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Preview of DP World Tour Championship in Dubai
It's all well and good Rory McIlroy being so talented; it's a thrill to watch him hit his Titleist (soon to be Nike?) so powerfully down the fairway while remaining in such perfect balance. But when you dominate fields as the Ulsterman has recently - the missed cut in Hong Kong last week notwithstanding - and wrap up money titles before the final event - the DP World Tour Championship - is even played, it can suck all the drama out of what should be an enthralling spectacle.
The PGA Tour adjusted the point system for its FedEx Cup competition continually until it seized upon a format that prevented an end-of-season anticlimax and, as Luke Donald told reporters in Dubai Tuesday, the European Tour probably needs to follow suit.
The Race to Dubai, Europe's answer to the FedEx Cup, hasn't yet finished with the ultimate drama of the year's top two players going at it together in the final round, with the winner of the Harry Vardon trophy determined by a last-hole birdie. To be fair, the competition is only four years young, and the first three did at least offer a measure of excitement with the outcome undecided until the final afternoon of the season.
The finish to the inaugural Race to Dubai in 2009 came closest to providing the entertainment dreamt of by Tour Commissioner George O'Grady. Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Ross Fisher and McIlroy all started the Dubai World Championship with a chance of winning the season-long competition. And it was Westwood who came out on top after firing a superb closing 64 that saw him not only win the tournament by six, but also overtake McIlroy, who began the week with a £114,000 advantage, atop the standings.
Westwood winning the season-long contest with a victory in the year's final tournament was a fine story, but the plot and conclusion would have been even more compelling had Westwood and McIlroy been paired together in the last round (Westwood played with Ross McGowan, who finished second, McIlroy was third).
Kaymer succeeded Westwood as champion the following year, but only after finishing with a cheerless level-par 72 and a tie for 13th at the final event, winding up alongside the only man who could snatch the Race to Dubai title away from him, Graeme McDowell.
Last year, Donald claimed his first European money list title, with McIlroy in second again. The then 22-year-old Irishman had to win in Dubai to have any chance of overhauling Donald, but closed with three mediocre 71s to finish tied for 11th.
Victory in the 2011 Race gave Donald his second major money title of the year, of course, coming six weeks after he had won the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Classic in Florida with a brilliant Sunday 64 to pass Webb Simpson on the PGA Tour's money list. Nobody, not Seve Ballesteros, not Greg Norman, not Nick Faldo, not Vijay Singh, had ever finished as the top earner on both sides of the Atlantic, and Donald was justifiably proud of becoming the first player to do it. His status as the only player to do it lasted all of one year, however.
With one major, four total wins, and $8,047,952 in prize money this season, McIlroy collected the first of what could be an impressive career hoard of money titles in America. With his third-place finish in Singapore two weeks ago, he moved far enough ahead of Sweden's Peter Hanson to ensure he's the seventh-youngest winner of the European Tour's Vardon Trophy (and youngest winner of simultaneous European and PGA Tour titles; he was 10 years and 130 days younger than when Donald won it in 2011).
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of McIlroy's double triumph - the European part anyway, was that Hanson, his nearest challenger, chose to stay at home in Florida rather than head to the Far East for the Singapore Open and Hong Kong Open the following week (or, indeed, the South African Open, which ran concurrently). Had he won for the third time this year at either Sentosa, Fanling or Serengeti Golf & Wildlife Estate and McIlroy hadn't picked up €289,297 in Singapore, Hanson would have journeyed to Dubai this week with at least a mathematical chance of overtaking the two-time major champion and becoming the second Swede (after Robert Karlsson in 2008) to win Europe's money crown.
As it is, Hanson would come up about €50,000 short even if he did manage to win his seventh tour title on the Greg Norman-designed Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates and McIlroy won 57th and last-place money (Ross Fisher, Thomas Bjorn and Retief Goosen all qualified for the tournament by being among the top-60 money earners following the Hong Kong Open, but are absent this week).
Following his tie for 24th at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shenzen, China, three weeks ago, Hanson told reporters he "needed a break" and that "in the bigger picture, I still have plenty more years to win the Race to Dubai." At 35 years old, Hanson can realistically make another half-dozen bids for the money title. But how many of those six will be won by a rampant Rory McIlroy?
McIlroy is no doubt satisfied with his year so far, but will certainly be looking to finish the season on a high note after the miserable defense he made of the Hong Kong Open last week. Rounds of 73 and 72 on a course measuring just 6,734 yards - and one of his favorites - saw him miss the cut by three. It was the sort of performance that might have prompted the more hysterical observer to accuse him of seeing too much of his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.
McIlroy and Hanson go out together in the final group Thursday in Dubai behind Justin Rose and Louis Oosthuizen, neither of whom played last week but who both could have stolen the Vardon Trophy from McIlroy's grasp had they won the final two tournaments. Behind them are Ian Poulter - who won in Shenzen and finished second to Adam Scott at the Australian Masters last week - and Branden Grace, who arrived on the 2012 European Tour via last year's Q School and who has won an astonishing four times in his rookie season.
Francesco Molinari plays in the fourth-to-last group alongside Donald, who won in Japan last week to take over the world No. 2 spot from Tiger Woods. Players to watch for behind them include the amazing 19-year-old Matteo Manassero, who won his third European Tour title at the Singapore Open two weeks ago; Henrik Stenson who won his seventh but his first in five years in South Africa last week; and the ever-youthful Miguel Angel Jiménez, who became the oldest champion in European Tour history at age 48 with his win in Hong Kong four days ago.
These are all possible contenders, but no matter who sits atop the leaderboard after 72 holes, the man leaving Dubai on Sunday with the $1.5 million (€1,092,419) bonus for winning the 2012 Race to Dubai will be Rory McIlroy. And to think people thought he was in a slump earlier in the year.
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 website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.