Wednesday 21 November 2018

Paul Kimmage: How John McHenry's dream of six-hole golf exposed the darker side of the gentleman's game

 

John McHenry, former professional golfer pictured at Douglas Golf Club, Cork. Pic: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
John McHenry, former professional golfer pictured at Douglas Golf Club, Cork. Pic: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Irish Open Sundays have always brought out the best in him, and for most of that Sunday in Ballyliffin last July, it showed.

He woke up at seven, went for a leisurely walk before breakfast and arrived at the course as Rory McIlroy was walking to the tee. He dropped his bag in the media centre, grabbed a take-away cuppa and stood for an hour on the practice range, watching the leaders prepare and studying their swings.

Old memories returned, and nourished his opinions in the five-hour broadcast that afternoon for RTE.

"What's it like going into the final round of the Irish Open tied for the lead?"

He knew.

"What stopped Erik Van Rooyen from getting across the line?"

He knew.

"How did Russell Knox prevail at the end?"

He knew.

John McHenry knew.

He was in the studio, reviewing the winning plays, when Keith Pelley, the CEO of the European Tour, was introduced to the crowd at the presentation ceremony. No one does céad míle fáilte quite like Donegal and the warmth extended to the CEO almost made him blush: "He's a Canadian but we've adopted him; he's a great friend of Ireland; put your hands together ladies and gentlemen for Keith Pelley!"

McHenry did not hear the tribute, and would not have given it a thought if he hadn't met a friend as he returned to the media centre.

"Hey John! Did you hear what they said about Pelley?"

"No," he replied.

Keith Pelley, CEO European Tour. Photo: Getty Images
Keith Pelley, CEO European Tour. Photo: Getty Images

He had spent the day trying not to think about the Canadian, or what he would say if they met.

'This is your favourite day, John. Focus on your work.'

But on the six-hour drive back to Cork that night he thought of little else.

ONE

These words playing over in his head . . .

"Golf is a game of honour, John."

"Golf is a game of honour, John."

"Golf is a game of honour, John."

"Golf is a game of honour, John."

John McHenry, former professional golfer pictured at Douglas Golf Club, Cork. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
John McHenry, former professional golfer pictured at Douglas Golf Club, Cork. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Even in the night . . .

"Golf is a game of honour, John."

"Golf is a game of honour, John."

"Golf is a game of honour, John."

"Golf is a game of honour, John."

Especially in the night . . .

"Golf is a game of honour, John."

"Golf is a game of honour, John."

"Golf is a game of honour, John."

"Golf is a game of honour, John."

TWO

The month is August 1979. He is standing on the 13th tee at Douglas Golf Club with his father, Sean, and Frank McGrath, one of his dad's best friends. He is 15 years old and having one of those days when the game seems easy and your goals are reachable: the handicap of four he's been bursting himself to lower; his first senior win at the club.

But he tugs his drive left and misses the fairway.

The ball is sitting down in a small clump of rough. He pulls an iron from his bag, considers his options and waits for Frank and his father to hit. His lie isn't great but there's a window to the green. He finds a stance, corrects his posture and grip, and puts a powerful swing on the ball, launching it skywards.

"Great shot," Frank enthuses.

"Well played," his father chimes.

But the only voice that resonates is the one inside his head.

'That's a penalty, John.'

'What!'

'The ball moved at address.'

'I'm not sure.'

'You are sure.'

'Maybe a fraction.'

'The ball moved.'

'Yes but . . .'

'Call the penalty.'

'Yes but . . .'

'Golf is a game of honour, John.'

He calls the penalty and loses the tournament by a stroke but there's a strange kind of glory in the defeat. His father tells him he has never been prouder of him. Honour is the mark of a true sportsman, he says. Integrity is what makes the game unique.

"Golf is a game of honour, John."

A year later, age 16, he won the first of his three Irish Youths titles. He was a Walker Cup player in '87, had two great runs in the Irish Open in '93 and '98, and spent 12 seasons as a respected pro on the European Tour. "The professional game has missed a great gentleman, but he has the personality and determination to do well in his new role," Colm Smith observed in a tribute in the Irish Independent.

McHenry did well.

Integrity was a regular theme in his columns for The Examiner. There was this:

"Since its inception golf has been perceived as a 'game of honour', where the rules of the game are largely self-regulated, none more so than the professional game where many of its leading lights have called penalties on themselves for no apparent reason other than the fact that they themselves knew that they infringed the rules."

And this:

"In golf, cheating is a black and white issue and there are no grey areas. The rulebook is sacrosanct - even if some of the rules seem peculiar and violating them would offer no advantage. Golfers know that when they compete there is a 'badge of honour' to play the rules and call any necessary penalties on yourself. It is a game of integrity."

And this:

"Today, we are all experiencing changing times in the golf industry, with so many clubs under financial pressure yet the game's integrity remains as solid as ever before. Oh, for the day that other professional sports like football for example could 'clean up their act' to play by the rules.

