The Irish Open tees off at Ballyliffin Golf Club in County Donegal this week — the first time the tournament has visited the remote county in the event’s long and somewhat peripatetic history.
But if the striking Atlantic coast landscape of the Glashedy Links will be a novelty to the elite field, another part of the setting — the tournament’s framing as part of the lucrative Rolex Series — speaks to a continuing reshaping of the European golfing landscape.
The Rolex Series was announced in November 2016, with the luxury Swiss watch brand augmenting its already prominent branding of golf’s major tournaments and players with a conscious attempt to invest in and boost the European Tour, long in the shadow of its P.G.A. cousin.
The immediate financial dividend for the European Tour was easy to quantify. Now in its second season, each of the eight Rolex Series events boasts a $7 million prize fund — orders of magnitude greater than many previously offered as stand-alone events, and putting them close to the levels of contemporaneous P.G.A. tournaments. The P.G.A.’s Greenbrier Classic is also running this week, for example, with a prize fund of $7.3 million. Last week’s Quicken Loans National offered $7.1 million. The financial benchmark is apparent.
For a tournament such as the Irish Open, which has had a checkered history of even being played, since its inauguration in 1927, the stability of becoming a tentpole event for what’s now European golf’s most prominent series offers a reputational, as well as a financial benefit. It can only help when young European players, electing to play events close to home, end up doing well in Rolex Series events, to drive its upstart narrative.
Last year’s Irish Open champion, Jon Rahm, consolidated a growing reputation with his six-shot win — and in a boost for the sponsors, he happens to be a Rolex brand ambassador. The participation of Rahm and other rising European golfers like Tommy Fleetwood speaks to another benefit for European Tour organizers: being able to offer legitimate alternative routes where young European players can build their careers beyond the P.G.A. calendar.
Keith Pelley, the chief executive of the European Tour, reflected that view via email: “The Rolex Series has great players, playing at great golf tournaments in iconic global locations. Undoubtedly it also gives our younger players something to aspire to, so it has a huge role in terms of developing the next generation of stars.With its ranking points and links to the Ryder Cup, the Rolex Series also presents a strong competitive counterweight in maintaining the profile and credibility of golf’s most prominent team event. The European Ryder captain Thomas Bjorn recently told a round table in Dubai that “it’s amazing to see how far the Rolex Series has come and how much it has brought to the game on this side of the Atlantic.” Bjorn also has spoken of the value of getting to see a consolidated coterie of top European players in Rolex Series fields as he plots his Ryder Cup campaign.
Challenges remain for elite European golfers, however, in trying to navigate the existing cultural geography of the game. Rory McIlroy was dutifully effusive about the Rolex Series when it began, claiming that, “It gives guys an incentive to maybe play a little bit more on this side of the pond leading up to the Open Championship and hopefully get some great fields.” Ireland’s most famous golfer has shown commitment to his own country’s championship, which he won in 2016. His charity, the Rory Foundation, is the host for the tournament, too.
Yet beyond that noblesse oblige, McIlroy also has spoken publicly about the demands put on golfers by the rigors of maintaining a P.G.A. Tour card, and put himself on a potential collision course with European Tour organizers when he was heard telling a golf podcast last year that “The World Tour — it’s going to happen one day, and I think it has to. To have all these tours competing against each other, and having to change dates, it’s counterproductive. I think everyone has to come together. The easy thing would be for the P.G.A. Tour to buy the European Tour, and take it from there.”
If Pelley might have been frustrated by the comments of a prominent European golfer, he would at least sympathize with the principle of innovation. The Rolex Series is only the most prominent of a number of new initiatives under his watch, targeted at broadening the demographic of golf viewership in Europe. He has suggested using entrance music for golfers, and has pushed different tournament formats such as the Shot Clock Masters and GolfSixes, while being mindful of preserving the integrity of the game, and of course the image of its most lucrative sponsor.
Pelley may have been only half joking when he said in a Golf Digest column last year: “I think we know where the out-of-bounds stakes are. A 1-iron from 120 yards, yes; to a clown’s mouth, no.”
Certainly, where the sense of elite competition is still growing, and to some extent out of the organizers’ hands, as players and managers plot their annual campaigns, the European Tour organizers can at least try to control creating a sense of occasion. Steve Todd, a deputy media communications director for the European Tour, detailed a focus on marketing innovation to drive new audiences:
“We try to build robust promotion plans which aren’t solely reliant on player participation and look at the wider appeal of our events as social occasions, not simply golf tournaments. We target different audiences using different mediums. So our target audience on Instagram, for example, might be different to the regular audience we have grown over a number of years and who regularly attend a tournament.
“At the recent BMW PGA Championship, we had bands playing on the Saturday and Sunday evenings, Rudimental and Simple Minds, which appealed to different demographics. The HNA Open de France is similar in this respect. It is a social occasion as much as a golf tournament.”
Within that mind-set, the Rolex Series, at the very least, presents a riposte to any vision of a golfing new world order under the P.G.A. Whatever might be happening across the Atlantic, Pelley can be sure the Donegal coast will be its own thriving epicenter for one part of the golf world this week:
“Its success so far has elevated the entire European Tour. It has been a game changer for us.”