European Tour’s Dubai climax turns 10, but would World Tour help level playing field?
By Simon Ward
Golf’s DP World Tour Championship, the Dubai-based climax to the European Tour season, celebrates its 10th anniversary this week with the durability of the lucrative event demonstrating the globalisation of the circuit, and providing a contrast with some more traditional events on the home continent, which struggle to attract sponsors and top fields.
The Tour Championship, which gets under way at the Jumeirah Golf Estates on Thursday, features an elite 60-player field and the Tour's highest prize fund of the year of $8 million, with a further $5 million to be shared by the players that finish in the top 10 of the season-long Race to Dubai.
This is made possible by the support of DP World, the global port operator that is 80-per-cent owned by the Dubai government, and which has been the title sponsor from launch.
Explaining the company’s continuing commitment to the tournament, Daniel van Otterdijk, senior vice-president, group communications, at DP World, told Sportcal: “This is a golf tournament that is the denouement of the season, of 47 tournaments, and the pinnacle of the season for the players. From that perspective it’s a logical choice to contribute to something that is good for Dubai, and gets a lot of visitors.”
The Tour Championship has grown in prestige over the last decade, as Dubai’s stock has also risen, and there will be widespread interest in this year’s event as European Ryder Cup team-mates Francesco Molinari of Italy and Tommy Fleetwood of England vie for the $1.25-million bonus for the winner of the Race to Dubai.
Van Otterdijk said: “The visibility increases each year and tournament takes on a greater significance each year. On a wider point, the ability for us to attract people to Dubai is beneficial for us, and for the UAE as a whole.”
He added: “The players make it [the event]. We have a spectacular setting and a very learned public who come and enjoy it. A lot of people talk about it being one of the great weeks of the Dubai calendar.”
In addition to using the tournament to boost awareness of its business, which comprises 78 marine and inland container terminals in more than 40 countries on six continents, DP World is active in promoting Dubai as a hub for trade and sport, in part through a partnership with Expo 2020, which will take place in the city.
The company is also engaged in efforts to increase participation through the Emirates Golf Federation’s National Junior Development Program and the Arabic Schools Initiative, with the latter venture introducing 4,500 children to the sport.
Van Otterdijk said: “We have a lot of shared values with golf… there’s a great opportunity to get young people involved in the sport.”
Dubai has hosted a European Tour event since 1989 – the first year of the Dubai Desert Classic, which remains on the schedule – and the 10 years of the DP World Tour Championship will likely have dispelled any confusion about the money-spinning climax being held in the Middle East.
Van Otterdijk said: “If I’m not wrong, a big number of the European Tour events are not in Europe so I think people have looked beyond that.”
He is not wrong. Over 30 countries now stage tournaments, with the more far-flung outposts including Australia, China, Malaysia and South Africa, meaning that it is a truly global tour, while Saudi Arabia is a new addition for 2019.
However, the European Tour has been driven to some extent by the need to attract sponsorship, often from state-backed companies such as DP World, meaning that some traditional events have dropped by the wayside.
The British Masters looked set to go that way next year only to be reprieved at the 11th hour. Even then, it does not yet have a sponsor, after broadcaster Sky Sports did not renew, and the prize fund of £3 million ($3.45 million) is less than half that of the European Tour’s top-tier Rolex Series events, which start at $7 million.
The gap is widely attributed to the difficulty in attracting top European players to the lesser events, largely because those stars can earn much more in USA. Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy said on Tuesday that he might even give up his European Tour membership in 2019.
Steve Martin, the global chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, told Sportcal: “It’s about the field. It’s about European Tour vs PGA Tour. You can’t blame the players, and there was a debate around this year’s British Masters [about the field].
“You can’t blame the players for going where the money is when one year they can have a good season, and next year they can’t hit a ball.”
The challenge in attracting sponsors and stars for golf tournaments in the traditional market of the UK contrasts with that in USA where financial institutions help to bankroll lucrative PGA Tour events, and in Dubai where DP World has been in talks about extending its sponsorship of the Tour Championship beyond 2020.
Even that does not compare with some PGA Tour events in terms of prize money, with, for example $11 million on offer at The Players Championship, but van Otterdijk does not believe that DP World needs to increase its investment, saying: “As with anything it’s about the competitiveness of the product and if it was no longer competitive, people would walk with their feet.”
World Tour talk One remedy for the imbalance in sponsorship funding and quality of fields in various markets would be a World Tour, and this possibility was recently revived by Keith Pelley, the chief executive of the European Tour, who admitted that “positive conversations” with the PGA Tour could pave the way for such a concept “down the road.”
Martin was less equivocal, saying: “It’s glaringly obvious that there needs to be a World Tour, so the European Tour does not become a feeder. There needs to be a reset.”
He added: “The biggest events have the biggest players and the biggest sponsors.”
Van Otterdijk admitted that the DP World Tour Championship would benefit from being part of a truly global tour, with the cream of US talent competing alongside the best European players in Dubai, but fears that could come at a cost.
He said: “Clearly that would have advantages. [But] I’m not sure how that would work on the global stage. A lot of things would have to change. You’d also see the loss of a number of tournaments that don’t have the money draw, but do have the heritage, and that for me would be sad.”
Martin commended the European Tour for being “visionary” in establishing itself as a global circuit, but believes it should now concentrate resources on a core number of tournaments.
He said: “I’d scale it back and have 15 big events, plus the majors and the World Golf Championships, and then you can focus on scale and have the bigger players too. That would be stage one, and stage two would be 20 events. You can schedule things better too.”
Martin was positive about the current state of world golf, pointing to the interest in the 2018 Ryder Cup, won by Europe in France, and Tiger Woods’ successful comeback on the PGA Tour, but added: “They need to make it easier to buy. It’s been navel-gazing and needs a reset.”