The Northern Irishman, after opting to pull out of the Turkish Airlines Open a couple of weeks ago, is 1,176,414 points behind Race to Dubai leader Henrik Stenson, which means the Swede, and second-ranked Danny Willett, will have to play exceptionally poorly for him to retain his European crown.
But on a golf course where his worst finish in the past seven starts is a tied 11th place in 2011, the world No2 is keen to win the European Tour’s season-ending championship for the third time.
An added motivation would have been the fact that McIlroy had a chance to regain his world No1 ranking from Jason Day with a win, but that will have to wait after Russell Knox’s withdrawal from the tournament brought down the strength of the field.
The winner now gets 52 world ranking points on Sunday instead of the 54 if world No18 Knox had played, and that won’t be enough for McIlroy to overtake Day.
“It’s always good to be back here. I have great memories from this place, so, yeah, looking forward to the week,” said the 27-year-old.
“I feel like my game is in pretty good shape. I’ve played this golf course pretty well in the past, and hopefully can play it just as well, if not better this week. It would be a good way to finish the year on a high and get a victory and lift the trophy and hopefully make the turkey taste a bit better at Christmas.
“Mathematically, I can win the Race to Dubai, but it’s not going to happen. I wouldn’t hold my breath. I think the three guys that are ahead of me are playing very good golf, especially the two Swedes, Henrik (Stenson) and Alex (Noren).
“So I don’t expect those guys to play badly this week. I’m just concentrating on trying to win the golf tournament and if I can do that, I’ll be very happy.”
McIlroy was happy with his season with three wins and the FedEx Cup title, but would have liked to have done better in the majors.
“It’s been good. I’ve won a couple of things that I hadn’t won before. I won the Irish Open, which a huge thing personally for me.
“It might not be the biggest tournament in the world, but personally, in my mind, it is one of the biggest I play all year. And to win the FedEx Cup, as well, was big,” said McIlroy.
Obviously, the Masters champion is second in the Race to Dubai going into the final week of the season, and leader Henrik Stenson will also be a huge factor, but Willett is not going to worry about where the Swede, or his compatriot and third-ranked Alex Noren, finish in the $8 million season-ending championship of the European Tour.
Willett has struggled over the last couple of months – a combination of a tiring and relentless schedule and slight swing changes to protect his suspect back – but weekend rounds in the 60s in last week’s Nedbank Golf Challenge considerably brightened his mood and boosted his confidence.
And an upbeat Willett said he was eager to put an end to a “turbulent” year by claiming his first Race to Dubai title.
“It’s been a very turbulent year,” said Willett. “We’ve had the ultimate of highs and a few real lows the last few months and now here we are.
“We’ve got four rounds of golf left in what’s been a pretty long season and slightly different situation to last year, but we still need to win the golf tournament to win the Race to Dubai.
“We’re 300,000 points behind Henrik. If we can do what we can control this week and we can win a golf tournament, then nobody can take it away from us.
They call the DP World Tour Championship the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’. That tagline, of course, has a lot to do with the fact that it is played on the Earth course of Jumeirah Golf Estates, but the European Tour’s season-ending tournament has really become one of the biggest sporting spectacles in the world.
Established in 2009, the event in now in its eighth year. Considering that the final-day pay-out is $13 million for the top-60 players from the season-long Race to Dubai [$8 million prize purse for the tournament and $5 million Bonus Pool for the top-10 players in the order of merit], it is the second-richest sport event in Dubai [after the $30m Dubai World Cup], and the second-biggest golf tournament in the world in terms of Sunday earnings [after the Tour Championship on the FedEx Cup].
Dubai is well known for putting together glitzy and slick events, and the DP World Tour Championship is no exception. From day one, it became extremely popular with fans. The now defunct Leisurecorp, an arm of Nakheel which conceptualised the tournament and the Race to Dubai, shook the established norms of big-money event by keeping the entry free, and more than 55,000 people witnessed Lee Westwood win the inaugural event.
Now a five-star rated event of Dubai Sports Council, it attracts not just the cream of European Tour, but supporter numbers in excess of 65,000, and an estimated worldwide television audience of 423 million.
