Several times in a season there is occasion to sit down and chat all things golf with Michael Hoey. Usually it starts out with the NI Open but invariably the conversation meanders elsewhere. Fittingly, at this juncture, it’s all about securing your tour card, the questionable merit of Qualifying School, not to mention the cash cow that is the Ryder Cup which, in his view, props up the European Tour.
Hoey talks straight. If he has something on his mind, you get to hear about it. He’s played several laps around the block and sat on enough player and tour committees to understand the inner mechanics of the European Tour. His view is informed and over this particular coffee, the 39-year-old expressed concern at how certain aspects of the main professional tour in this part of the world are set up.
“I take an interest because they are making decisions that affect everybody and everybody’s access on tour,” said Hoey of a recent player/tour committee meeting.
“The guys at the European Tour understand Qualifying School has been very poor and is not helped by the big Rolex events. Those that got their card at Qualifying School last time only played for 32 per cent of the total prize money available for the season,” according to Hoey, noting that total money available also factors the four Majors.
“It improved a little because there were quite a lot of injuries, withdrawals or retirement, guys like Darren Clarke, Anthony Wall, Graeme Storm or Victor Dubuisson. But it’s nowhere near a good enough category, certainly not for me personally.
“On committee we get asked a lot about reviewing Qualifying School. Playing opportunities has reduced from 65 per cent of events in 2013 to 35 per cent in 2017.
“It means guys focus on the Challenge Tour top 15 card instead which has 70 per cent of opportunities. Players are so bunched together now, so many good players, there needs to be more cards available. To be fair, everyone understands it’s not enough.”
“Finishing top 15 on Challenge Tour is difficult, you need those big finishes to make any ‘real money’. If you don’t you’re thinking Qualifying School, but if you didn’t get enough from it last year are you better saving €5,000? Qualifying School is a good earner for the tour too, it costs €1,800 to enter with 1,300 entered.”
“The other issue is Qualifying School comes off the back of big events in China and the final event of the year. A lot of heat, travel and golf means players are wrecked and not best prepared for Qualifying School. That’s another reason some of guys simply don’t go.”
“It also seems silly when England’s Tom Lewis has made €150,000 on the European Tour this season and it counts for nothing now that he is doing well on Challenge Tour with over €85,000.
So, what’s the magic bullet?
“The obvious one is to increase the places from both Challenge Tour and Qualifying School to 25,” adds Hoey, who is also Tournament Ambassador for the NI Open and integral to discussions behind the scenes at the most popular event on the Challenge Tour.
“There are 42 European Tour events, 30 of those could easily be Challenge Tour events, but sponsors aren’t as interested if they are categorised as Challenge Tour events even though the fields are practically the same.
“You also have guys trying to choose between both tours. There simply aren’t enough spots.
“It could be time to introduce one money list where combined money won from both the European and Challenge Tour is listed right down to 300th place and players are ranked accordingly. A bit like the ATP tennis system, and the smaller the tournament the further it is down the ranking.
“I understand it’s hard for the committee to make new decisions, but the tour is changing so rapidly, adjustments have to be made. The system is definitely not right.
“We are fortunate to have people like Gary Henry (NI Open) and Andrew Snoddy (European Tour) working hard to keep two Challenge Tour events in Ireland. That’s brilliant as England still only has one.”
With so many good players, Hoey believes it was always going to get to this point. “It was always harder to get back on the main tour than stay on but now it’s much harder. It’s almost prohibitive. The avenue back has bottlenecked.”
“We’re still only playing for 10 per cent of the prize money on Challenge Tour compared to the main tour. We all agree prize money needs to be at least €250,000-€300,000 per tournament.
“The other thing is the European Tour TV money can’t compete with the PGA Tour TV money. I understand it’s hard to get TV money, but more needs to feed down to the Challenge Tour.
“With the tours being so bunched, The Rolex Series was always going to hurt the smaller tournaments, some of which can’t live up to the larger events.”
The Ryder Cup and Rolex are unquestionably key to the success of the European Tour. “The fact is a considerable percentage of corporate funding and support is generated from both the Ryder Cup and Rolex,” adds Hoey.
Professional golf very much remains a game of numbers.