The Round Table: what grade does Keith Pelley get?

Each week we ask our panel of writers, PGA members and golf industry experts to weigh in with their views on the hot topics of the day.

Last week, Keith Pelley announced he was stepping down as Commissioner and CEO of the DP World Tour to join Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. What do you make of the timing of his announcement given that he’s in the midst of negotiations to forge an agreement with the PGA Tour and the Saudi-backed PIF? And what sort of mark would you give Pelley for his eight years running the DP World Tour?

Jim Deeks, Fairways Magazine (@jimdeeks): Keith Pelley is a Teflon-coated survivor, I can tell you that with some degree of inside knowledge.  I’m not sure what to make of it all, though.  I’m sure the MLSE offer was too good not to take, but I also suspect he saw some ugly writing on the wall for the future of his Tour — as in, what future, if there really does end up being a LIV/PGA merger.  And what would be the fun in being a Commissioner of an even-more depleted European entity? Now, he gets to come back and be a big shot in North American hockey, basketball, and soccer.  Lucky you, Keith!  As for the previous eight years?  I dunno, 6 out of 10?

Craig Loughry, Golf Ontario (@craigloughry): He got a better gig, I don’t think it has much to do with timing per se. BUT, it means he was headhunted, or he was looking. I suppose that will never be disclosed, but it doesn’t help this Tours future at such a pivotal moment. I think Keith is pretty excited about the change though, he still has a house in Etobicoke so an easy move for him. Grade for Pelley on his tenure, I give him a B-. Such a tough gig, but he’s known as a disruptor, and that he did with walk up music, shot clock, teams, he did explore things, which I do give him credit for.

Michael Schurman, Master Professional / Hall of Fame Member, PGA of Canada: In his 8 years of service, Keith Pelley saw the DP World Tour through Covid, he introduced the ‘shot clock’, the Golf Sixes and the Rolex Series. All were innovative and an attempt to improve certain situations. However, he lost ‘ground’ in the Official World Ranking Points, opened the door to discussion with Saudi Arabia and failed to follow through, he increased the structure of the tour but financed most of the events without a lot of support from sponsors. Overall, I’d give him an “A” for raising the profile of the DP Tour, a “C” for financial results and a “D” for player relations.

TJ Rule, Golf Away Tours (@GolfAwayTJ): I think Keith did some great things with the DP World Tour.  They tried some new things, had some great social media content, and really made the product fun to watch.  It’s a shame they didn’t have the top players in the world for more of their events, but despite that hurdle, I believe he did some good things.  It seems like he’s frustrated with where the Tour is headed and perhaps the professional game in general, and I’m happy to have him on board to try to fix all of the MLSE problems.  He’ll be a magician if he can find a way to make the Leafs into a winner!

Hal Quinn, Freelance Writer, Vancouver: This seems to have an almost Rahm-esque timing to it. Having qualified for the only events that matter, Rahm couldn’t see any real advantages to sticking with the Tour. Having been in on all the talks, or at least having been privy to all the discussions between the Tour and the Saudis about the future of the pro game, don’t think Pelley could see any real advantages in staying on with a diminished, if not obsolete, DP Tour. He navigated the Euro Tour’s survival, and the players rightly appreciated all he did. Trading the days ahead with the Saudis for the machinations of the Leafs et al will be like taking a vacation, not taking on a new job.

Peter Mumford, Fairways Magazine (@FairwaysMag): He’s planning on staying until April 2nd so maybe the framework agreement will be wrapped up by then. However, if I was on the DP World Tour board, I think I’d want Pelley’s successor to be heading up those talks. Better to have someone who is invested in its future than a guy who will be looking at it in the rearview mirror from another continent. As for Pelley’s report card, I give him a B. He was innovative, garnered some financial security with the PGA Tour and handled the COVID pandemic well. On the downside is that Strategic Alliance deal that sends the 10 best DP World Tour players to the PGA Tour each year. How can you strengthen your own Tour when you give away your top assets?

At the Dubai Invitational, Ken Weyand, who is the Director of Golf at Michael Jordan’s Grove XXIII club in Jupiter Florida, played on a sponsor’s exemption in a limited 60-man field and finished 72 strokes behind winner Tommy Fleetwood. Since there was no cut, Weyand got to play all four rounds and to his credit, he stuck with it despite his high scores. Presumably sponsors pay the bills and get a few perks in return but was Weyand’s invitation justified in any way?

Deeks: I don’t know the full circumstances, but on the surface of it, I’d say no.  But did anybody really care whether he was there or not?  And did he personally feel any embarrassment for his performance?

