The DP World Tour Championship, being the season-ending champion of the European Tour, it is easy to understand why the focus is mostly on the players in contention for the Race to Dubai.
The Harry Vardon Trophy is one of the most respected possessions in European golf. It signifies that a golfer has played well throughout the season to claim the honour of being called the Tour’s No. 1 player for the whole of next season.
That part of the Race to Dubai is now restricted to four players – Henrik Stenson, Danny Willett, Alex Noren and Rory McIlroy. But there are so many more interesting storylines in the $8 million tournament that gets underway at the Earth course of Jumeirah Golf Estates from today…
The battle to get their name on the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year is equally important. It also signifies the health of the Tour when you have more rookies making it to the season-ending championship.
This year, there are five players in the race, led by Korean sensation Jeunghun Wang who is 15th in the Race to Dubai and the favourite to follow in the footsteps of his compatriot and 2015 winner Byeong Hun An.
The 21-year-old Wang is a multiple champion on the Tour, having won twice already.
The other four players in the fray are China’s Li Haotong (19th), Korea’s Soomin Lee (40th), South Africa’s Brandon Stone at 48th, and the fast-charging Ricardo Gouveia of Portugal (53). It’s going to be a close battle between the top-two.
Wang was leading last week in South Africa before he was usurped by Alex Noren on the final day, but he did finish second. Li played phenomenally well to finish tied second the week earlier in Turkey.
The Bonus Pool is an attractive $5 million, divided among the top-10 players on the Race to Dubai. The winner gets $1.25m, but the even the 10th placed player pockets a hefty cheque of $250,000.
As of now, even the 50th ranked player can qualify for the Bonus Pool with a win. And such established players as Bernd Wiesberger, Lee Westwood, Andy Sullivan and Martin Kaymer are ranked 11-14, just outside the top 10 and in with a great chance to make a big move with a good finish.
With the DP World Tour Championship being the last of the big events for the year, many players who are currently outside the top- 50 in the world rankings would be eyeing a big push to ensure they get into the elite bracket of golf.
A top-50 ranking at the end of the year qualifies players for most majors and World Golf Championship events.
The eyes of the golfing world will be on the DP World Tour Championship this week.
There should be no doubt that the season-ending tournament has become the flagship event of the European Tour.
Year after year, it has delivered one humdinger performance after another. The Race to Dubai system has also proved to be fair, with the top-ranked European Tour stars prevailing in the end, unlike the fickleness of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup.
And once again, it seems appropriate that the battle for the European No1 honour will be fought between the two major champions who are part of the Tour (Masters winner Danny Willett and Open champion Henrik Stenson), the highest ranked European player in the world (Rory McIlroy) and the hottest European player on the planet (Alex Noren).
Then there is also a small matter of a $1.33 million winner’s cheque that goes to the tournament champion.
The action starts on Thursday on the Earth course, and it will surely be fascinating. But an equally-discussed topic on the golf course is the recent announcement by the European Tour on the Rolex Series – a bouquet of seven premium tournaments that will have a minimum of $7 million prize money this season.
Not only will these events be cash-rich, they will also be heavily marketed and promoted by the European Tour in association with umbrella sponsor Rolex.
The players are obviously ecstatic – who doesn’t like the possibility of a significant pay rise? However, it is going to create a few scheduling issues for the top stars.
The good thing about the events is that they are slotted in two particular time periods – before the Open Championship and after the FedEx Cup. That should help attract more European, as well as American, players playing on the PGA Tour.
It is also sensible on part of the Tour that they haven’t introduced any ‘mandatory’ numbers for the members to participate, which was a big bone of contention when the Final Series was first introduced. They just want to make the product better and expect a buy-in from the players, instead of forcing it on them.
Even more thoughtful was the creation of Access List – a separate money list that would not include earnings from the Rolex Series events, the Masters, the PGA Championship and the World Golf Championship events.
Because these events carry a lot of prize money, most players from the lower qualification categories stand no chance of competing against them on the Race to Dubai. One top-10 finish would earn them a lot more than the several top-five finishes on the smaller events.
The rank and file of the European Tour, which has mostly remained a neglected bunch, will gain a lot from this. The top-10 players from the Access List will secure their playing privileges for the next season.
And unlike some of the comments that I saw saying this new system was becoming too convoluted and complex – it really isn’t. The Rolex Series events are like any other normal event on the Tour, except for the fact that they will benefit from extra promotion through TV and other digital platforms.
You’ve got to hand it to Keith Pelley. The European Tour Chief Executive is fast turning his vision into reality, and there is no mistaking the vitality around the Tour.
The world No4 Swede, winner of the Open Championship this year, comes into the tournament with a chance to win the Race to Dubai for a second time, leading the standings with only three players having a mathematical chance of catching him.
