David MacLaren interview: New formats and tournaments ahead for the Senior Tour
David MacLaren plays off a ‘miserable’ handicap of five and is the worst golfer in his family, something he is openly and understandably quite pleased with. His younger daughter is off 4, his wife, an Irish senior international, 3 while his other daughter, Meghan, is off +5 and the player who secured the winning point in this year’s Curtis Cup success in Ireland. He is also the new Head of the European Senior Tour.
MacLaren’s path began studying Modern Languages at Edinburgh University and took in jobs with Strokesaver and then Director of Golf at Hanbury Manor, St Pierre and Forest of Arden. The Newcastle United fan then ran all of Marriott’s UK golf operations before joining PGA European Tour Courses in 2005 which was then bought by the European Tour and rebranded as European Tour Properties. He has run that for the past seven years.
MacLaren’s path now brings him to the Senior Tour where he hopes to bring in new initiatives, new formats and new tournaments. The European Tour’s CEO Keith Pelley is mustard keen to reinvent the over 50s circuit and in MacLaren he has a highly personable, open-minded and driven character to make it happen.
You took over the European Senior Tour in May this year and still run European Tour Properties so how do you manage your time? European Tour Properties has grown in the last couple of years and we’ve gone from eight to 22 venues so we have recruited some additional resource there.
If I were to quantify things, I would spend 70 per cent of my time as head of the Senior Tour with a 30 per cent watching brief on European Tour Properties. The spin-off benefit is the potential opportunity to use our network to create one or more Senior Tour events.
One idea, amongst many, that we are looking at is a tournament along the lines of European Tour Properties Senior Classic, which could be staged at one of our destinations. If successful we could then take it to a different destination each year.
How much of a learning curve have the last few months been? The most unexpected part is all of the rules and processes that go into a golf Tour. If you look at things like invitations, player categories, withdrawal processes and regulations and relationships with a promoter then it all adds up. For even someone who has been employed by the Tour it has been a big learning curve and you have to make sure that the information that you give is accurate so there has been an awful lot of bedtime reading on things like tournament contracts.
I’m 45 so the Senior Tour is an easy sell to me as it features all the players that I grew up watching. How easy a sell is it promoters and venues? One of the most impressive things that my predecessor Andy Stubbs has done is that the tournaments that we have are of the highest quality, proper tournaments at proper venues and proper prize money.
We need to find a way of taking 13 tournaments, two of which are US Majors, and turn that into 20, which is a commitment that we have made to the players. By 2019 we hope to have 20 tournaments.
I believe that what makes the Senior Tour special is the opportunity of interaction with our players, a thought process that quickly takes you to a Pro-am or Alliance format.
If the only way we have of raising enough revenue to fund tournaments is to find sponsors who are prepared to pay for the media value that they can get for a Senior Tour event or to fund a tournament by the receipts from people coming to watch then those two are important components to making it happen. Funding a tournament in its entirety is a tough ask. If, however, you add in the component of people being prepared to pay by entering a Pro-am team or entering as an Alliance player then we have a real opportunity. That might mean we look at things in a slightly different way – if our staple product is simply 54 holes strokeplay events played in isolation by our 54 players then the task is a challenging one. If, however, we can embrace these other formats at some or most of our tournaments then I believe we can get to our target a lot quicker.
Can you see the Tour having events in Asia? That would depend on the outcome of wider and ongoing discussions between the Asian Tour and European Tour so that is not an immediate priority at the moment.
We have created a database of ongoing potential tournament discussions and we have in the region of 35-40 ongoing dialogues. It is not an easy task to take an active discussion through to putting on a tournament but I still believe we have a core product that gives us a real chance of success.
The European Tour makes a rare venture to the north of England next year with Lee Westwood hosting at Close House. How simplistic would it be to say that the fans would come out if you had a tournament in, say, Yorkshire or the North West? One of our current discussions involved the North of England and I do think that Yorkshire may be somewhere that appears on our calendar more quickly than the North East.
Yorkshire is a part of the world with a heritage of courses and, given the ability to translate what I’ve talked about with an alliance format, that may well be a new tournament next year or the year after. When you go to an area which hasn’t had top-class tournament golf for a while there is an untapped potential for spectators and Pro-ams that we can tap into.