So, what does it take to put together the Greatest Show on Earth? We caught up with Nick Tarratt, Director of European Tour International, Dubai office, the man responsible for all behind-the-scene work since the inaugural tournament.
“Obviously, to organise an event like this, a lot of work goes in the background which most fans won’t even realise. The tournament, really, is a year-long project for us at the European Tour office here,” said the 57-year-old Englishman, who has been a part of Dubai’s golf industry since 1990.
“We are a five-person team in the office here during most months. We have about 25 temporary people working on the DP World Tour Championship for the last two months, and during the week of the tournament, we have about 80 staff from European Tour headquarters in Wentworth joining us.
“We start the planning each year after a collective review meeting within one month of the conclusion of the last event. We compile reports for sponsors; like details of media exposure etc, and we start brainstorming for the next edition. We have our Tournament Director planning meeting by the end of March, and we also have several visits from the European Tour agronomy team to work out with JGE staff on enhancement or changes in the golf course.
“But the beauty of this event is, it is something that is done in Dubai, for Dubai and by people in Dubai. We have always tried to grow the game here. Even this year, thanks to the initiative from our title sponsors DP World, we are expecting 180 Emirati students to come and experience what goes on and interact with the stars.
“One of the things we are very proud of is the fact that unlike the first couple of years, most of our contractors and suppliers are from the UAE. We have nearly 300 volunteers and over 100 GEMS students helping us during the week. “We engage with the local community more and more as part of our corporate social responsibilities.
“Another aspect that must not be forgotten is how we engage the local golfers through ‘Luckiest Ball on the Earth’ programme. We visit all the golf courses in the UAE in association with the EGF. So yes, it is a lot of work.
“And then there is the Championship Village and all the entertainment and F&B, which is so essential to make this a nice, family event. Along with free entry, these components are very important in adding to the great environment we have at the tournament every year.”
Obviously, the most important aspect of the entire operation is raising finance, which is no easy task considering the approximate budget for hosting the championship is $20m annually. And on top of that, one of the key revenue sources – gate fee – nets nothing.
The other sources of income include TV revenue, hospitality, food & beverage and merchandising. And yet, with the increasing support of government organisations, the tournament is close to breaking even now, and could even be in the black this year.
“Sponsorship is the key. I’d say 85 per cent our cost is covered by the sponsors and partners. That’s what makes or breaks events like these. About 10 per cent of it comes from television revenue and the rest makes for the remaining five per cent,” said Tarratt.
“The early few years were difficult, but things are a lot better. We are close to finding our breaking even level now. I think it is also because of the greater support we now get from government entities, particularly Dubai Sports Council, Dubai Tourism, Emirates Golf Federation and Falcon & Associates.
“It’s also exciting because DP World last year renewed their title sponsorship of the tournament until 2020.
“We forge a close relationship with our sponsors. So, DP World also receive branding in other European Tour events in countries where they have big presence; a corporate day in Singapore and hospitality programme in America during the PGA Championship.
“BMW, Emirates and Rolex are again three of our worldwide sponsors. Dubai Duty Free are partners here, but they also sponsor the Tour’s Irish Open. It also ensures in our biggest tournament of the year, rival sponsors do not steal the thunder of our regular sponsors.
“The other good thing is each of them bring a lot of added value with their activations. For example, Rolex are the pro-am sponsors, while Atlantis, who provide complimentary stay for our players and their family, host the players’ party and organise the ‘Race to Atlantis’ for their customers and business partners all over the world.”
The most unique aspect of the tournament has to be the free entry.
“The free-ticket policy started with the old promoters of the tournament in the inaugural event, and to be honest, it was against European Tour’s wishes that year,” added Tarratt. “The truth is, if we had tickets, we would have attracted the golf fans only. This way, with all the other attractions we have, it becomes a family outing. The crowds were great the first year, and that set the mood and vision for the coming years.
“There is nothing worse than quality players performing without any cheering spectators. So, even the players loved it. We have now decided that is the personality of this DP World Tour Championship. And to be honest, it has been so successful, that many other tournaments have tried to adopt it.
“I am asked every year if we are going to change the policy. I believe that it is more important that we showcase this event properly to the world, and fans on course is a very important part of it. If it ain’t broken, why fix it?”