Almost seven years have passed since George O’Grady stepped into the shoes of Ken Schofield as the chief executive of the European Tour. The changes to the circuit since then, it’s fair to say, have been considerable.
There are now more events and more prize money than ever before; inroads have been made into previously uncharted territory, particularly the Gulf States and Far East; the fortunes of the tour’s member players have been transformed; and then, of course, there is the small matter of the Race To Dubai, the snazzy successor to the old Volvo Order of Merit. In short? The European Tour has caught up with the times.
During a recent visit to Scotland, O’Grady sat down with bunkered to discuss how things are going with top-level professional golf on this side of the Atlantic…
Let’s start with the Race To Dubai. It’s now in its third year. Are you satisfied with how it has gone?
I think it has gone exceptionally well for the tour as a whole. I think it has given us focus and it has united the tour on the world stage. The two Dubai World Championships were very successful. It has been staggering, in a sense, in the midst of an enormous world economic meltdown that it has delivered, not without a few challenges in Dubai, but they have honoured all of our agreements and we look good for this year, too.
It must be very pleasing for you that the likes of players such as Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy rate it so highly?
Well, if you look at last year, many expert commentators described it as the greatest year in the history of the European Tour based on our member players’ achievements and the players, including those you mentioned, are all very wedded to it. They get the concept and have all taken part to strengthen the end of the season for us and, to have a year, where you’ve got the winner of the Open Championship at St Andrews by seven shots and he’s not your ‘Golfer of the Year’, I think that tells you a lot about how well the other players have played. The economic downturn could have been potentially embarrassing for the Race To Dubai but you seem to have weathered the storm, haven’t you? I think we’ve come through it quite well. Yes, it has given us some headaches but we’re not alone in that respect. There have been problems more or less everywhere. But we still are great value for money for tourist boards, for governments and for the companies who promote their products through us.
Whilst everyone talks so generously about the Race To Dubai, the FedEx Cup has not been so well received. What are your thoughts on it?
I think everything depends on the culture of the country you are in. I think it’s a tremendous achievement to conceive the FedEx Cup and find a sponsor who will help to deliver it. Certainly, the concept of the Play-Off Series and restarting the bar is very much an American idea. I attended the BMW Championship in the USA last year and you can see how it holds the finish to the season. They’re competing with baseball, American football and other sports and so, for them, the Play-Off Series works. It’s not a particularly British or ‘rest of the world’ way of doing things but all credit to them. It has raised the bar in the United States considerably.
Do you see the Race To Dubai as a rival to the FedEx Cup?
No, I think the Race To Dubai is there to give cohesion of focus to the European Tour wherever we play in the world. Obviously, the sums involved when we launched it were staggering and it gave the impetus to all of the other tournaments to be in the race. It’s essentially the same concept as when we had the old Volvo Order of Merit and the concept of the bonus pool is to reward players who have played well throughout the season. It’s easy for the players to understand.
What is your relationship like with your PGA Tour counterpart Tim Finchem? How do you get on?
Pretty well. He’s a very astute businessman and always likes to get straight to business. We speak relatively regularly. In fact, I spent an hour with him on the phone last night discussing the world scheduling of dates and so on. I often say, actually, that anytime I go to America - for example, to the Players’ Championship - I always copy at least one or two of the ideas. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, after all. It’s a very strong relationship that we have.
Do you bounce ideas off one another?
Oh yes, without question. He is running an immensely successful tour and you can’t help but learn how they go about things. I, of course, go about my business very much in a ‘rest of the world’ kind of way as we have tournaments in the Gulf region, China, Thailand and so on, and therefore I have to get on with the leaders of all those countries and tours. But, yes, Tim and I do sometimes share ideas.
How important was it to beat the PGA Tour to the punch and ‘claim’ markets in the UAE, the Middle East and Far East?
Well, when we first did it, we weren’t thinking in those terms. We had to change because the climate in this country and in Europe isn’t really good enough from late November through until April. We tried, of course. Before the time when European Tour players won the Masters, we had a series of events with the Spanish tourist board, Turespana, through February and March. Fine, the climate wasn’t always perfect but it was okay. Then, Olazabal won the Masters on the back of a victory in the Mediterranean Open, and so arrived at Augusta battle-hardened. Before that time, European Tour players went to the Masters almost as their first event of the year. It’s hard to remember that now. Can you imagine going to the Masters in the days of Christy O’Connor, Peter Alliss and Bernard Hunt and the only thing you’ve played is the Bowmaker Mixed Foursomes, or something like that, and suddenly you’re playing in America where they’ve been playing since January and are well into their stride. So, we had to create an alternative tour and it was my predecessor Ken Schofield who masterminded the first move to Tunisia and then it was Dubai, followed by the Johnnie Walker Championship in Thailand and so on. Everything really stemmed from that.
Is there a rivalry between the European Tour and the PGA Tour to have the best players, the biggest events, the most prize money, and so on?
I think the PGA Tour has changed in the respect that they now embrace and want all of the best players in the world to play in America. That wasn’t always the case. It used to be that you had to join the Tour full-time and that was you. Now, some of the best players in the world are European and European Tour members, so they’ve had to change their approach.