In 2015, Stenson never recovered from a poor start, which saw him drop five shots in the last four holes for a 77 on the opening day. Tired from his long playing schedule, he tied for last place at 291, 24 shots behind champion Rory McIlroy.
That score is no reflection of his capabilities an the Earth course of Jumeirah Golf Estates, having won in 2013 with a tournament record tally of 25-under par, following that up with another title in 2014 at 16-under par.
When asked if he learnt any lessons from last year, the quick-witted Stenson quipped: “You mean the year when I had to stand on my head to see myself on top of the leaderboard?
“Yeah, mainly I put it down to me being pretty flat when I came here. I had been out for a few weeks on the road, and I think I was just running out of steam. I didn’t get off to a great start, and after that, it was hard to come back.
“I know I can play well around here, of course, and once again, I think I’ve got a good game plan in place and I’m going to go out there and try and execute it. And even if I don’t play my best, I’m probably going to try a little bit harder than I did last year for the final two rounds.”
The fact that he did not enter the Turkish Airlines Open this year and gave himself a week’s rest in Florida, was a direct result of how he felt on the golf course here last year.
“Yeah, I felt like I didn’t want to be out for a full month. So I decided to go back home for a week. That was always my plan. Even though it’s tough with the jet-lag back and forth, it felt like it was the right thing to do,” he added.
“I’m not getting any younger. I think if anything, I would like to cut maybe back one or two weeks rather than adding to my schedule. Quality is definitely more important than quantity at this point in my career.”
Stenson, who was awarded an honorary life membership by the European Tour for his fantastic career so far, said he was delighted to be in the position he was – leading the Race to Dubai and controlling his own destiny over the next few days.
“I’m in a great position. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. When I took off to China, I was hoping to make up some ground. I knew I needed to play some good golf and I managed to have a great week in Shanghai and finished second there to overtake Danny on the Race to Dubai and managed to stay ahead,” said Stenson.
“That’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to be in a position where I had it in my own hands knowing that if I win here, that would seal the deal. And I’m in an even better position given that I don’t necessarily need to win, even though that’s kind of my mindset coming in here.
“I need to play well, have a good, strong week, because you can never rely on what the other guys are going to do. When you are the No1 player, then they need to play better than you do this final week to overtake you. I hope we can be here as winner of Race to Dubai on Sunday.”
When asked if becoming the world No1 was his next goal, the 40-year-old Swede replied: “I think I’ll have some time to reflect and look ahead when the season is over. Let’s finish off this week first and then we will think of world No1.
“For me, the world rankings is a reflection on how well you are playing over a period of time, and I was always more keen on winning a major championship. I’ll probably be more keen on winning a second major than become world No1 potentially. They kind of go hand-in-hand; the better you play, the better your chances of becoming world No1 is going to be.
“I’ll keep on chipping away, hopefully adding those points and I think it will definitely be a big motivation if I feel like I’m within reach of it.”
Stenson will have another important task to focus on before the end of the year as the players’ representative on the selection panel choosing Europe’s next Ryder Cup captain.
European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley, past captains Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley and Jose Maria Olazabal will join Stenson in choosing Clarke’s successor following the defeat at Hazeltine.
Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn is odds-on favourite to lead the team in Paris in 2018, with Stenson admitting he would like the role himself in the future.
“Of course that would be a great honour and something that would be a lot of fun,” he added.
“It’s also a lot of work, as I’ve seen closely from some of my older colleagues that have been taking on that role. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there, but I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t turn it down if I had the offer in the future.”
HATTON JUST HAPPY TO BE IN THE FINAL EVENT
With the spotlight at the DP World Tour Championship firmly on the four players on top of the Race to Dubai who have a chance to become European No1, you’d think the man next in line – No5 Tyrrell Hatton – would be slightly frustrated his breakout season wasn’t good enough to contend for the biggest honour on the Tour.
However, the soft-spoken 24-year-old from Marlow is anything but disappointed. It has been a brilliant season, one in which he won his maiden title – the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews – and recorded top-10s in the Open Championship and the PGA Championship.
Asked if he was frustrated not to have a shot at No1 despite coming so close, Hatton said: “For me personally, no. I think it has been such a great year…to get my first win and to do so at the Home of Golf was very special.
“If you had told me at the start of the season that I’d be fifth in the Race to Dubai, playing the final event, I would have been absolutely over the moon with that.” Hatton has twice made it to the season-ending championship, and finished tied sixth on debut in 2014 and tied 13th last year.
He added: “I have done very well here in the past. Hopefully, I can improve on that this week. I have been playing very well in the final series, it’s just that the putts haven’t dropped. I have done some good work today on the putting green and I feel like I have found something there.
“The greens are just perfect, some of the best that we putt all year. But I just generally like it out here in Dubai. I feel very comfortable here. I think just having that frame of mind helps me play good golf in this city.”
He will tee off with South African Branden Grace on Thursday at 12:20.