Loughry: In general, I don’t like when exemptions are handed out and it ends up like this, taking a spot away from a Tour Member (legit player) who is trying to earn a living. That said, sponsors talk and are important to the lifeblood of that Tour especially.

Schurman: I dislike nepotism, patronage, old boys’ clubs or graft. Ken Weyand is probably a nice guy, but he is a Golf Professional, not a Professional Golfer. Subjecting him to this type of exposure is unfair to him and unfair to a player who is a Professional Golfer and could benefit from the opportunity to compete.

Rule: When I saw his name and score on the leaderboard, I wondered who the heck he was and why he was there.  I don’t have an issue with a tournament having a sponsor’s exemption and wasting it on someone who can’t actually compete, but not in a limited field event with no cut, that doesn’t seem to make sense to me.

Quinn: In Dubai, nothing is free and no gesture is not part of a calculation. The only way this makes any sense, while being beyond justification in a sporting sense, if that it was an attempt to curry favour with MJ hisownself. We shall see down the road how successful this embarrassing (not to the monied sponsor but to golf) stunt turns out. A  price will be paid, eventually.

Mumford: No offense to Ken Weyand but this stinks. I can’t begin to imagine who called in what favours to make this happen. Like what connection does Weyand, Grove XXIII or Michael Jordan have to Dubai or the DP World Tour? Did someone get a membership in Jordan’s super private club? Weyand’s score is embarrassing for the tournament and the Tour. Sponsors do get to call some shots, but this is beyond the pale.

Tiger Woods and Nike have parted ways after 27 years together. What’s your take on the split and does this signal an end to Nike’s involvement in professional golf?

Deeks: I don’t know the full circumstances, but on the surface of it… wait, am I sounding repetitive?  To be honest, I don’t quite understand.  Nike still has major golf stars wearing their clothes, like McIlroy and Scheffler, so I can’t imagine they’re on the verge of walking away from the game.  And it’s not as though Tiger isn’t still a major brand influencer. Maybe Tiger was approached with a better offer, to be announced in due course?

Loughry: I don’t think this was Nike’s decision, I just think Tiger wants to take his own brand in his own direction. I think Nike is OK being in the retail (clothing) side of golf and have some good representatives on Tour.

Schurman: Are we seeing the ‘canary in the coal mine’? The PGA TOUR has raised the level of contribution of sponsors, and several have indicated they aren’t comfortable with the ROI.  Nike never was a golf-oriented company. They sold sports-related shoes and clothing. When they did enter the ‘club’ and ‘ball’ market, they had little experience and very difficult competition. They used golf as their profit-making vehicle, but they didn’t contribute much to the game. Tiger isn’t as visible as he once was so his exposure value is decreasing and Tiger’s monster year was 24 years ago. Younger markets aren’t using TV as their preferred choice of media. The one saving grace for the PGA TOUR is gambling. Huge profits can be made from a small market and golf is a perfect betting option because of the various opportunities to bet. Traditional forms of sponsorship i.e. paying to market a product via golf might be over.

Rule: Nike spent a lot of money on Tiger and Jason Day among others and you’d have to think it paid off for them, but they’ve been mostly on the periphery of the golf scene since they got out of hard goods, so this was bound to run its course.  They’ll remain a big brand in sports clothing and shoes with or without golf, so I don’t see this having much of an impact on their overall revenue.

Quinn: A few years ago a pal was stuck with Scott Hoch in a very expensive pro-am. Hoch only talked to the group at the reception after the round. He said that he’d never seen a pro-am partner playing NIKE clubs. He asked the group if any of them played NIKEs or knew anyone who did. To the chorus of “nope,” the affable pro said: “Ya, that was money well spent.” The running shoe conglomerate spent a real lot of money on making clubs, and balls, and bags — even more on Eldrick’s and Rory’s gargantuan annual endorsement fees — and sold a lot of shirts. The company was locked into a bad  deal and pulled the plug as soon as it legally could. No surprise. NIKE, and a lot of other major corps, can’t wait to get out of the pro-golf pimping biz.

Mumford: Tiger is still the #1 draw for golf fans worldwide, even when he isn’t playing, but perhaps Nike recognized their future isn’t with a 49-year-old. That’s not to suggest they didn’t want to re-sign him, just maybe not at the super-inflated numbers he was getting before. Tiger too may have thought this is the time to cash in on his own clothing and/or shoe line. As for Nike exiting the golf business, I don’t believe that. They still have long term contracts with a number of top players and their product is almost always one of the top two consumer brands in golf.

The Round Table
The Round Table is a panel of golf writers, PGA members and industry experts.

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