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Dubai World Championship Preview
Luke Donald is the calmest of golfers. So calm and placid is he, it's difficult for anyone but his caddie to know what he's thinking or how much pressure he's feeling if, indeed, he's feeling any. Few of today's top professionals can keep their keel quite so even.
Within the past few weeks, however, the world No. 1 has experienced the widest range of emotions possible. At the end of October, he posted a final-round 64 that included six straight birdies to win the Children's Miracle Network Hospital Classic in Florida and become the first European to ever win the PGA Tour money title. But the satisfaction and pride he must have felt following that achievement turned to sadness in the first week of November as he suffered the tragic, untimely loss of his father, Colin.
Just four days later though, Sophia Ann - his second child - arrived safely and, as Donald said himself, "spread a little grace on the situation." Though it's not really in his nature, Donald could be forgiven for allowing some sentiment to escape his usually serene self this week as he tries to become the first player in history to win the money titles on both the PGA and European tours.
The Englishman, who turns 34 today, leads the Race to Dubai by €789,789 over Ulsterman Rory McIlroy who holed a bunker shot on the 72nd hole to win last week's Hong Kong Open by two shots and move within striking distance of Donald. With a top prize of €922,645 on offer at the Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates this week, McIlroy, the winner of June's U.S. Open at Congressional and ranked No. 2, can snatch the Race to Dubai title away from Donald, provided the current leader finishes 10th or worse.
Whatever state Donald's emotions are in, however, we know that isn't likely to happen as he has finished among the top-10 players 75 percent of the time in 2011. In 24 official events in America and Europe (he didn't play any of his home tour's more exotic tournaments in South Africa, Abu Dhabi, India, Morocco, Malaysia, China, Korea, Singapore or Hong Kong this year), he has an astonishing 18 top-10 finishes - an incredible feat given the quality of fields he was invariably up against; no Iskandar Johor or Reno-Tahoe Opens for Donald. He has won twice in Europe and twice in the U.S.
As for McIlroy, the 22-year-old might have had a disastrous, career-affecting 2011 after making a pig's ear of holes 64 through 69 at Augusta National in April. Beginning the fourth round four clear of eventual champion Charl Schwartzel, Jason Day, Angel Cabrera and KJ Choi, he shot 1-over 37 on the outward nine, which was good enough to maintain his lead, but then hooked his tee shot at the 10th so wildly he ended up in a place no Masters competitor, and probably no Augusta member, had been before. He spiraled out of control over the next hour or so, ended up with an 80 and left everyone wondering how long the scars might last.
Not long as it turned out. In Washington D.C., two months later, McIlroy played with an exuberance and confidence that no one but himself could have seen coming (actually, Gary Woodland says that after playing with McIlroy at the Memorial two weeks previously, he knew what to expect). With opening rounds of 65 and 66, McIlroy established a six-shot lead and, by the time the championship was over, extended the gap to eight with the help of two more rounds in the 60s. Describing the victory as emphatic really only hinted at the level of dominance McIlroy exerted that week.
The rest of his summer was ordinary - one top-10 in four appearances that included fairly woeful showings at the Open Championship, the Irish Open and PGA Championship, but in five tournaments since the start of September, he hasn't once finished outside the top-four.
McIlroy, who Donald says has more raw talent than Tiger Woods, therefore has a slight edge in terms of recent form and has played well on Earth before, finishing fifth in the Dubai World Championship last year and third the year before that. Indeed, last year's winner Robert Karlsson says the Irishman has a big advantage over Donald as he has the length to reach three of the par-5s in two, whereas Donald will need to rely on what is, admittedly, a pretty fair wedge game if he is to make birdies. Indeed, the adopted Chicagoan has not fared nearly so well at Jumeirah Estate as McIlroy, finishing tied for ninth last year, and tied for 37th the year before.
The Greg Norman-designed Earth Course is a 7,675-yard beauty that eventually opened in 2009, about 18 months after it was ready for play. Last year Karlsson beat Ian Poulter in a playoff, Alvaro Quiros and Lee Westwood tied for third and McIlroy came in fifth. Two years ago, Westwood fired a closing 64 to win by six over Ross McGowan. McIlroy was third and Padraig Harrington and Geoff Ogilvy tied for fourth. You can see then, the Earth Course tends to favor players who are . . . well, really good.
And with the top-four players in the world rankings among the 58 players who tee it up Thursday (it should be 60 but Justin Rose is out as his wife is expecting their second child, and Fredrik Jacobsen is injured), along with 10 major champions and 10 players who have won twice or more on this year's European Tour, there are a lot of really good players from which to choose.
Martin Kaymer who won last year's Race to Dubai, is back in top form following his brilliant come-from-behind win at the HSBC Champions in China five weeks ago, and an impressive performance at the World Cup on Hainan Island where he and teammate Alex Cejka finished tied for second, two behind the USA.
Schwartzel, the man who benefited most from McIlroy's Masters collapse winning the first of what could be a handsome collection of major championships, is present, as are his countrymen Louis Oosthuizen, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen. The 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell will be trying to end a fairly disappointing year (being part of the winning Tavistock Cup team was his only "win") on a high note, and 2011 Open champion Darren Clarke, no doubt still celebrating his improbable win at Royal St. George's, is aiming for a third win this season.
It wouldn't be a surprise if Thomas Bjorn, already a three-time winner this year, capped his brilliant season, nor would anyone raise an eyebrow if two-time winners Simon Dyson or Sergio Garcia triumphed.
The best scenario would surely be a showdown between Donald and McIlroy, who share the last tee time on Day 1. Should McIlroy have the lead coming to the final nine holes on Sunday and Donald is struggling to keep pace, it will be a gripping finale.
One suspects it might not come to that though. McIlroy might very well win, of course, but in a year when he posted by far the best stroke average on the PGA Tour (68.83) and is currently second in Europe (69.24), can anyone see Donald failing to produce the scores he needs?
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 extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor 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. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.