And this:

"Golf administrators should not be constantly dismayed about the public perception that they are being too unfair or overly harsh. They should really rejoice. However foolish they may seem to look at times, they at all times recognise there is some considerable difference between right and wrong."

"Golf is a game of honour, John."

Those were his father's words.

"The European Tour is a players' tour."

That's what Keith Pelley said.

"You're a former player, John. They are not going to desert you."

This is what he told himself over and over again.

THREE

Three am has always been his waking hour, his thinking hour. When his thoughts are good, and he's worked something out, he'll throw his arm around Sylvia and just wait for sleep to take him again. When his thoughts are disturbed, he'll slip downstairs and walk the floor.

It was at 3.0am in the summer of '99 when he called time on his professional career. Twelve years as a journeyman, flirting with cut lines and juggling costs had worn him down. There were some good days too but it wasn't the life he had dreamed of as a boy, and it wasn't enough to sustain them.

"I was 35," he says, "and I just thought, 'Now is the time to get out and see if you can move on and build something else with your life'."

The Irish Open was in Ballybunion that year. He did some commentary and consultancy work and then cut the cord completely with a sales job at Classic Windows in Cork. "I'm a hard worker, and a diligent person," he says, "but it's just not in my nature to go out there and flog things. I found it hard. I was completely out of my comfort zone."

The turning point was a Tuesday afternoon in September 2001 when a Boeing 767 hit the World Trade Centre in New York. He remembers driving from the office in Killumney with a sense that the whole world was crumbling, and waking at the devil's hour with uncertainty in his head.

"It was one of those defining moments when you thought, 'What's going to happen here?' And 'What are you going to do next?'. I have a motto: 'If it's to be it's up to me' and I remember thinking that night, 'Can I do better for myself?'."

An old friend, Wattie Sullivan, sent word that the K Club were advertising for a new assistant professional. The job - facilitating members and guests - was pretty basic but it offered a way back to the world McHenry loved. He started in May 2002, rented an apartment in Kilcullen, and spent nine months commuting to Cork at weekends.

"I give a lot of credit to Sylvia because she was basically rearing the kids but it was a big opportunity, and I felt I needed to be totally committed to try to get established."

A year later he was promoted to head professional when Ernie Jones retired.

"We sold our house in Cork and moved up to Kildare and it was a brilliant experience. It was a very affluent society, and you had people with airs and graces, but they knew how to let their hair down and it was fantastic fun. It was also a chance to work at the European Open.

"We were promoting and improving the venue and working closely with the European Tour, and a lot of the players were still (contemporaries) and I could talk to them and find out what was going on."

In 2005, after two years as head pro, McHenry was offered the position of director of golf. Twelve months later the club would stage the Ryder Cup. "It was a big change," he says. "As a professional, you're working the members hard - talking to them, socialising with them, feeling them out.

"As a director of golf, you are implementing policy, which I found tough because you had built this massive relationship with people, and that relationship still existed but it was different. Dr Smurfit was good to work with; I found him tough and exacting but very, very fair. And the Ryder Cup was just flat out.

"It's a tough week anyway because you go from (having) maybe 200 employees and suddenly there's about 3,000 people working at the club. And the weather was horrendous. We went from 90 degrees the previous week, and the course in pristine condition, to I think 12 inches of rain and wondering 'Can we survive?'.

"We got through the opening ceremony and suddenly this hurricane came through and there were trees down everywhere, but the amount of goodwill was phenomenal. You were looking at all these people coming through the gate dressed up in their finest and you watched them leaving and they were absolutely destroyed. But do you know what? They were buzzing.

"So it was a really intense week, and a week when I think the K Club delivered everything it could possibly deliver for the European Tour; corporately, it was the most successful Ryder Cup of all time, at that time."

The Ryder Cup capped a great four years for McHenry at the K Club. The European Tour and the PGA of America sent letters of appreciation and it was obvious to pretty much everyone in the business that McHenry excelled at his job. Director of golf was a perfect showcase for his talent and an ideal fit for his personality.

So it was no great surprise when Alastair Jackson called.

FOUR

The Man (Edward G Robinson): "Gets down to what it's all about, doesn't it? Making the wrong move at the right time."

The Kid (Steve McQueen): "Is that what's it's all about?"

The Man: "Like life, I guess."

The Cincinnati Kid

FIVE

On the morning of Friday, October 20, a month after he had helped secure the Ryder Cup at the K Club, Darren Clarke pulled on a grey pinstripe suit, dabbed some gel in his hair, and was taken via private jet and helicopter to a country estate in Co Kildare to launch a members-only golf club that aspired to be the best in Ireland.

The Champions Club at Moyvalley was part of a €100m project being funded by Alastair Jackson, a Co Antrim-born property developer whose other projects included the New Forest Estate course in Westmeath. Moyvalley was a 30-minute drive from the K Club and promised "five-to-six star standards" for those with deep enough pockets to afford the €75,000 membership fee.

The development included plans for apartments and houses ranging from €500,000 to €2m but the course was ready to play - all it needed was a five-to-six star manager.

