Pelley’s resignation comes as little surprise amid golf’s uncertain landscape

Mark McGowan
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PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan and DP World Tour CEO Keith Pelley (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Mark McGowan

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The opening round of 2024 couldn’t have gone much more to script for the DP World Tour with Rory McIlroy, undoubtedly the Tour’s biggest star, hitting the ground running with a bogey-free -9.

But the ink had not yet dried on McIlroy’s scorecard when the announcement came that DP World Tour CEO Keith Pelley was resigning from his position and stepping down at the start of April.

The Dubai Invitational – the newest event on the schedule – offers a $2.5 million prize fund, and the winner will take away $425,000, meaning this is by no means a ‘small potato’ event. In fact, only the five Rolex Series events and a further six regular DP World Tour tournaments have bigger purses, but, typically, comparisons will be made with the PGA Tour’s first regular event, the Sony Open in Hawaii, which is being held opposite.

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There, $8.3 million is on offer and the winner will take home a shade under $1.5 million, and comes hot on the heels of the season-opening The Sentry which saw Chris Kirk earn $3.6 million. But this week the news dropped that Farmers Insurance, long term sponsor of the PGA Tour event held at Torrey Pines, was not renewing its sponsorship agreement, following Wells Fargo and Honda as title sponsors who’ve opted to put their finances to other uses.

Little wonder then, with even the premier golfing tour struggling to get brands to stump up big money, that Pelley has decided to bring his tenure to an end. Moving back to his native country and native city to take up leadership of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. (MLSE), the opportunity may have been one that was too good to pass for Pelley.

And not just because he’s going home either.

Owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs NHL team and the Tornonto Raptors NBA side, along with MLS’s Toronto FC, MLSE’s new President and CEO is going to find himself presiding over teams that require little additional selling, such is ice-hockey’s popularity in Canada and basketball’s global popularity.

Pelley’s remit at the European Tour was to increase prize money and increase playing opportunities for the European Tour players. Just a year after taking up his role, Pelley oversaw the introduction of the Rolex Series, initially eight events, which were intended to put the European Tour back on competitive footing with the PGA Tour.

This was prior to the two competing tours burying the hatchet and forging a ‘Strategic Alliance’ in the face of LIV Golf, but Pelley quickly realised back then that he’d brought a knife to a gun fight as the PGA Tour upped prize money across the board, meaning that the Rolex Series events still played second fiddle in terms of financial reward, even when opposing run-of-the-mill PGA Tour events.

Selling the naming rights of the European Tour to DP World brought in additional investment and helped keep the wolf from the door post-pandemic, and the aforementioned ‘Strategic Alliance’ guaranteed that the PGA Tour would help keep the European Tour afloat, but what had long been unofficially recognised became actual fact as the DP World Tour’s leading 10 not-already-exempt players were rewarded with PGA Tour cards.

This was a good move for the PGA Tour, a good move for the DP World Tour’s leading players, but probably not a great move for the DP World Tour overall, though, to their credit, Adrian Meronk, Nicolai Hojgaard, Ryan Fox and Thorbjorn Oleson were among the Order of Merit PGA Tour graduates who’ve opted to join McIlroy and co in Dubai this week instead of teeing it up at the Sony Open.

But if the PGA Tour are struggling to get sponsors willing to dig deep in their pockets, Pelley faced an even more uphill battle to secure continued and ever-increasing investment for what is clearly a weaker product overall.

Jon Rahm’s move to LIV, which puts the Saudi-backed tour on a higher standing still was another headache. With the likelihood of the professional game coming back together as some sort of hybrid entity, Pelley’s position as the head of what would be the smallest of the three fish wasn’t particularly enviable, especially considering that the Saudi Public Investment Fund will likely be heavily involved financially and lingering hostilities remain.

Pelley may well have taken up the offering from MLSE regardless, but in the current climate in professional golf, it was a no-brainer.

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