DP World Tour chaos continues with Keith Pelley out and Guy Kinnings in to play LIV peacemaker

Keith Pelley
Keith Pelley is taking up an offer to lead Toronto’s four sports franchises - Getty Images/Warren Little

Rory McIlroy has called for calm following the upheaval of a second top European golf executive leaving in as many days and insisted that the surprise departures are unconnected to the fraught negotiations with the Saudi backers of LIV Golf.

Thursday’s news that Keith Pelley is quitting as chief of the DP World Tour caused greater consternation than the announcement on Wednesday that Martin Slumbers is stepping down as CEO of the R&A.

And inevitably connections were made with the ongoing tumult in the professional male game, as the power brokers continue to try to strike a deal with the £600 billion Public Investment Fund for an end to the two-year civil war.

Yet McIlroy is adamant that the shock double exit is simply a coincidence and rejected the notion this is further evidence of a Saudi clearout before any deal is reached. “I mean you can’t help timing can you?” McIlroy said. “It is what it is. Martin and Keith both did very good jobs and would have both stayed on for a long time.”

McIlroy did not see any requirement to rush into naming a permanent successor for Pelley. But later on Thursday afternoon, Guy Kinnings was announced by the Tour as Pelley’s replacement in what the statement described as a “seamless transition”. This ran somewhat contrary to McIlroy’s earlier remarks.

“With everything that’s gone on with the game Keith has been a voice of reason and it’s a shame we are not going to have that anymore,” McIlroy said. “They are going to have to look for someone to fill those shoes and try to do the great job Keith did.”

CEO of the DP World Tour Keith Pelley speaks at the trophy presentation following his victory during Day Four of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at Yas Links Golf Course on January 23, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Keith Pelley is moving back to his native Canada later this year to take over at the helm of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd - Getty Images/Warren Little

Not that McIlroy sounded resistant to Kinnings at the helm. “Guy knows everything that’s been going on and he’s been by Keith’s side for a lot of this,” he said. “I think absolutely short-term, Guy would be very competent to run things. But I guess like any business, you’ve got to look around, look outside the business and see if there’s any other talent out there who can help.”

The Tour, however, felt otherwise. With the news leaking from Canada overnight that Pelley had accepted to take over as the chief executive of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd - a multi-billion-dollar group that is in control of ice hockey’s Toronto Maple Leafs and basketball’s Toronto Raptors - it sought to smooth the waters and perhaps ease any Saudi anxiety as quickly as possible.

But by then, the alarm bells were sounding in the locker rooms and in terms of the fractious state of the game, Pelley’s departure is viewed as far more notable and worrying than that of Slumbers, who at 63 had previously signalled that his time in St Andrews would soon be up. Pelley is playing here in the Dubai Invitational - a glorified pro-am - and at the end of his round was plainly distraught that the cat was out of the bag. “That’s an understatement,” he said when asked by Telegraph Sport if the timing could have been better.

He declined to talk further, but in a later statement, Pelley cited his reasons. “The chance to be involved with my hometown sports teams in Toronto, was the one opportunity that I simply could not resist,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do at some point in my career.”

He flies home in April and it will be interesting to see if he remains involved during this spell. Pelley is an influential figure in the current discussions that will shape the professional fairways for the forthcoming years and decades.

A close confidante of Jay Monahan, the beleaguered PGA Tour commissioner, Pelley’s exit will hardly be welcomed by Monahan in Sawgrass HQ. Pelley first brought the Saudis on board with the formation of the Saudi International that appeared on the Tour’s schedule from 2019-2021 – and was crucial in bringing the respective parties to the table last year.

The move will inevitably be depicted as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Pelley. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd is one of the largest of its kind in North America with multi-billion-dollar assets.

As a proud Torontonian, this is no doubt a dream role for Pelley and it will mean a hefty increase in his salary despite earning north of £3 million per annum on the Tour. He has had a huge effect since he replaced George O’Grady in 2015. He guided the Tour through the worrying period of Covid – when many predicted the circuit’s demise – and then signed the controversial “strategic alliance” with the PGA Tour in 2021.

What had been a tense relationship for so long was suddenly transformed into a partnership, with the Americans pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into what was then the European Tour to help it survive.

It was hardly altruism by Monahan, however, as by then the spectre of LIV Golf was emerging and golf’s civil war was beginning. Pelley and his board had turned down an offer from the Saudis to pitch itself against the PGA Tour and the battle lines were this drawn.

The past two years have verged on the explosive for Pelley and despite the renaming of the circuit to the “DP World Tour” due to a seismic sponsorship deal with the Dubai firm, it has been largely marked by the fight with the LIV rebels.

Pelley faced down the likes of Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter in a court hearing last year, after Ryder Cup legends – including Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson – challenged that as independent contractors they should be free to play wherever they want and not be subject to fines or bans.

Pelley was victorious, but to say the split was acrimonious is, to use his term, an understatement. Poulter and colleagues resigned en masse, accusing Pelley of “jumping into bed” with the Americans and making the Tour a “mere feeder league”. By handing in their cards they made themselves ineligible for the Ryder Cup and it appeared their famous times in the blue and gold had reached an unseemly end.