In November 2006, a couple of weeks after the launch, Jackson reached out to McHenry. Initially, McHenry turned him down. But Jackson didn't give up easily, finally making an offer "that was just too good to refuse". The contract was signed on January 30, 2007. The deal a €1m non-refundable retainer and €250k for three years. "I was a staff member at the K Club but there was no security going forward there," McHenry says. "I was 43 years old, and had children who would soon be going to college, so it was an important time to try and build some blocks. And a GM position was a chance to move to the next level."

A month after signing the contract, McHenry went to work. The new clubhouse was almost finished and he spent his first weeks at Moyvalley promoting the venue. Then his phone started hopping with suppliers who hadn't been paid. "The take-up on membership enquiries was slow, despite our best efforts, and the properties weren't selling. I thought, 'Holy Fuck! I am not in a good position here.'"

McHenry had been paid one-fifth (€200k) of his retainer and would spend almost half of that taking Jackson to the High Court. In June 2008 he was awarded €1.05m but rarely had victory felt more like defeat. Jackson was bankrupt. McHenry wasn't paid.

"It was a really gory, dreadful exercise that ultimately was one the worst moves I have ever made. There was a perception that I was litigious, and greedy, and it had a profound impact on being able to work in the golf environment again. I was now tits up and feverishly trying to break back into the industry, and I couldn't get in.

"We came back to Cork and I tried to regroup. There was a position going in my home club (Douglas) and I was ready to scale down, happy to scale down, but I didn't get it, which was a real blow. So I'm tumbling now, really tumbling, but I'm saying, 'Motivate yourself. Try and find opportunities. Talk to people'."

He struggled for 15 months until March 2009 when a friend introduced him to Robert Finnegan, the CEO of Three Ireland. The telecoms giant was looking at some sports projects to raise awareness of the brand. "They didn't know much about golf so it was a good fit for me," McHenry says. "I could talk to the Tour seamlessly, and they got involved with the Irish Open in 2009."

Three sponsored two Irish Opens before turning to football in 2011. McHenry was out of work again but getting by on bits and bobs; he spent most of his spare time studying some worrying trends in the game.

"It was still thriving at that stage but there was definitely a separation coming," he says. "People were starting to give out about how time-consuming it was, and places in Florida were beginning to haemorrhage a bit.

"Golf was a proven business model for 50-year-olds: they went to the country club for the day, entertained guests and played 18 holes. But there was nothing (for the generation) below that who wanted to watch their kids playing rugby and thought: 'Why would you spend that amount of time on a golf course?'.

"I started thinking about it: 'How can we find a game that complements golf? A game with the same values but more energy? A game that was shorter and more focused on the younger generation? A game that was more sassy and just six holes?' So I went after it, and went after it."

The winter league is an annual tradition for club professionals in Munster. In November 2012, he called the head professional in Killarney, Dave Keating, and asked if he was prepared to trial something different for the outing on December 3. "There were 31 pros," McHenry says, "and we got them to play three sets of six holes. The game was about building pressure and taking chances, and initially they were unsure.

"'What's the best strategy? Is power the game? Should I drive the green? But I lose a point if I miss the fairway?' But once they got a feel for it the scoring improved, and the feedback afterwards was good. It was a totally new experience and they seemed to enjoy it."

He called it Dilemma Golf.

SIX

Hi Eddie,

It was wonderful to catch up again with you briefly last night and thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to forward this presentation to you at this time. This is a project that I have been working on for over a year because I feel that golf needs to address a significant fall-off in participation levels worldwide of 25-45 year olds. Given that you and your wife are both passionate golfers, and the fact that you yourself are involved in a game that sells drama and entertainment, and one that also reinvents itself in terms of rules and regulations, then I would very much appreciate your thoughts on the attached above (a link to a Powerpoint presentation).

At the end of the day, I am looking at some sort of global sponsor to take a leap of faith with me on this one. TV have already expressed their interest in what I truly believe is a format that can revolutionise the interest and participation levels in the game of golf. Currently, I am also talking to and attracting interest from IMG about the game and the potential to market it worldwide but fundamentally:

Dilemma Golf is designed specifically to be an all-action and fantastically simple golf game to watch for a younger spending generation looking for more immediate feedback. Through the use of live leader boards, shotgun starts (where everyone starts at the same time) and a 6-hole course that offers risk reward points options for the golfer on every hole, this sprint tournament has been created to put the viewing audience first.

Dilemma Golf boils down to who can play their best golf over 6 holes. It is a highly skilful format where player strategy and momentum have a huge role to play. Each player will have his opportunity to become a hero on TV. Great shots or mistakes will win or lose this game.

Eddie, thank you once again in advance for all your help and time to consider my thoughts and I do hope that we will have the opportunity to catch up soon for a game on the links.

Yours Sincerely.

John McHenry

SEVEN

McHenry was convinced he was on the right track but would need support. A week after the trial in Killarney, he met Eddie Jordan at an awards function in Dublin and sent him an email. A month later, he presented to a potential sponsor in Cork and began promoting Dilemma Golf to the game's movers and shakers: IBM, EMC, Zurich, IMG, Joe Steranka (CEO of the PGA of America), Chip Brewer (CEO of Callaway Golf), Michael Milthorpe (NBC), Vitalis Gomes (Nike Golf).

