As European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley unveiled a radically revamped 2020 schedule for the post-pandemic landscape, one thing immediately became clear — the new-look itinerary for the rest of the year is the shape of things to come.
When golf re-emerges from the myriad interventions by governments around the globe to flatten the curve of cases and deaths caused by Covid-19, it will step into a world of quarantine, antigen testing, and daily temperature checks; tournaments without spectators and, inevitably, offering smaller prize funds.
A new date for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, which should have crowned its 2020 champion at Mount Juliet in Co. Kilkenny last Sunday, is due within the month, we are told, and it is likely to be in September. Although the chances of Irish golf fans being there in great numbers to witness it seem a longshot.
While those golfers who also play on the PGA Tour in the United States will get an early taste of golf’s new normal when their 2020 schedule resumes at the Colonial in Texas for the Charles Schwab Challenge on June 11. Overseas participants, including Rory McIlroy’s caddie Harry Diamond, have had to fly into the USA to sit out 14 days of quarantine in advance of the tournament, but with the large majority travelling from within American borders, there is less of a logistical minefield to negotiate.
Over here, the European Tour has bigger issues and as Pelley acknowledged when he spoke on a media teleconference to announce the new campaign last Thursday, what was once his organisation’s strong suit has become its biggest burden. Back in October 2019, when only the most informed travellers had heard of Wuhan, the Tour heralded its 2020 schedule as a 46-event extravaganza taking in 29 different countries.
When it restarts on July 22 after a global public health emergency that has claimed the lives of more 360,000 people and infected almost six million, the first six tournaments will all be played within a three-and-half hour drive of one another in England and Wales.
“One of the things in our business, one of our greatest strengths, which is the diversity, in this instance has become one of our biggest challenges, determining where we can play,” Pelley said. “’Can we play?’ has been the biggest question, and we’ve had a plethora of conversations with all governments regarding quarantine, travel restrictions, testing.
“One thing has become crystal clear… we’ve had to think and act differently.”
Opening with six events in a new UK Swing is evidence of that, though Pelley stressed they would be predicated on British government approval — which came for all sports on Saturday— hotels being operational, and the current quarantine situation in the UK (which does not apply to Irish citizens) being lifted.
Including the UK Swing, the Tour promises a 24-event run through to the end-of-season DP World Championship in Dubai in December. There are slots throughout September to be filled with Pelley name-checking the national Opens in Ireland, Italy (both of which are Rolex Series events), Spain, and Portugal as the likely occupants.
If you are an aspirant Irish Open host, it looks likely you will need to have a pretty big hotel close at hand to your course and preferably on-site, as is the case with Mount Juliet, though Pelley also admitted spectators were not crucial to the bottom line, merely from the point of view of “optics”.
“What’s really interesting is, we want to have fans and the players want to play. However, having said that, we are in a really interesting position in the fact that fans and hospitality make up only 5% of our entire revenue. So it is not critical for us from a business perspective at this point, but it is critical from an optics side.
“Will we get back to the point where we are 30,000 or 40,000 this year at Wentworth (for the Tour’s flagship BMW PGA Championship in October)? I wouldn’t see that … on a daily basis as being possible, but I do see it extending, depending upon what happens, depending on the government regulations, and of course, us being able to create a very safe environment.”
Of the site selection involved for the UK Swing, Pelley added: “In order to make it as safe as we possibly could, looking at venues that have hotels attached to (the course) was a priority; hence, the Marriott (in Hertfordshire for the English Championship, Aug 6-9) and the relationship with Celtic Manor and of course the Belfry.
“For the Betfred British Masters (at Close House, Newcastle) … we are taking over the entire Hilton, so, it becomes incredibly important, the hotel, which becomes a medical testing facility for us.
“We had some other golf courses that wanted to be involved, but due to proximity, we couldn’t go down that.”
Asked if the reappearance of English and Welsh stalwarts such as former Ryder Cup venues The Belfry near Birmingham, and Celtic Manor, in Newport, South Wales, were one-off returns to the schedule, Pelley suggested otherwise for a recalibrating European Tour.
“When you see the 2020 schedule, it’s completely different than 2019. And 2021, a lot of the tournaments that have cancelled for this year will come back for next year. However, I honestly believe that you are seeing a little bit of a glimpse into the future.
“All of these venues are incredibly excited about this year, and two of them have already said, ‘Can we get on the schedule for 2021’, and I look at that as an incredible positive.”
The footprint is smaller than had been foreseen and is likely to continue that way as revenues ball, title sponsors feel the pinch and prize funds are squeezed, never mind the climate-change crisis returning to the top of the to-do list.
“It forces all of us, including The European Tour, to analyse all facets of our business,” Pelley said. “Is The European Tour bankrupt or running out of money… absolutely not.
Of course, we’ve been affected like millions of businesses the world over, but we’ve worked hard and been extremely responsible in our financial approach to this global crisis.”
With each of the UK Swing events carrying reduced prize funds, starting with the €1.25m Betfred British Masters, which had £3m (€3.3m) up for grabs last year. It is also the only tournament of the six to have a title sponsor, and with the rest each offering a €1m kitty, the Tour is cutting its cloth accordingly.
“We’ve had a difficult time like everybody else. This is not an easy financial situation. But we have produced a strategy that has allowed us to do three things. It’s allowed us to navigate through this initial phase of the crisis and resurrect our 2020 schedule. It has helped us prepare for the short term in terms of 2021 and of course helped us create a platform to help plan for the long term, for the future, from 2022 onwards.”