How pleasing is it for you that the European Tour has so many exciting young players coming through?
Very pleasing. With the likes of Manassero and McIlroy and so on, there is a great crop of young players coming through and winning. The best thing about all of this is that no-one is afraid of winning anymore. There was a great moment in Dubai this year when we put all the trophies by the first tee, including the Ryder Cup, and we asked every player, from No.60 to No.1, which one they’re going to win this year. There wasn’t one player who didn’t think, ‘Yep, I can do that’. That’s fantastic.
The likes of Westwood and McIlroy have turned their back on the Players’ Championship this year to concentrate on playing this side of the Atlantic. How big a feather in the Tour’s cap is that?
Well, of course, we always want our top players to play on the European Tour as much as possible but, at the same time, we haven’t tried to restrict and your own career development at that stage. In terms of the Players’ Championship, you have to admire it. It’s a great tournament and a great spectator experience as well.
There’s a new Scottish Open venue this year. Your thoughts on Castle Stuart?
Well, I haven’t been there yet myself but I know masses of people, whose opinions I respect, who have and they think it is absolutely spectacularly good. The pictures are stunning and every pro who been there has been full of praise for it.
Can you explain the process behind getting a new venue onto the tour?
Fundamentally, he who pays the piper calls the tune. In the case of the Barclays Scottish Open, Loch Lomond underwrote the tournament when it first started and I should say that the club has been a great servant of the professional game. Lyle Anderson and his desire for quality made the tournament possible and attracted sponsors to it. So, Loch Lomond jointly owned the tournament with ourselves.
Whilst we’re excited to see a new Scottish Open venue, there is just one regular tour event taking place there in England this year. Tournament golf there appears to be on its knees a bit at the moment. Why is that?
The reason for just one regular tour event taking place in England this year is purely down to the economy. The European Open has been in England recently and it would have continued if the market was right. I don’t think it will be so critical in 2011 because the Open is taking place at Royal St George’s. But as for other events taking place in the north of the country, the Midlands and so on, I think that will come round again as the situation improves.
There has also been some talk that we might lose the Celtic Manor Wales Open now that the Ryder Cup has been and gone. What’s the news on that?
I think that, because the course was so well received during the Ryder Cup, you’ll continue to see the Celtic Manor Wales Open go forward strongly.
Is the tour a victim of its own success in so much as there are now more destinations all looking for their own event or new events, so it’s hard to please everybody?
Well, you’re right, you certainly can’t please everybody. From our point of view, we just want to maximise the really good weeks in the year and by ‘good’ I mean the ones where you are able to get the best players coming home. Generally speaking, we always give great value for money. Visibility and credibility are our two big words. If you can provide them, you succeed.
What about the WGCs? How much does it disappoint you that we don’t have one in Europe and is getting one back here on your radar?
It really comes back to an earlier answer: he who pays the piper calls the tune. Yes, having the tag of being a ‘World Golf Championship’ can work in different places but, at the moment, we’re not driving those events, so our priority has to be making the events that we do have ownership of the best that they can be. And we do have some great tournaments, the likes of the Barclays Scottish Open and the BMW PGA Championship.
Can you talk a little about the Olympics and the role that the European Tour has played in getting golf into the Games?
We played a big role in that and it all came through the IGF, the International Golf Federation, which is in league with the World Golf Federation. Now, we have a board of directors who are running it made up of all the best in golf officialdom. We have appointed a chief executive in Anthony Scanlon, who lives in Lausanne and is really au fait with everything to do with the Olympics. Peter Dawson of the R&A is president of the IGF, assisted by Ty Votaw, and I am one of the directors. The two biggest challenges we now face are, one, bringing all of the countries together and, two, developing the venue we are going to play in Rio.
What about the Ryder Cup? There has been some speculation that, in years to come, it might be played somewhere like Dubai. What is the likelihood of that happening?
It has been talked about but I would say it is highly unlikely. If it were to happen, I believe I would be long gone by that time. We owe it to a lot of countries in Europe to take it to them first. Of course, if the date of the tournament was to move later and later in the year such that the climate wasn’t going to be acceptable in Europe, then it may require to be looked at but it certainly isn’t on the radar in the immediate future.
Finally, you have been running the European Tour since 2005. What are you most proud of during your tenure so far?
Naturally, the Race To Dubai stands out because it helped to unite us on a global scale. It transformed us from a European Tour into a European ‘Global’ Tour. But I think the fact that the players on the tour talk about the tour as ‘we’ is something I am most proud of. Whether you’re a player, a caddie, a member of staff, every tour event we go to, we are ‘us’. There is a feel-good factor running through the tour just now because of the performances of our members, from Louis Oosthuizen winning the Open, to Simon Khan getting the last spot in the field for the BMW PGA Championship and then winning it, to Scotland’s Stephen Gallacher recovering from terrible injuries and illnesses a few years ago to have one of his most successful seasons ever last year. It’s a great time to be involved with the European Tour. I love the feeling of ‘we’, that we’re all in this together