Pádraig Harrington liked it but was focused on winning Majors; Paul McGinley loved it but was focused on the Ryder Cup. Bill Hughes, the producer and director, was sure it had TV potential but wasn't sure about the title. They would need something sharper, snappier, he advised, if they were pitching the game at millennials.

Dilemma Golf became Golf Warriors.

By the summer of 2014, McHenry had three investors on board and was making solid progress when Sylvia was diagnosed with breast cancer. "My mind went into a tailspin," he says. "I abandoned everything and spent the summer going up to Cork for treatment and back to the calmness of Derrynane - we have a caravan on a site there - where Sylvia had her own space and could work to her own schedule.

"Everything revolved around Sylvia getting better and staying calm for the boys so they had enough comfort to keep striving for their ambitions. We were honest with them at all times about her condition. They were happy she was not going to die but understood she had a long road of treatment ahead."

It was 17 months before his focus returned to golf. In December 2015, and after a summer disrupted by an ankle injury, Rory McIlroy had just won in Dubai and was bouncing back as Europe's Number 1. "I needed to get to Rory," McHenry says. "I thought: 'If I can get Rory to endorse this I'll have a platform to go forward'. So I talked to Dermot, and asked if he could facilitate a meeting."

McHenry had been talking to the financier Dermot Desmond for years - first as 'the amateur' when they played together in pro-ams, then as 'the pupil' when he was coaching members at the K Club; and then as 'the friend' who had introduced him to Robert Finnegan. "Dermot is nobody's fool," he says. "But he has always been really good to me, and a fair and direct sounding board whenever I need advice."

The meeting was arranged for later that month. McIlroy was accompanied by his manager, Seán O'Flaherty, and listened with interest as McHenry explained the concept of Golf Warriors.

"I'd been talking for about two seconds and he says: 'It's like T20 cricket, isn't it? It would be exciting.' Then he says: 'I'm too busy at the moment but I can tell you right now that Keith Pelley would love this idea.' And that began the process of heading in the door to Keith Pelley."

EIGHT

Every kid in Canada grows up with skates on. Hockey is a part of your life. I was one of millions of 8-year-olds who dreamed of one day getting into the NHL. About halfway through youth hockey in the Greater Hockey Toronto League, I stopped growing. I didn't have the size or the greatest skills. So I became extra aggressive - "chippy," it's called - and used my stick for things other than controlling the puck. I racked up misconducts and minors and spent my fair share of time in the penalty box. The scrappiness didn't make up for my lack of skill, and I obviously didn't make it to the NHL, but I did play at the University at Ryerson, and the education I got there opened all kinds of doors for me. I'm not recommending to young people that they do things that get them sent to life's penalty box. But a little tenacity and chippiness can take a person a long way.

Keith Pelley, Golf Digest, July 2017

NINE

The CEO of the European Tour has come a long way since the days when he was earning $35 a shift as an assistant editor in Toronto: (In order) producer at The Sports Network, head of programming at The Sports Network, president of The Sports Network, president of the Toronto Argonauts, president of Canada's Olympic broadcast consortium at the 2010 Winter Olympics, president of Rogers Media.

Pelley had been at the helm of the European Tour for almost a year in March 2016 when he agreed to meet McHenry, and the Irishman was sure of one thing that morning as he travelled towards Wentworth:

This guy was no mug.

A deal with the Tour was critical to McHenry. He had devised a proper game, but it needed a proper showcase; the players would deliver the showcase, but only the Tour could deliver the players. Another hurdle for McHenry was his status in the game. He had played at the highest level but had never been a star, and if there was one thing guys like Pelley valued it was stars.

The meeting was convened for 9.0am on March 10. Pelley was accompanied by Rufus Hack, the Tour's head of media, digital and strategy; McHenry by Dermot Desmond. "I needed to go in there with some firepower," McHenry says. "And Dermot was firepower. We sat down and he gave me a great introduction.

"'Thank you Keith for facilitating this meeting. I am not sure that you remember John but he played on the European Tour for many years. He's a bright guy and has come here today with a very exciting short format idea which I really like.' I then made a presentation of the game and outlined how the European Tour could maximise its commercial return from it.

"I remember Keith Pelley's opening line to me was: 'I keep saying to the players that we're in the business of entertainment. I like the idea of six-hole formats but I'm only here a wet week and I'm busy and I need someone to champion this for me' - which I assumed had a commercial connotation, given that I was there making a commercial presentation to them.

"Then Dermot did something I wasn't expecting, because he didn't have a shareholding in the idea: he offered to fully fund a trial for the European Tour. And that was a huge moment, because it told Pelley that Dermot was on our side.

"The meeting finished and we went outside and I told Dermot how much I appreciated what he had said: 'It was probably the difference between success and failure'. I was chuffed, and relieved, because it was always a worry that they would take the idea and run off with it - but they weren't going to do that with Dermot there.

