With the top-four ranked players in the world — Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer — in the fray this week, the European Tour is out to showcase the massive strides made in recent months when the season-ending Dubai World Championship starts on Thursday at the Earth course of Jumeirah Golf Estates.
But all eyes will be on the first two.
World No. 1 Donald is gunning for an unprecedented Money List crown on both sides of the Atlantic, while world No. 2 McIlroy is the only player in the exclusive field who has a mathematical chance of denying him.
The equation is that McIlroy has to win the $7.5-million tournament and Donald will have to finish better than a two-man tie for ninth place. At stake is the honour of being called the European No. 1 and a hefty Bonus Pool share of $1.5-million.
Robert Karlsson of Sweden is the defending champion, while Kaymer will definitely relinquish his Race to Dubai crown. Not even a win on Sunday, and the accompanying cheque of $1.25-million will be enough for the German to bridge the gap with Donald.
Adding spice to the contest between the top two is the recent form of world No. 3 Westwood, who shot a course record 62 last Saturday en route to defending his Nedbank Challenge title in Sun City and has finished first and third in his last two outings here.
Then there is Kaymer, who seems to have rediscovered his form in winning the WGC-HSBC Champions in sensational fashion last month and who has a great record playing in the Middle East.
The McIlroy challenge
Another European giant who has woken up from his slumber is the well-rested Sergio Garcia, who will be aiming for a third straight title on the European Tour after winning the Castello Masters and Andalucia Masters in Spain in October.
Donald, who celebrated his 34th birthday on Tuesday, put into context what winning the Money List in Europe would mean to him.
“For me, it’s just history. No one’s officially done it ever before. I think that’s pretty amazing. It’s not easy to travel as much as you do playing both Tours and to be able to adjust to time changes and all that. If it all works out on Sunday, that will be my biggest accomplishment,” said Donald.
As for the McIlroy challenge, Donald added: “I’ve got to try not to worry about Rory. Fortunately, I’ve almost got 58 other people on my side — if any one of those win, they are doing me a favour.
“But again, my mind set is really to go out there and try to win the event and take care of business that way.”
McIlroy, who needed to win the Hong Kong Open last week to have a chance of making it a two-horse race this week, did exactly that and is hoping the adrenaline surge of that win will pull his weary body over the line.
The 22-year-old, still feeling the effects of a viral he picked up last month, said: “It would be a great achievement if I do win the Race to Dubai. It would perhaps be my second-best achievement after winning my first Major.
“Winning the week before always does a lot to your confidence and there was a lot riding on that tournament for me. I really wanted to win it and it will just give me that little bit extra energy to really try to finish off this European Tour season very, very well.”
Karlsson, who would himself be buoyed after finishing second to Westwood last week in Sun City, said the set-up of the course would favour the big-hitting McIlroy.
“I think the course is going to play slightly longer. I don’t know if it is because of the wind direction being slightly different or if it is because of the firmness of the fairway,” said the tall Swede.
“The way it is set up now, it is playing even more into the hands of the longer player. Also, the rough is slightly more consistent, so it’s easier if you miss the fairways this year … Luke has another weapon that he has been taking himself to the top of the world, and that’s his short game. But Rory has a huge advantage getting up to the greens. I think Rory can get to at least three par-5s. So up to the greens, he has a huge advantage.”
The tournament is restricted to the top-60 players on the Race to Dubai during the season.
But No. 36 Fredrik Jacobson of Sweden, who plays mainly on the US PGA Tour, is missing as he has not played the minimum number of events, and England’s Justin Rose (ranked 48th) pulled out to be with his wife for the birth of their second child. — AFP