All hail the Rolex Series. Say what you like about the European Tour’s chief executive Keith Pelley – his priority is clear. Namely, to get the best players in the world, and especially Europe’s Ryder Cup stars, competing in more of his tour’s events.
That much became clear 12 months ago. Rory McIlroy was effectively given a free pass into the Final Series of the Race to Dubai despite having failed to play enough events after his foot injury.
Pelley is not one to worry too much about the rules. It was more important to have the game’s biggest draw in the field than to follow protocol.
The European Tour have announced, with what is becoming a trademark lack of detail under Pelley, the concept of the Rolex Series, which will begin next year.
The Rolex Series comprises seven high-profile events – the BMW PGA, Irish Open, Scottish Open, Italian Open, Turkish Open, Nedbank Challenge and DP World Championship. Pelley expects one or two more to be added next year with a 10th arriving in 2018. These events will receive a boost in both prize money and world ranking points in offer. A $7m prize fund is guaranteed in each, and the tour has bankrolled at least some of them to a degree.
The details are as yet unclear, but the Rolex Series of events will replace the current Final Series, which for the past four seasons has culminated in Dubai in November.
Effectively, they will have a special flag that denotes their enhanced status. With Rolex’s association, you can assume the aim is to ensure star-studded fields for these key weeks in the calendar.
The Irish Open is moving to a new date the week before the Scottish Open, which in turn leads into the Open. This creates a three-week spell of seaside golf, a mini links swing. That should help to attract quality fields as the players prepare for the Open. The Irish Open is at Portstewart, in Antrim, while the Scottish Open goes to Ayrshire links Dundonald. The Open is at Royal Birkdale.
The other side of the coin is that the European Tour is becoming, for better or for worse, an increasingly two-tier organisation. All members are not created equal.
Much like the Premier League, the risk is the product becoming stale. The rich get richer and the best players are ring-fenced from the rest.
In football, it tends to be the same clubs (with a respectful nod to Leicester) competing for the title each season and playing in the bloated Champions League.
By way of example, on the one hand you have Louis Oosthuizen, who is currently in 8th place on the Race to Dubai. This season he has played exactly twice on European soil (the Open and the Dunhill Links). Plus a further seven events that are not also on the PGA Tour schedule. All but half of his near-€2m prize money came from reaching the final of the WGC Matchplay.
Compare that to Thorbjorn Olesen, in 10th place. He has played 14 times on European soil and a further seven times in events not also on the PGA Tour schedule.
Pelley will argue, as do UEFA, that they are giving the public (and, let’s be candid, sponsors) what they want by ensuring the best play against each other more often.
It is a fact that a Barcelona/Manchester United match up in the Champions League is a better spectacle than Rostov v Ludogorets. Similarly McIlroy and Stenson going down the stretch is a more appealing prospect than Scott Hend and Adrian Otaegui.
The subtext to all this is the Ryder Cup. Specifically, the European Tour cannot afford, literally, for the tour to become disconnected from the biennial showpiece.
This year we had Paul Casey declare himself out of the running because he was not prepared to commit to playing enough on the European Tour. There are those who would argue that where someone plays should have no bearing on whether he represents Europe at the Ryder Cup.
Doubtless, Pelley will be hoping – and he will have canvassed opinion – that the Rolex Series proves attractive to the likes of Justin Rose and Ian Poulter, Russell Knox and Thomas Pieters. If so, playing enough events to retain European Tour membership will become a non-issue for these high-profile players.
Pelley will also have picked his dates carefully, with an eye on the PGA Tour. Going up against the likes of the FedEx Cup play-offs and Players Championship makes little sense. Similarly, in the build-up to an American Major, there is little appetite to be on the other side of the world.
For Pelley and his team, the commercial success of the tour depends largely on the quality of the fields they can attract. But at the same time, they also have a duty of care to their rank-and-file members.
It was already hard enough for the likes of the Q-School graduates, who are currently in action in Spain trying to earn playing rights for next season, to gain entry to the events that matter most and therefore climb the world rankings and Race to Dubai money list.
If, as intended, the Rolex Series creates an elevated series of super-events, with limited fields, massive prize funds and extra world ranking points, the task for those who aren’t invited to the party just became even more daunting.
That’s why the tour has also announced, with slightly less fanfare it must be said, something called the Access List.
“We have consistently said that looking after the interests of all our members, whatever their ranking, is a high priority for us and the establishment of the Access List is an important part of that commitment,” said Pelley.
The Access List is like the Race to Dubai money list with one significant difference. A statement explained: “It will exclude money earned at the most lucrative tournaments of the European Tour season – the seven Rolex Series events, the Masters and US PGA Championship and the four World Golf Championships.”
The top 10 players in this list will retain their cards for the following season.
Accordingly, only the top 100 players in the Race to Dubai, rather than the previous 110, will keep playing privileges.
How much difference this will make, in practice, is hard to assess at this stage. It is there to illustrate the balance that must be struck. To say to those players struggling to keep their card that there is a place for them on the tour.
The last man in this year was Graeme Storm. He was given a stay of execution after Patrick Reed failed to play in enough events to count over the 2016 season. Storm earned a shade under €250,000.
Whoever out of Stenson or Danny Willett or Alex Noren or McIlroy comes out on top this week to win the Race to Dubai will walk away with a bonus of over €1.4m. In addition to European Tour season’s earnings approaching €5m.
There are European Tour pros and then there are European Tour pros.