"I remember saying it to him: 'You're my protection here.' The meeting had been constructive and the hope was that we could progress quickly to the next level. We both thought: 'The game of golf is a game of honour. You're a former player, John. They are not going to shaft you.'"

A month passed, nothing happened. Then, a couple of days after the Masters, Pelley sent an email: "Rufus will be in touch."

TEN

Hi John,

Hope all is well with you . . . As Keith mentioned we have discussed this internally and really like the Golf Warriors idea and concept. As you say the opportunities to monetise these short form concepts (are) very real.

We would like to discuss working with you on a pro event, on a Tuesday night under lights at one of our premium events (with perhaps the Scottish Open being the most obvious date) - we would like to see this going live across our international TV network. We would envisage a "trial" this year which, if successful, could be a concept rolled out across a wide range of events in 2017 with significant income streams.

Email from Rufus Hack,

April 15, 2016

ELEVEN

McHenry never doubted his short format would work. He'd spent countless sleepless nights walking the floor with Golf Warriors, and smoothing out the knots, and when Hack's email arrived with the Tour's response - a trial at the Scottish Open - he was sure the hardest work was done, and sent Desmond a note: "Hi Dermot. For over five years now, I have been pursuing my dreams and beliefs in Golf Warriors and now that I am finally at a stage where those strongly held beliefs have been legitimised by the European Tour's offer of a trial game at this year's Scottish Open - with a possible roll-out next year of a series of events - I want to say thank you! Your intervention has been crucial to where I find myself today and I fervently hope that this is just the start of something beautiful, an off course golfing legacy you will be proud of introducing to the golfing world."

But the poker was only starting.

The offer from the Tour had come with a £250,000 price tag: "We are looking for partners to underwrite the event in 2016, and see this investment as a buy in fee to what will hopefully be a lucrative partnership from 2017 onwards when we have proved the concepts to partners & broadcasters."

In hindsight, McHenry should have coughed or at least feigned a splutter, but his enthusiasm for the project and willingness to write the cheque tripped some alarms at Wentworth.

Email from Rufus Hack to Keith Pelley on April 26: "These guys are keen to do something and have real money behind them."

Email from Rufus Hack to Keith Pelley on April 27: "Golf Warriors willing to put in £150k-£200k to help fund a trial 6 hole this year at Scottish Open (partners rather than sponsors putting this up). Said Dermot and the guys been burnt with ET before but want to give the new ET leadership a chance."

Email from Keith Pelley to Rufus Hack on April 28: "That is good news but does not leave us much time and we have to make a decision . . . Three questions to answer: 1. Do we want to try the six hole format this year? 2. Are these the right partners? 3. How much equity do we want to give them? We don't want to get in a position where we wish that we had done this ourselves 5 years from now . . . I think the 6 hole format will be a home run if executed properly but the resources to pull it off internally will be very difficult . . . Think how tough it has been and how many emails to organise a PUTTING CHALLENGE . . ."

A week passed. It was obvious the Tour were stalling: "We had a conversation and they said: 'Look, we've had some internal discussions and it's too late for Scotland - we're thinking of pushing this back," McHenry says. "I was angry they were letting it dwindle but they sent me a list of alternatives and the (World Tour Championship in Dubai) was one of them.

"So I said 'Look, if you're not going to give me Scotland - which was a week before the Open Championship and had a high media profile - I'll take Dubai.' So we moved quickly towards Dubai."

The required investment of £450k was almost double what the Tour had sought for Scotland but again, McHenry didn't blink. One of his potential sponsors was a huge multinational and on May 10, at the request of the European Tour executive and using European Tour headed paper, they sent them a 'Highly Confidential - Not for Circulation' proposal to come on board for the event:

European Tour-Golf Warriors Partnership Opportunity for the DP World Championship

"The European Tour is on a transformation journey and critical to the growth of our business is the ability to grow our content by way of maximising our global audience. In that regard, we see shorter format events as one of the key strategic objectives towards achieving that goal.

"As such, we are excited about our partnership with Golf Warriors and are now working towards a high-profile "launch event" at this season's DP World Tour Championship in Dubai - the most prestigious event on the European Tour calendar. Given the DP World Tour Championship's global audience and appeal, we see this event as the perfect platform to support the launch of this short format event, in the hope that, once proven, it will lead to a roll-out of a year-long series of events next year."

For McHenry and his investors it was a hugely positive step. The Tour was promoting a partnership in writing; what they needed now was a contract. A week later, a meeting was arranged with Rufus Hack during the first round of the Irish Open at the K Club. "We met at reception and walked across to the hospitality booth by the 18th green," McHenry says.

"It was very amicable. We were talking about the tournament and how important the week was for Rory, and then we sat down and he says: 'John, I want to be up-front with you - we're thinking of changing tack. We had a meeting last week in Wentworth and we're thinking of going it alone on this.'

