European Tour Will Boast Many the World's Best Players in 2009

Of the 50 leading players in the game, based on the Official Rankings, a record 39 will be playing on the European Tour in 2009. Among these are eight of the top 10.

Led by long-time members Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington, Robert Karlsson and Lee Westwood, the European Tour's membership will swell this year thanks to the "Race to Dubai," a multi-million-dollar event that has drawn many top Americans and other players.

New full or affiliate members include Robert Allenby, Stephen Ames, Stuart Appleby, Aaron Baddeley, Tim Clark, Ben Curtis, Anthony Kim, Geoff Ogilvy, Rory Sabbatini, Camilo Villegas and Mike Weir.

Still, many of leaders in the world rankings are among Europe's established players. These include two-time 2008 major champion Padraig Harrington, and Harry Vardon Trophy winner Robert Karlsson. Also among them are current No. 2 Sergio Garcia, Vijay Singh, Henrik Stenson and Ernie Els.

Harrington won the British Open and PGA Championship in 2008, allowing the Irishman to climb from eighth to fourth. Karlsson won three times, twice individually and, with Stenson while representing Sweden, the Omega Mission Hills World Cup. Karlsson also finished in the top eight in three of the four majors and had seven top-four finishes, allowing him to climb from 41st position at the beginning of the year to his current No. 6.

Garcia replaced Phil Mickelson at No. 2 - and is now right behind No. 1-ranked Tiger Woods - with his win in the HSBC Champions.

Garcia won the Players Championship in the U.S. and finished second to Harrington in the PGA Championship. The HSBC Champions' win enabled the Spaniard to lead the Race to Dubai entering 2009. "This Race to Dubai is going to bring some different things to the Tour," Garcia said. "I know we are looking forward to keep making the Tour stronger and I think it's definitely going in the right direction.

"There are always a couple of things that you can improve on," Garcia added. "I've been improving on my short game quite a lot this year and that is probably what's going to give you the extra edge. I've got to keep working hard on every single part and on my mental game and see if we can keep moving and taking the right steps towards what we want to achieve."

Looking ahead to the next few weeks, he said: "The tournaments in the Middle East are great. The fields are good and you get a lot of World Ranking points. You're moving in the right direction. That's definitely going to be the case this year for the Race to Dubai and the European Tour for many years to come, and I think that's why you are going to see more good players coming more often and playing in Europe."

The decision of Villegas, Kim and Ogilvy to join the European Tour gives spice to the Race to Dubai, with Colombian Villegas now seventh in the world and American Kim and Australian Ogilvy in 11th and 12th, respectively.

Villegas can't wait for the Race to Dubai to heat up. "I'm very excited to be joining the European Tour. I've always wanted to play world tours, but just had to put myself in a good position in the World Ranking so I can try to work both schedules as best I can. It just happens that my first year joining the European Tour coincides with the first year of the Race to Dubai. Obviously it's going to catch a lot of guys' attention, but I wanted to get myself in a good world ranking position, like I said, to be able to set both schedules and play both tours.

"It would be nice to see more guys from the U.S. come and play, since golf is a worldwide sport. It's growing big-time all over the world, and we have to support that. I always wanted to play around the world, so that's why I made the decision."

Kim, a 23-year-old of Korean heritage who grew up in Southern California, dazzled in his Ryder Cup debut for the United States at Valhalla Golf Club in Kentucky in September, leading the charge to the American victory by whipping Garcia in the opening match.

He's another player enthusiastic about playing overseas. "I am very excited about the Race to Dubai. I got to play my first co-sanctioned event with the European Tour and the Asian Tour at the Ballantine's Championship and I felt like I could make a name for myself worldwide, not just the United States."

Others within the top 50 are Ross Fisher, Miguel Angel Jiménez, Martin Kaymer and Graeme McDowell. Jiménez's victory at the 2008 UBS Hong Kong Open saw the Spaniard move from 60th to 39th. His win in the BMW PGA Championship ensured the 44-year-old a place among the game's top 50. He's now 22nd on the Official World Golf Ranking.

Three places below Jiménez is Kaymer, whose victories in the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship and the BMW International Open - coupled with six top-10 finishes - helped the young German be named the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year.

Fisher's seven-stroke success in the European Open enjoyed a strong finish to climb to 29th on the year-end ranking. McDowell battled his way back to the top level with wins at the Ballantine's Championship and the Barclays Scottish Open to attain his current ranking of 33rd.

The European Tour has also recently added Barclays Singapore Open winner Jeev Milkha Singh (35th) and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlory, who career-high 39th ranking helped the teenager earn his first invitation to the Masters Tournament in April.

These two were joined in the top 50 at the end of 2008 by Volvo Masters champion Søren Kjeldsen, who slipped 50th after a stunning victory at Valderrama in November.

"It's been an absolutely great year to qualify to play at Augusta in my second season thanks to making the top 50 in the world and staying there," said McIlroy, at 19 the youngest player in the world's top 50. It's going to be great, driving up Magnolia Lane. It's just going to be absolutely fantastic. I'll still be a teenager when I'm going up there and I'm obviously looking forward to next year. All I wanted to do was get into the Volvo Masters and get in the top 100 in the world, and I've done so much more than that this year," he said. "It's been absolutely fantastic. I've worked hard for it, so I'm thrilled."