We have just had a Senior Tour event in Italy for the first time in six years, and it was in the north of the country, and the crowds were fantastic. That shows the potential of taking our product into new markets.
Can you make more of our links courses which are the envy of the golfing world? In an ideal world the answer would always be yes, but I feel quite strongly about this point in that we have to temper what we would like to do with the pragmatic realities of tournament golf. They tend to be at resort-type facilities and the benefits are far more at these types of courses than a members’ club or a world-class links course. I do find myself defending how we can’t always play on the most traditional of courses, I would love to find ways of showcasing our great courses but the players understand how things work. Discussions and opinions about different golf courses are varied and animated but the commercial reality of how best to fund a good tournament will always come first in my world
And we do actually play on a wide variety of great golf courses – 2018 Ryder Cup venue Le Golf National – host of the inaugural Paris Legends Championship this year – is a prime example.
Is it a happy Tour? A lazy response to that question would be to say that levels of satisfaction will depend on whether we have 15 tournaments or 25 tournaments. That said, part of the job that I have enjoyed far more than I expected is the opportunity to talk to and spend time with the players. We are, first and foremost, a members’ organisation – we ultimately work for the players and in my experience, the more we communicate, the more we will understand our shared vision and the quicker we will succeed in our aims.
How good is the Senior Tour in terms of telling its story? I would like to think we have made some significant strides in terms of communication. We have appointed a specialist press officer in Tom Carlisle and just having that single resource (and a fellow Newcastle supporter!) the benefit is absolutely very, very evident.
We are about to send our first newsletter to the players and have a new website for next season as two small, but tangible, examples.
From watching my daughters play for the last number of years I also think that we can learn from the amateur game, how the elite players get looked after and the opportunities that they have. We must not automatically assume we do everything better in the professional game.
It would be easy to say that because our core product is golfers over 50 that social media is not as important as other Tours but we don’t share that view at all. And you would be surprised at how many of our players are on Twitter or Facebook.
What about the prospect of a joint tournament with the Ladies European Tour? I would personally love to. Would that take The Senior Tour forward? In theory, absolutely, with the right tournament and the right market.
A lot of people would say it would never work, how could you match up the different playing characteristics of the men and women but a starting point might be that we have a sponsor or a venue or even a mindset so let’s find solutions to the problems. Foursomes would be the obvious format, this would allow us to worry much less about course setup, which tees to play from etc. I am excited by the opportunity to create events such as this, just as we are assessing format innovation on the main Tour.
Is Keith Pelley’s influence noticeable? A Keith Pelley European Tour is all about growth, looking forward and trying to make sure we are as modern as possible. He is also fantastic at placing confidence in those parts of the business that he thinks has the ability to thrive and grow.
People ask why I’m running the Senior Tour and I would guess that Keith saw something in the growth of European Tour Properties that can be translated that into the Senior Tour. It is a very exciting place to be, growth is expected and encouraged and hopefully rewarded with more playing opportunities for our Members.
Is it possible to get more Senior Tour players into the US Majors? We are waiting for the PGA Tour Champions’ exemption categories for next year so we will know if we need to go into bat and try and get more playing opportunities. We have a very good relationship with our counterparts in the US and I would particularly single out our relationship with the PGA of America in relation to the number of spots we receive into the Senior PGA Championship.
How closely do you work with them when bringing out your schedule? I have been lucky enough to get to know Greg McLaughlin who runs the PGA TOUR Champions. We would be incredibly aware of what their schedule would be and I would like to think they would be the same. They haven’t released their schedule yet so there is some second-guessing but one of my top-15 priorities would be to work as closely as possible with them.
Potentially we might have a joint sanctioned tournament and there are several of our European Tour Properties Destinations that wants to promote themselves in America so I could see a large co-sanctioned event which could benefit both Tours. I would have no hesitation in looking at something like that if it was the right opportunity and the budget can be put together
This year the Senior Tour season began in the last week of May, and that was a US Major, presumably that has to change? Yes, and we have a new tournament provisionally announced in Sharjah in March so we are hoping that will start the season. One of my top five priorities would be to look at the early part of the schedule, the Caribbean is a possibility where we might be able to develop something. The fulfilment that might be in 2018 but I think if we can show some progress next year we’ll have some momentum going forward.