"I was shellshocked. 'You fucking can't go it alone'," I said. 'Keith Pelley told me two months ago that he couldn't focus on this and he needed somebody to champion it for him. I've done that. I've opened my fucking heart and given you everything you asked for, funding, support, opportunity, and now you're telling me to piss off! It's unacceptable. I will not accept it.'"

A meeting was arranged a week later on the eve of the PGA Championships at Wentworth. Pelley was accompanied by Hack and John Kawaja, another executive member, and confirmed the decision to go it alone.

"Dermot (Desmond) was playing in the pro-am that afternoon and had agreed to come with me," McHenry says. "We sit down and Pelley goes straight into it: 'Look, we're thinking of doing this by ourselves. I'm not going to tell you the format now because realistically we should have an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) for that.' And I'm listening to this and getting very animated: 'What the fuck!'

"Pelley had to go out then to make the presentation for the pro-am. Dermot went down after him and when he came back he said: 'John, I've just had a chat with Keith and told him that he can't just copy and paste from your project and call it his own - that it would be morally and ethically wrong.'

"Pelley was tight for time and the meeting broke up. He said: 'Leave it with us and we'll think about it a bit more.'"

Eight weeks of thinking and manoeuvring ensued. The Tour offered another pilot event at the Portuguese Masters; McHenry offered £5m to fund an eight to 10-week short format series for 2017. "We weren't being greedy about this," McHenry says. "We wanted a commercial stake but were talking about giving the Tour, at no cost, 70 per cent ownership of the entire project, and full autonomy to do whatever they wanted with it."

The poker continued.

Email from Pelley to McHenry on August 5: "We are now bringing a couple of options to the board for discussion and decision as 2017 is right around the corner. The board meeting is slated for first week of September so should have complete clarity at that time."

Email from McHenry to Pelley on September 11: "Following up on our 6 hole short format conversation and proposal to you in July and your subsequent request to wait for the outcome of a board meeting on the matter in the first week of September, I was wondering if you could now give me some clarity as to the European Tour's thoughts as we are now keen that this matter is addressed in a timely fashion."

Email from Pelley to McHenry on September 12: "It was discussed at the board and at this time we are not sure how many events we are doing in 2017 and we will either fund it ourselves or thru our production partner IMG or thru a broadcaster partner . . . if things are to change we will reach out."

There was no change; Pelley did not reach out; the board of the European Tour had made a decision; it was game over for McHenry and his friends. Then McHenry discovered something that had him walking the floors for a week.

TWELVE

RL 614 688 793 IE

RL 614 688 776 IE

RL 614 688 762 IE

RL 614 688 759 IE

RL 614 688 745 IE

RL 649 956 742 IE

RL 649 956 756 IE

RL 649 956 760 IE

RL 649 956 773 IE

RL 649 956 739 IE

RL 614 688 780 IE

The tracking numbers of 11packages sent to Wentworth on November 7, 2016

THIRTEEN

The European Tour is, as Keith Pelley says, a players' tour. In September 2016 the board of directors - apart from the chairman, David Williams - were all former players: Paul Eales, Chris Hanell, David Jones, Robert Lee, John O'Leary, Mark Roe, DJ Russell, Ove Sellberg, Jamie Spence, Paul McGinley.

McHenry knew or had played golf with most of them and, curious about how his proposal had been received, he made some calls:

Director A: "What proposal? It wasn't raised at any meeting I was at."

Director B: "(Pelley) is ruffling feathers and pushing boundaries in his role. It's a very different dynamic from how the Tour was run before. A lot of things like your proposal don't get discussed at board level and are on an operational level."

McHenry was hurt but not surprised. His investors had had enough. "You have to remember that I had partners here," McHenry says. "These are sponsors, people who were prepared to invest in the Tour, and they were absolutely beside themselves at the way they had been treated."

On November 4, alarmed at the possibility the board was being kept in the dark, they addressed a letter to 'The Directors' from a solicitors' practice in Cork:

"Our Client has prepared a comprehensive presentation for the Board, a copy of which is attached. In it, he demonstrates the origins of his ideas and the development of them over many years. The presentation also gives a detailed chronology of his engagement with the Executive Team.

"It also describes how he was given to believe by the Executive Team that the board had been fully appraised at a Board meeting in September 2016 of his role in the development of the short format game, his engagement with the Executive Team . . . and includes, as Appendix 7, the document on the European Tour headed notepaper which confirms that the European Tour was 'excited about (its) partnership with Golf Warriors'.

"It is a matter for the Board to determine if the detail of a board decision has been mispresented to our Client. If this is the case, it may put in context the reliability of the information received to date by the Board in relation to the engagement between our Client and the Executive Team."

Three days later, on the morning of Monday, November 7, McHenry drove to his local post office in Douglas and registered 11 packages. He did not have a private address for the chairman, or the board members, so they were marked ‘Private and Confidential’ and sent to the Tour’s headquarters in Wentworth.

Each package weighed 420g and contained a detailed presentation of Golf Warriors and a chronology of McHenry’s engagement with Pelley and his executive team. The parcels were despatched from Douglas at 9.36 am; they arrived in Wentworth three days later at 9.19 am.

