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Race to Dubai Concludes this Week
The PGA European Tour rarely puts one over on its larger, richer counterpart across the Atlantic. But in the case of their respective year-long points' races ending in excessively-hyped finales, the European Tour's Race to Dubai has probably enjoyed a happier first year than that which the FedEx Cup suffered three years ago when it debuted. It's not over yet, of course, but barring a disaster - and compared with its much-maligned competitor once called "Finchem's Folly" - the Race to Dubai has been a roaring success.
For starters, everyone gets the system. They say money isn't everything, but they haven't been following the Race to Dubai, whose merit table is determined by prize money, and prize money alone. Rory McIlroy leads the Race with just this week's Dubai World Championship remaining on the 51-tournament schedule. The Irishman leads because he has earned more Euros and cents than anyone else, not more points, like those given out on the PGA Tour where they are distributed to players finishing in the top 70 each week (unless more than 70 players finish the tournament in which case points are awarded below 70th place, decrementing by 0.02 points per position in stronger-field events and 0.01 points in additional events. Also, points are distributed to those in tying positions using the same method currently used to distribute prize money when there is a tie; the total points for each tying position totaled and distributed equally to each player in the tying positions. Still with me?)
And instead of a four-tournament playoff series that the PGA Tour felt compelled to adopt in order to make golf more appealing to sports fans used to seeing a decreasing number of competitors the longer the season went on, the Race to Dubai relied on a far less fussy format in which the top 60 players at the end of the 50th tournament made it into the season-ending extravaganza. It's not as mathematically impressive as the FedEx Cup's convoluted formula, but definitely easier on the noggin for fans who don't appreciate having to spend precious time learning the rules and adding up the points.
There is something to be said for Finchem's attempts to flatten the playing field by using points instead of money - awarding the same number of points (500) to the winner of this year's John Deere Classic as the winner of the Quail Hollow Championship, for example, when the victor in Charlotte, N.C., won $396,000 more than the champion in Silvis, Ill.
But it's usually the case that, over the course of an entire season, the man taking home the most prize money is the year's best player anyway. Plus, the better players invariably enter events with bigger purses, so why should the winner of the John Deere get the same number of points as the winner at Quail Hollow?
Whatever. The point is that golf fans in Europe know how the five dozen players in this week's field qualified. And they also understand how and why the only three players that can guarantee winning the inaugural Race to Dubai by winning the Dubai World Championship (McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer) are guaranteed to be champion of the inaugural Race to Dubai by winning the Dubai World Championship.
The format works, the players have supported the concept from the start, and numerous world-class players - i.e. Camilo Villegas, Geoff Ogilvy, Anthony Kim, Robert Allenby, Adam Scott, Stephen Ames, Rory Sabbatini - have joined or become affiliate members of the European Tour when, if it wasn't for all that cash on the table, they probably would have given Europe a wider berth except around Open Championship time.
It hasn't all been a bed of roses for the Tour's chief executive George O'Grady, however. In September, he was forced to cut the purses of both the Dubai World Championship and the bonus pool awarded to the top 15 finishers in the Race to Dubai by 25%. Instead of $10 million, the money on offer for each dropped to $7.5 million.
Two weeks ago, Anthony Kim pulled out of the Dubai tournament, saying he would be too tired after several weeks of largely uninterrupted travel (San Francisco, Las Vegas, Spain, China and New Zealand) and that his "parents wanted to see their boy." Then Paul Casey, Europe's best player according to the world rankings, also withdrew from this week's event because, as manager Guy Kinnings reports, his intercostal muscle is inflamed.
The schedule is still a contentious issue. A season that starts the year before it ends is always going to cause confusion, and 2010 will be no different with two events in South Africa coming before Christmas. In January, two more tournaments will take place in South Africa before the tour moves north to the Middle East. This split has been in place since 2000 and the fact it still survives possibly means it doesn't irritate other golf fans as much as it does one writer in particular.
And, as John Huggan recently noted in the "Scotsman," the problem of too many tours offering too many co-sanctioned tournaments to too many players results in a complex web of invitations, exemptions and categories, which has meant even players in the top 60 in the Race to Dubai several weeks ago - and supposedly exempt for the remainder of the season - had no guarantee they would actually make the starting line-up for tournaments leading up to Dubai. "The system of exemptions and invitations is nothing more than a smoke screen," one leading agent suggested.
There is a danger that all these tournaments, and the incomprehensible methods used to fill them, will eventually breed mediocrity (if it hasn't done so already). That, in turn, will breed contempt.
But again, whatever. For now, the final event in the first-ever Race to Dubai promises to be extremely exciting with McIlroy, Westwood and Kaymer the only three players whose destiny will be of their own making. If any of them wins on the Greg Norman-designed Earth Course at Jumeirah Estates they will claim the Race and become the first winner of what the European Tour is rather recklessly calling "golf's ultimate prize," a throwaway line that probably raised an eyebrow or two at the R&A, Augusta National, Far Hills, N.J., and at PGA Tour headquarters in Florida.
England's Ross Fisher is the fourth man who can become golf's "ultimate" prize-winner - €433,402 separates him and McIlroy. But in order to win the pool he will not only need to win on Sunday but also watch McIlroy and Westwood come in lower than second.
It is McIlroy with all the momentum, however. With rounds of 65 and 64 in Hong Kong last weekend, the 20-year-old finished runner-up to Frenchman Grégory Bourdy, overtaking Westwood - who failed to impress on his Fanling debut - in the Race to Dubai. Kaymer, who put himself squarely in the picture with back to back wins at the French and Scottish Opens in July, has had four top-10s in his last five starts (including a tie for sixth in the PGA Championship) and arrived in Dubai on Sunday to ensure he had plenty of time to adapt to the desert heat and the large, undulating greens of the Earth Course which, incredibly, is hosting its first-ever competitive rounds this week, 19 months after being fully grassed.
Having four players with a realistic opportunity of winning the Race is about right. Giving all 30 at the Tour Championship at East Lake a chance to land the FedEx Cup seemed a good idea at the time, but was perhaps unnecessary. If John Senden (the last man to qualify for the tournament) had all his Christmas wishes had come true all at once, all his stars, planets, galaxies and marbles lined up simultaneously and he rode the sort of fortune that made the proverbial lucky Irishman look like a wretched, downtrodden loser, then the Australian would be the FedEx Cup champion and Finchem would have been castigated, along with all his little helpers, for as long as man walks the Earth.
Jamie Donaldson, the last man to qualify for the Dubai World Championship, can't win the Race to Dubai. McIlroy is in the driver's seat and if indeed he does win, he will become the second-youngest European No. 1 after Seve Ballesteros, who won the first of his six Order of Merit titles in 1976 at the age of 19. And just as a FedEx Cup win by Tiger Woods obviously goes down well with everyone at the PGA Tour, a McIlroy victory in the first Race to Dubai will no doubt be just the sort of start George O'Grady was hoping for.
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. In 2009, Tony won first place for Editorial/Opinion in the ING Media Awards for Cybergolf. The article (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_newsa_euros_take_on_the_2008_ryder_cup_matches) that impressed the judges was the one about Europe's Ryder Cup team and Captain Nick Faldo's decision to pick Paul Casey and Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke.