With a sensational round of 10-under par 62 in the final round of the World Golf Championship-HSBC Champions on Sunday, the unassuming Danny Willett has forced the spotlight to be trained over him for the next couple of weeks.
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The Englishman was on fire on a cold winter afternoon in Shanghai, making 10 birdies and came up from nowhere to contend in the final WGC event of the year, which also happened to be the second event of the European Tour’s Final Series.
In the end, the 28-year-old from Sheffield fell short of glory by three shots – Russell Knox of Scotland winning on his WGC debut with a 20-under par total – but Willett did enough to turn the closing stretch of the Race to Dubai into a thriller.
A Kevin Kisner birdie on the 18th hole denied Willett a chance to finish tied for second place instead of third, and that would have earned him enough Race to Dubai points to leapfrog over Rory McIlroy. But as things stand right now, Willett is still in second place, 74,214 points behind the world No. 3 Northern Irishman.
— Danny Willett (@Danny_Willett) November 8, 2015
It will still be advantage Willett, though, as the Final Series moves to Lake Malaren Golf Club and the BMW Masters this week, simply because McIlroy is giving the tournament a miss.
Anything better than a tied 28th place finish in Shanghai will give Willett the pole position when the end game is played out at the Earth course of Jumeirah Golf Estates from November 19. The 62 is bound to give Willett plenty of momentum, but he will also have to be wary of a few things.
The first, obviously, is McIlroy’s terrific record in the DP World Tour Championship.
Since the season-ending tournament was launched in 2009, he has never finished outside the top 11, winning once in 2012 in sensational fashion – making birdies in his last five holes – and finishing inside the top-five in five of his six starts there.
The second is that while McIlroy will be fresh after a week’s rest – something that he needs desperately given how sick he was during the WGC-HSBC week, with a violent case of food poisoning affecting his strength and fitness, particularly over the first two rounds – while Willett will be playing his fourth-straight tournament, and 23rd of the season on the European Tour, which is bound to take a lot out of him physically and mentally.
He seems to have taken care of that, he has got a full team moving with him during the Final Series, and that includes his physio and trainer.
The third factor is the influence of other players. With 2,666,660 points available to anyone who wins both the BMW Masters and the DP World Tour Championship, both McIlroy and Willett will have to be careful of a few in-form players, especially those in the top-10 of the Race to Dubai.
Two who can pose a serious threat, and are playing both events, are South African Branden Grace and Frenchman Victor Dubuisson. If any of them manages to win the BMW Masters, it would become much more than a two-horse race in Dubai.
Whatever happens this week, one thing is for sure – McIlroy will have to battle hard to successfully defend his European No1 crown. It won’t be like the last time when all he needed to do after a stellar season was to show up. The Race to Dubai, as it should every year, will be a fight to the finishing tape.
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