A week later, on November 16, the Tour responded with an email to McHenry’s solicitor: “We acknowledge receipt of your letter dated 4 November 2016, both on our own behalf and on behalf of all of the individual PGA European Tour directors to whom it was sent.  

“This matter has now been passed to the PGA European Tour’s legal department. We are investigating the relevant background and will respond substantively to your letter as soon as possible.”

A day later, McHenry was informed by three directors that the packages had not been delivered to them. On November 28, when the packages still hadn’t been delivered, he received an email from Director C: “Board meeting today. I will be raising this. Could you please remind me the date on which you sent the hard copy presentations to the Tour for forwarding to the Board members.”

The meeting was called but there was no discussion. “It was shut down immediately,” McHenry says. “They were told it was being dealt with by the legal department.”

Two weeks later, on December 15, the Tour’s substantive response was a three-page letter denying the executive had acted improperly and dismissing claims that the Board had been kept in the dark. “We refute in the strongest possible terms that there was at any stage any partnership or other agreement between Mr McHenry or McHenry Golf Limited and PGAET. Put at its highest, there were non-exclusive discussions about a potential collaboration which never came to fruition.”

The stand-off continued for 17 months until last May 23 when the Tour made an offer of compensation. McHenry had spent five years on the project, dipped his savings for forty grand, and was indebted to his investors for more than a quarter of a million. The offer from the Tour was £30k.

He felt like throwing-up.

FOURTEEN

These thoughts playing over in his head…

‘You’ve had a bad run, you’re not a bad person.’

‘You’ve had a bad run, you’re not a bad person.’

‘You’ve had a bad run, you’re not a bad person.’

‘You’ve had a bad run, you’re not a bad person.’

Even in the night.

‘You’ve had a bad run, you’re not a bad person.’

‘You’ve had a bad run, you’re not a bad person.’

‘You’ve had a bad run, you’re not a bad person.’

‘You’ve had a bad run, you’re not a bad person.’

Especially in the night…

‘You’ve had a bad run, you’re not a bad person.’

‘You’ve had a bad run, you’re not a bad person.’

‘You’ve had a bad run, you’re not a bad person.’

‘You’ve had a bad run, you’re not a bad person.’

FIFTEEN

On May 6, 2017 the European Tour trialled a new short format team event called GolfSixes at the Centurion Club in St Albans. It was won by the Danish team of Lucas Bjerregaard and Thorbjorn Olesen and hailed as a great success. A follow-up survey published on the Tour’s website revealed:

1 A 42 per cent increase in new golf fans at the event compared to standard European Tour tournaments.

2 Attendees were also 14 per cent younger than those seen during the rest of the golfing calendar.

3 Social media engagement around the event also exceeded the average rate seen at other European Tour tournaments by 24 per cent, delivering over 20 million social impressions.

4 The European Tour has also committed to running a special showcase event during the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris in order to bring the GolfSixes concept to a global audience.

Keith Pelley wasn’t pretending to be the sport’s new messiah but a month later, in an interview with Golf Digest, it sure sounded that way:

“When I was in High School in Toronto, my best friend and I started a DJ business. We called it 4D Sound, and our slogan was, ‘Music that takes you one dimension beyond’. We started with albums, went to tapes and, eventually, CDs. I’m certain I’ve been to more receptions and heard more renditions of the ‘Chicken Dance’ and ‘The Hokey Pokey’ than anybody in golf. As we were considering adding music to our events recently, I thought back on those days. It occurred to me that the ‘Chicken Dance’ was a metaphor for golf. If we don’t continue to modernise, we’re going to be left standing in the same place flapping our arms.

“Pro golf is entertainment. The idea is to be entertaining and fashionable, to make watching irresistible and our tournaments the place to be. What drives all entertainment is creativity. You need a working culture in which our employees can unleash their imaginations without restraint. We want daring ideas and want them put into action. We want our people to reek with positivity and know they have permission to fail. I want them to know that my first answer to their ideas will tend to be ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’ or ‘maybe.’ Some awesome ideas — or at least kernels of ideas — have come from this already.”    

Pelley’s words consumed McHenry as he drove from Ballyliffin. Almost two years had passed since they last had contact and those two years had not been overly kind to him. “I’m 54 years of age,” he says, “and my golf consultancy business is struggling. I’ve applied for jobs in golf management, here and abroad, and been told I’m over-qualified, but someone will have to explain that to me. Surely that’s better than being under-qualified?

“You start questioning yourself: ‘Why me? Have I done something wrong? Am I a bad person?’ And I know I’m not. I’m not a leech. I didn’t go (to Pelley) saying, ‘I want a job, and I want you to pay for everything.’ I said: ‘This is a great opportunity for you guys.’ I just wanted to be treated fairly.” 

Sylvia ran a mini-marathon recently and their boys are doing well and he knows, deep down, that he’ll bounce back from this, but the sense of betrayal is all-consuming. He looks at GolfSixes and sees a formula he conceived. He listens to Keith Pelley and hears language he devised. He believed the Tour was a brotherhood that would never deceive him. He thought that golf was a game of honour.

