenberg in the same period.
The European Tour would do well to attract Web.com players, as well as players from its own Challenge Tour.
Merge with Asian Tour, Australasian Tour, Sunshine Tour, etc.
The PGA and European Tours are not necessarily adversaries, but there is a chess match being played between the two. With the recent acquisition of the Canadian Professional Golf Tour, the PGA Tour has made a move. A fitting counter would be for the European Tour to acquire the Japan Golf Tour, the Sunshine Tour and the PGA Tour of Australasia.
This seems to be the logical next step prior to the New World Order of the One World Tour: consolidation of the North American golf tours in one camp and all the rest in the other. Pooling the talent and sponsorship dollars may create a rival for the PGA Tour—in terms of competition, prize money and OWGR.