Race to Dubai Preview: Stenson Deserves the Glory

By: Tony Dear

At the end of last month we put forward the notion that, thanks to vastly improved coverage and some judicious scheduling by the pro game's governors, late-season golf had actually become far more watchable in recent years. Even though the majors and PGA Tour season had long since passed, there were now a good number of solid events worthy of the core golf fan's attention.

Unlike in previous decades when all we had for entertainment (and we use that word very loosely) at this stage of the year were a few oddly-formatted events with strangely disparate fields, we now have a WGC tournament, the World Cup, and a handful of championships from around the globe that carry world-rankings points, FedEx Cup points, or European Tour ranking points, not to mention considerable significance where they are actually played.

Victory at the Australian PGA Championship, for instance, won last weekend by Adam Scott, might have gotten the Masters champion .51 of a point closer to Tiger Woods at the top of the world rankings (his 3.52-point gap is now 3.01) and given his wallet a $225,000 boost, but of far greater significance to Scott was that he became the winner of a trophy that also bears the names of Gary Player, Peter Thomson, Seve Ballesteros, Hale Irwin and his longtime hero Greg Norman. He also completed a career Australian Grand Slam comprising wins at the PGA, Australian Masters and Australian Open.

The Australian PGA has been around since 1905 and wasn't just inaugurated then added to the late-season schedule to beef up an otherwise stale period. But the fact we can now watch it, as well as numerous other worthwhile events that have sprung up around the world, means late-season viewing is so much more gratifying now. Tournaments of this caliber help determine who gets to tee it up at the following year's majors, something that couldn't be said of the JC Penney Classic.

There is a downside, sadly. Two actually. While committed fans do get to see the world's best teeing it up in tournaments that offer the players something besides fat paychecks, we also get to witness a series of embarrassingly awkward pre-tournament publicity stunts that frequently make the old Silly Season look positively sensible.

There's nothing wrong with a few big-name players dressing up in traditional Chinese costume and clasping swords and halberds (sort of spear thingies) to re-enact traditional returning hero scenes with performers from a Shanghai opera company. It's a little excruciating for the viewers, and close to humiliating for the players perhaps. But unless Jason Dufner falls asleep standing up and loses control of his blade, at least it's not dangerous.

When a quintet of stars hit balls from a hotel rooftop over a crowded beach to a target floating in the sea beyond (as happened yesterday in Dubai), however, and one of them shanks a shot that fizzes somewhere close to onlookers, the novelty value starts to become a little more trouble than it's worth perhaps. And, when a tournament's star attraction is helicoptered onto a major road bridge and asked to hit shots down one side of it while nonstop traffic continues to flow on the other, you begin to wonder if the organizers haven't gone just a little too far.

Those responsible for promoting last week's Turkish Airlines Open obviously weren't seeking the sort of publicity that comes with a 10-car pile-up and dozens of resulting injuries but, by asking a golfer not known for his accuracy with the driver, and who admitted to feeling very nervous, and with a stiff breeze pushing shots toward the moving cars, some would say they were probably asking for trouble. Indeed, as Turkish CNN was reporting from the traffic side of the bridge, one man stopped his car, marched over to the TV camera and let the viewers know precisely what he thought of it all. Unfortunately, and perhaps wisely, the channel didn't translate the man's outburst or provide subtitles, but it was clear he didn't much care for playing a small part in the charade.

Thankfully, Tiger Woods hit the ball squarely enough and managed to avoid an unseemly incident akin to what had happened in the same country a year before when the head of the Turkish Golf Federation punched/head-butted/pushed a photographer he thought was getting too close to Woods. And it certainly worked like a charm as news outlets around the world covered the story, helping the Turks recoup the hefty sum they were paying Woods to be there.

The second, potentially more sinister, problem is that because there are now so many carrots being offered by so many tours and golf federations around the world, it is nigh on impossible to keep track of which player is where, which tour they are playing on, what a victory might mean, and how their finish affects their status if, indeed, they have any.

The European Tour's Final Series - the season's last four tournaments that feature reduced fields, big money and serve as a build-up for this week's DP World Tour Championship, Dubai (one wonders who dreams these titles up) - were designed to attract stronger fields to Europe (well, China and the Middle East) by insisting every player wanting to qualify for the 60-man field at Jumeirah Golf Estates, and have a chance of winning the Race to Dubai, must have played at least two of the previous three events.

But the WGC event in Shanghai - the second tournament in the series - is not controlled by the European Tour, so several players faring well on the Race to Dubai points list were not in a field that did include a Chinese player who failed to break 80 in three of the four rounds and finished 20 shots behind the player in second-to-last place. The first tournament in the series, meanwhile - the BMW Masters, featured 14 Chinese players chosen to play by the Chinese Golf Association.

It wasn't altogether surprising, given the strict stipulations, that a handful of the European Tour's globe-trotting standouts - players who maintain tour membership on both sides of the Atlantic and like to finish the year by traveling to other corners of the world like Australia, South Africa, and Asia - were greatly aggrieved.

So outraged were three of them, in fact, that they passed up a chance of playing at Jumeirah. Ernie Els, 17th in the Race to Dubai standings, called the new rules "farcical" and an "absolute joke," while countryman Charl Schwartzel, 22nd, was only slightly less critical,saying some bad decisions had been made. Thirteenth-placed Sergio Garcia also won't be playing. Some notable absentees there certainly, but the sponsors and tour's chief executive George O' Grady will have been relieved that Rory McIlroy managed to qualify for the event (only 56 from the possible 60 will be playing as Alex Noren is also out owing to a wrist injury) with a decent showing at the HSBC Champions where he finished tied for sixth, and that Luke Donald, like McIlroy a former world No. 1, scraped in at 59th on the list, just 12,298 points (Euros) ahead of 61st-placed Soren Kjeldsen.

There are five major champions in the field, and 20 of the world's top 50, including No. 39 Victor Dubuisson of France, who won last week's tournament in Turkey so impressively.

Leading the race is Sweden's Henrik Stenson, who will be attempting to become the first golfer to win both the FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai in the same year (Donald and McIlroy won both money titles in the same year). The Swede holds a 213,468-point lead over U.S. Open champion Justin Rose who, in turn, is 108,332 points clear of Graeme McDowell in third. England's Ian Poulter is fourth and Wales's Jamie Donaldson fifth.

Any of them could still win the Race to Dubai. In fact, Dubuisson in ninth place could still win provided he claims a second European Tour victory this week, Stenson finishes 32nd or lower, Rose ends up fifth or lower, McDowell finishes fourth or lower and both Poulter and Donaldson are third or lower.

If Dubuisson does win, it might trigger the familiar debate over whether or not the best player of the year ended up as the season-long champion (the Frenchman had two top-10s between April and last week's win in Turkey, a period that included six missed cuts).

Then again, Stenson hasn't won on the European Tour in 2013, but he is now third in the world rankings having risen 50 places since the start of the year. He's nursing wrist pain that caused him to sit out the pro-am on Tuesday, but you have to say, with the string of results he put together in the second half of the season - two FedEx Cup playoff wins, two top-threes at the last two majors, a tie for second at a WGC event, two other top-10s in Europe - only Rose could reasonably dispute the fact he has been Europe's best player this 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.