VIRGINIA WATER, ENGLAND | When Keith Pelley forsook Toronto in 2015 to become the fourth chief executive officer of the DP World Tour based at Wentworth Golf Club, west of London, the Canadian brought with him several striking idiosyncrasies.
As he has demonstrated many times since, he could talk with great enthusiasm and seemed completely comfortable in the presence of journalists. It soon became clear Pelley had a love of Britain’s romantic poets of the late 18th and early 19th century, notably John Keats, William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Most striking of all was his penchant for coloured spectacles. In a corporate world in which dark jackets and trousers and plain shirts generally were de rigueur, even if ties had been dropped from sartorial requirements, Pelley’s specs caused quite a stir. He had as many as 12 pairs. Though not necessarily being intended to indicate his mood, they occasionally have been interpreted as doing so.
So, was there some significance Wednesday in the fact that Pelley’s glasses were black? They seemed to fit in with the serious tone he adopted on the third day of BMW PGA Championship week. Once known as the flagship event of the European Tour, the BMW PGA also could be described as the tour’s annual general meeting, an occasion when everyone who was anyone in professional golf in Europe made their way to the leafy environs of the Wentworth estate near Heathrow Airport. So far this week much was the same as usual. There were almost as many business meetings off the course as there were rounds on the famed West Course.
The difference from years past was that this year many of the discussions were about the elephant in the room, namely the ongoing dispute between the PGA Tour and the European tour and LIV Golf, headed by Greg Norman. The atmosphere amidst the larch and elm trees, the oaks and the beeches that make this venue such an arboreal delight, was tense. “It is the most divisive period in any sport I have ever known,” Pelley said with a stern face.
“There is this pyramid that has been so good for golf for so many years, and I don’t think it is a broken system. So, whenever something like this comes along, that is incredibly disruptive. They are saying how golf needs to change. It doesn’t need to change. Golf is the most wonderful game in the world.” – Rory McIlroy
How would the two sides – the defenders and the disruptors – rub along for the week? Surely there was bound to be friction when 17 players who have defected to LIV had shown up at Wentworth to compete against those players loyal to their respective tours? The LIV players were not allowed to enter Wednesday’s pro-am, and Pelley requested, but did not order, them not to wear LIV-branded clothing or equipment.
“Their nerve,” someone said of the defectors. “They want the best of both worlds. They want to be allowed to leave the organizations that have made them the financial successes they are for admittedly far greater riches and also to be able to pop back into their previous tours as and when they please. Double dipping, I call that. They want their cake and to eat it.”
On Tuesday, Luke Donald, the newly appointed captain of Europe’s Ryder Cup team in Rome next year, said he detected no hostile atmosphere among his fellow competitors. Several LIV players declined to comment on anything to do with the current situation, knowing how combustible the issue was. Martin Kaymer, a LIV player, withdrew from Wentworth on the grounds that he didn’t want to be somewhere he wasn’t welcome.
Rory McIlroy, recently described in these pages as the “voice of reason,” had set the tone after winning the FedEx Cup last month when he said it was going to be “hard to stomach” seeing the LIV players at Wentworth. On the eve of the tournament, he was keen to speak out, clearly relishing his role as an articulate spokesman for the defenders of the game as it is now. “I don’t see how giving 48 cherry-picked players is growing the game in any way,” McIlroy said. “There has to be meritocracy. You need to give someone ambitious the opportunity to know that if they are playing on the Challenge Tour in a year’s time … they can be challenging for a major championship.
“There is this pyramid that has been so good for golf for so many years, and I don’t think it is a broken system. So, whenever something like this comes along, that is incredibly disruptive. They are saying how golf needs to change. It doesn’t need to change. Golf is the most wonderful game in the world.”
Billy Horschel, the defending champion, savaged some of the LIV players. “It’s pretty hypocritical to come over here and play outside LIV when your big thing was to spend more time with family and want to play less golf. I don’t think that the American guys – Abraham Ancer, Talor Gooch, the Jason Kokraks – who haven’t supported the PGA Tour should be here. (Kokrak withdrew from the event.) You’ve never played this tournament; you’ve never supported the DP World Tour; why are you here? You are here for only one reason only and that is to try to get world-ranking points because you don’t have them. That’s my stance on it. It’s the guys who have publicly stated they want to play less who are the hypocrites. It’s not every one of them (LIV players). There are a few of those hypocrites here this week because they wanted to play less, but they are playing in another event that is not a LIV event.”
Horschel was asked what he would do if he were playing the last round with a LIV golfer who won the event. “I’ll be shaking their hands. I will congratulate them and say ‘well played.’ I am not a sore loser at all. The only thing I would say is that it would not be good if that happened.”
By Wednesday evening, hours before the first tee time, there still was a tense atmosphere at Wentworth. It wasn’t necessarily what automaker BMW, the event’s sponsor, wanted. BMW would have preferred the sort of festival atmosphere at this event of previous years. It wasn’t what the DP World Tour wanted, either – nor, looking at it from their headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, PGA Tour officials. But that’s the way it is in golf at the moment. It is less about the playing of the game than the running of it.
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