He was wrong.

 

EUROPEAN TOUR RESPONDS TO SUNDAY INDEPENDENT QUESTIONS:

On Thursday afternoon, the Sunday Independent contacted David Williams and Keith Pelley for comment. We were advised by both to contact Scott Crockett, the European Tour’s Communications Director, and he in turn asked us to submit our questions for both men by email.

On Friday afternoon, we received a reply to our questions from a spokesperson for the Tour:

Q: In 2016, your team asked John McHenry to put together a financial package for the Scottish Open and the Dubai World Championships. You wrote to [named sponsor] on official European Tour headed paper stating “our partnership with Golf Warriors.” Can you understand at that point why John McHenry believed there was a commercial relationship? Why did you renege on this when McHenry was doing everything you asked of him? Did you follow-up with [named sponsor] and explain why you weren’t proceeding with the deal?

A: “In 2016 the European Tour was exploring the general concept of format innovation in golf, a new space in which there were many ideas. Golf Warriors was merely one of those and it was made clear to John that our conversations with him were on an exploratory and non-exclusive basis.

“As a former player on Tour, and at his request, we helped John with a proposal he was pulling together to present to a potential backer of his idea but we, as an organisation, never had any direct dealings with [named sponsor].

“There was never a formal partnership or agreement between John and the European Tour on this matter and it is totally wrong to suggest otherwise. As such, there was never any agreement to ‘renege’ on.

“In addition, we were transparent with John and informed him at the earliest possible opportunity that we intended to take format innovation in a different direction.”

Q: You informed John McHenry (by email) on September 12 2016 that his proposal of £5m for a short format series had been discussed by the board. We’ve spoken to three board members who say it was not discussed. Your legal department have clarified (to McHenry’s solicitors) that it was actually a Board dinner where the proposal was discussed. When did this dinner take place? Who attended? Are there minutes?

A: “The overall concept of format innovation in golf, and the many varied ideas surrounding it, was one of the topics discussed at a Board Dinner on Sunday September 4, 2016, the day before the Board Meeting on Monday September 5, 2016.

“This dinner was attended by CEO Keith Pelley, Chairman David Williams and the majority of the Board. As this was an informal dinner, and one which takes place before every Board meeting, there were no minutes.”

Q: David Williams has been Chairman of the Board since January 2014. Does he attend all of the meetings? Was he present at the meeting in September 2016 when the Golf Warriors proposal was discussed? Was he privy to the discussions between Golf Warriors and the Executive Team?  

A: “As Chairman, David Williams attends all Board Meetings and has done so since his appointment in January 2014. David was at the Board Dinner on Sunday 4 September 2016 when the Board discussed format innovation in golf and the desire of the Executive Leadership Team to progress with its own version, GolfSixes.

“That discussion followed on from an internal strategy session, held by the Executive Leadership Team at an offsite in August 2016, designed to formulate the best way forward in this sphere. Golf Warriors was one of many ideas evaluated at that session, but it was felt its complicated and convoluted scoring system — comparing individual scoring against all competitors whilst at the same time taking into account Fairways in Regulation stats and Greens in Regulation stats — would be unappealing and very difficult for fans to follow. The GolfSixes team match-play knock-out format is totally different as can be seen from the attached comparison document.

“It is normal in businesses for an Executive Leadership Team to decide which matters are recommended to a Board for discussion and approval, and which are not. This was the case in this instance.”

Q: On Nov 10 2016 at 9:19am 11 packages were delivered to the European Tour at Wentworth. They were marked ‘Private and Confidential’ and addressed to The Chairman and each member of the Board. Can you explain how (at least) a third of these packages were not passed on to the members? Is that not illegal? Or poor governance?

A: “As this was a legal matter, it was responded to by the Tour’s legal department. None of the letters were therefore forwarded as it is highly unusual for individual Directors to be sent copies of a letter before claim in this way, although John took it upon himself to send copies separately to Board Members he was acquainted with. The Board were fully informed of the situation and the threatened litigation at the next Board Meeting on November 28, 2016.

Q: Keith Pelley says, “The European Tour is a Players’ Tour.” John McHenry was/is a European Tour player. Is this how you treat your players? Or are you saying he was treated fairly?

A: “The European Tour, whilst a commercial operation, is a not for profit organisation whose money is invested into creating tournaments, enhancing playing opportunities and increasing prize funds for our members. Since Keith Pelley took office in August 2015, we have operated a ‘Player First Philosophy’. It is the reason one of the first initiatives instigated by Keith was the establishment of a Player Relations Department to help players with all aspects of their careers and to enhance their experience of being a professional on the European Tour.”

Q: If you are saying he was treated fairly, why did David Williams make a derisory offer of compensation to him on May 23? 

A: “In consultation with the Board, the offer made to John through an intermediary was fair, in good faith and made as a gesture of goodwill, acknowledging the time he had put in to discussing his Golf Warriors idea with the European Tour.”

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