However, the merger talks have given hope to some of these veterans that there could be a way back to the Europe team room – even if as vice-captains or captains – as has the recent LIV capture of Jon Rahm. Pelley’s standing down will give the rebels further reasons for positivity, as there was no doubt the row had turned personal.

In fairness, Kinnings looks a ready-made replacement. The former head of IMG golf has been Pelley’s deputy for more than five years and has impressed as Europe’s Ryder Cup director. Furthermore, the Englishman has previously managed the likes of Garcia and Stenson, as well as Europe Ryder Cup captain, Luke Donald, and could be the ideal candidate to usher in what the Tour prays will be a blessed era of peace.

Analysis: Golf’s Mr Marmite who took on LIV rebels

A strange but stark contrast of sorrow and jubilation greeted Thursday’s news Keith Pelley is leaving the role as chief executive of the DP World Tour.

In his controversial nine-year reign, the Canadian with a character as colorful as the frames on his spectacles established himself as golf’s Mr Marmite - depending, of course, on which side your bread is buttered.

He declined to talk further, but in a later statement, Pelley cited his reasons. “The chance to be involved with my hometown sports teams in Toronto, was the one opportunity that I simply could not resist,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do at some point in my career.”

To the loyalists, Pelley is “the man who saved the Tour”, while the LIV rebels see him as the obliging official who “jumped into bed with the PGA Tour” and turned the circuit into a “feeder tour”.

CEO of the PGA European Tour, Keith Pelley during the trophy presentation
Pelley had numerous supporters and detractors during his time at the DP World Tour - Reuters/Paul Childs

Thomas Bjorn is definitely in the first camp, despite the fact the Dane’s position as Europe Ryder Cup captain came under threat in the months leading up to the 2018 match in Paris after a few blazing rows with the chief executive.

“I’m sad that he’s leaving,” Bjorn said here at the Dubai Invitational. “We have had our ups and downs and shouting matches but they were probably my fault and I think the world of him. I saw Keith Pelley at his best during Covid, how he managed the Tour, the finances, the staff.

“It was a time of great uncertainty when everyone was worried for their jobs, but he was amazing; a real leader. I honestly believe there wouldn’t be a Tour now if not for Keith. Certainly I don’t think I could find somebody within the game today who could have done it.”

Pelley received almost universal praise for guiding the cash-poor Tour through that period when bankruptcy beckoned. It is what he did in response to the economic climax that has earned him scorn, especially, and overwhelmingly within that group of Ryder Cup legends who joined the Saudi-backed LIV Series last year.

Initially the sheikhs wanted to take on the PGA Tour by forging a billion-dollar partnership with what was then the European Tour. That threat inspired the PGA Tour to put up a counter offer to Wentworth HQ, investing hundreds of millions of pounds and guaranteeing purses - an offer that Pelley and his board accepted.

However, the cost of this “strategic alliance” has made the likes of Lee Westwood wince. “The European Tour has jumped fully in bed with the PGA Tour and even though Keith says he hates to hear it, it is now a feeder Tour for the PGA Tour,” Westwood told Telegraph Sport.

“The top 10 players on the Tour’s points list, not already exempt, will have a pathway to the PGA Tour - that’s giving our talent away. That was never the Tour’s policy before. Sorry, I don’t want to play under that sort of sports regime.”

Last May, Westwood handed in his card, as did Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson. By then, Pelley and his lawyers had beaten the rebels in court as they challenged his authority to hand out fines and bans. The criticisms continued to fly in his direction.

“It’s what I disliked most in all of this,” Bjorn said. “I’m still close to those players, I still speak to them and see them. They are still friends of mine, but so, too, is Keith and I told him just to ‘stay away from all this turning it personal. Your job is to protect the Tour’.

“Everyone should know that Keith didn’t take those decisions on his own. There is a board and players’ committee. He just had to stand up and announce them and take the flak from whoever it didn’t suit. And he has done a very good job as voice of reason in all this. As a Toronto boy this is a great move for him [as he becomes the head of Maple Leaf Sports] but it’s a real shame for the Tour.”

Luke Donald, the current Europe captain, concurs. “I’ve seen some people saying that the DP World Tour is now ‘a feeder tour’,” he said. “But I think the deal he did with the PGA Tour, guaranteeing purses, guaranteeing the longevity of this Tour in difficult times… well, I think he’s done actually a very good job. In the run-up to the last match [the win in Rome in October] whenever I’d pick up the phone and ask him something he would tell me how it was. I always appreciated that honesty.”

Inevitably, those queries were centered around the eligibility of the LIV players, with Garcia, a close friend of Donald’s, keen to be included in some capacity at Marco Simone, right up until a few weeks of the match. Pelley simply stuck to what it said in the rulebook.

Bjorn insists Pelley was always up for the fight on behalf of the Tour and maintains he is only leaving because “this job in his home city of Toronto is his dream job and he has to take it now”. The notion that Pelley is leaving at the behest of the Saudis is clearly complete nonsense to Bjorn. As is the theory he is departing before he is either pushed or it gets even uglier.

“I think it hurts Keith that he goes away from this and there’s not yet a solution to where golf is going,” Bjorn said. “But the opportunity is there for him now and [the merger] has nothing to do with it. Keith would have loved to have stayed and finished it all and be a part of it, because that’s the type of guy that he is.”

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