The Scorpion and the Frog

Mark McGowan

Rory McIlroy greets PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan during a practice round prior to the RBC Heritage (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

For the casual golf fan, the European Tour and the PGA Tour’s “Strategic Alliance” – their choice to capitalise, not mine – may seem a little vague, but fret not, the haze doesn’t really lift for zealots like myself.

Is the European Tour eventually going to be swallowed whole by the PGA Tour? Will it become a low-tier feeder like the PGA Tour Latinoamérica or Mackenzie Tour (PGA Tour Canada)? Maybe a Korn Ferry equivalent where promotion to the main PGA Tour is all that matters? What will it mean for the Ryder Cup? The Race to Dubai? Hell, what will it mean for everything? The alliance – the regular noun, not the proper noun – raises more questions than answers, but a lack of concrete information has never been enough to stop me speculating wildly, so here goes.

If recent years have taught me anything, it’s that the PGA Tour likes to think of itself as the only show in town. That’s why Tommy Fleetwood has zero “career wins,” why Lee Westwood has just two, and why major championships are completely ignored on telecasts the weeks preceding and succeeding major championships.

What that explains is that the PGA Tour aren’t doing this for charitable reasons. If the European Tour is cash strapped – which CEO Keith Pelley claims they aren’t, despite slashing prize money by roughly $33 million and putting half its staff on furlough – the helping hand from across the pond will have ulterior motives up its sleeve.

That this “alliance” – it’s not a merger, and it’s definitely not a takeover, we’re told – is happening in 2020 comes as little surprise. Throw a global pandemic and the threat of a major competitor together and it was time to circle the wagons. The Raine Group – the investment arm of the Premier Golf League – had approached the European Tour with a view to collaborating on the breakaway tour and that was likely the catalyst that forced PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan into action.

Andy Johnson, of The Fried Egg and The Shotgun Start podcasts equated the move to a taxi firm incorporating a smaller rival as a response to Uber’s arrival, and it’s an interesting comparison. The European and PGA Tours both offer a form of the same product, packaged slightly differently, and with varying finances involved. Both offer pathways for graduation through their lower-tiers, both have big money – one significantly bigger, it’s fair to say – end of season championships, and both offer almost exclusively 72-hole stroke-play events.

The PGL, like Uber, offers a similar service but in a markedly different way. There is no “grow the game” pretence, no small purses leading to one large fund, and no four-day medal play either. It’s simply get the best players in the world together on a regular basis, throw bucket loads of cash at them, and sell the TV rights and corporate partnerships to the highest bidders worldwide. And make no mistake, the Raine Group aren’t interested because of their love for golf. They deal in dollar signs and they seem pretty certain there’s a killing to be made here. And after putting 10 years of homework and behind the scenes graft into this project, they are not going away lightly no matter how many players publicly opt out.

So how does the “Strategic Alliance” help combat the strong arm of the PGL? Well, the idea of a genuine world golf tour is one that I’m hugely in favour of, but to properly implement it would require a complete re-imagining of the golf schedule and re-allocation of at least two of the four major championships. With three of the game’s four biggest events being held in the United States, that any kind of global schedule could claim to be an authentic World Tour is laughable. And let’s face it, the PGA and European Tour don’t own any of the four majors so the idea that the R&A, the USGA, Augusta National or the PGA of America would entertain a change of schedule or venue to suit an organisation that has repeatedly failed to acknowledge their existence is even more laughable still.

Besides, if you’re going to start asking the largely American elite core of players (seven of the top-10 ranked players in the world are American born and Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm have American spouses and homes) to adopt a much more global schedule, then surely they’d opt for the “less travel, more money” option of the PGL if playing a US based rota is taken off the table.

So where does this leave us? Well, one thing we know for certain is that Monahan will take a seat on the European Tour board, and is therefore privy to all financial records and business dealings that cross the European Tour’s books. This may be small potatoes compared to the ledgers at the PGA Tour, but it’s all there in black and white – or maybe in red with no Ryder Cup to help balance the books – and any chinks in the European Tour armour will be on display at Ponte Vedra.

Like the fable of The Scorpion and the Frog, Monahan may not be able to help himself from doing what comes naturally and that is prioritising the PGA Tour to the detriment of the populace. Until the proselytising ends and the PGL put pen to paper, the European Tour remain the PGA Tour’s biggest threat – albeit a miniscule one – and their greatest rival.

It would be an extremely ill-advised move were Monahan to use his newfound access to plot the downfall of the European Tour, which would temporarily further elevate the PGA Tour, but would also leave the PGL no option but to come hard and fast at the PGA Tour.

But hey, like I said, this is just wild speculation. Stranger things have happened though.

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