This week, the 60 biggest earners on the European Tour in 2012 tee it up at Jumeirah Golf Estates for the season-ending DP World Tour Championship.
It’s an event designed to provide a thrilling climax to a lengthy season and struck precisely the right chord in year one when Lee Westwood stormed to victory, in the process passing Rory McIlroy and taking the inaugural Race To Dubai title.
A year later, joint-players of the year Graeme McDowell and Martin Kaymer battled long and hard for the Race To Dubai, the German ultimately prevailing when McDowell failed to finish inside the top three, eventually sharing 13th alongside Kaymer in a fittingly tight finale. While all that was happing, a dramatic play-off between two European stalwarts ensured an entertaining end to the season.
2011 saw Luke Donald enter the week needing a top-nine finish to guarantee success, although with sole rival McIlroy under the weather it was known early on that Donald would take the glory, in the process becoming the first man in history to win money list titles on both sides of the Atlantic in the same year. Meanwhile, Alvaro Quiros made a stunning eagle to beat Paul Lawrie to the tournament title.
So far, so good.
But here we are ready to crown McIlroy, a man who has paid his dues in the Race To Dubai and fully deserves the title, yet there’s a sense of anti-climax in proceedings. For when Matteo Manassero made eagle on the third play-off hole in the Barclays Singapore Open to take the title at the expense of Louis Oosthuizen, nobody could now catch the world number one.
Of course, we still have a golf tournament on our hands, one played on a wonderful course with a fantastic closing hole and one which has provided great excitement away from the battle for season-long glory.
But in America, alongside the Money List they have a side-act; a play-off system which offers greater rewards and guarantees excitement. The FedEx Cup.
When Brandt Snedeker battled his way to victory in the TOUR Championship at East Lake, he did so knowing that the title would also guarantee FedEx Cup success and the accompanying $10m dollar bonus. That might not count towards the Money List – one which McIlroy had locked up way before the Fall Series – but the FedEx Cup is where it’s at, if you’ll forgive me for the language.
In winning, Snedeker restored faith in a system which does not guarantee success for the most successful. A year earlier, winless Bill Haas entered the week at 25th in the FedEx Cup race but by the time he’d played that shot and beaten Hunter Mahan in a play-off for the tournament title, we all knew that the FedEx Cup was also his.
Did Haas deserve to win more money than, say, Webb Simpson in 2011? Not really, but that didn’t matter to PGA organisers who got what they wanted: the ultimate crescendo.
To that end, the FedEx Cup has been a phenomenal success since reformated in the wake of Vijay Singh’s 2008 romp. Singh, fresh from taking the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone in August, won the first two FedEx Cup events to establish what was then an unassailable lead, rendering the following two victories of Camilo Villegas irrelevant in the overall picture.
Since a switch that guarantees the top five performers the right to ‘control their own destiny’, the TOUR Championship winner has also taken the FedEx Cup in three of the four renewals, with the exception being Tiger Woods’ overall success in 2009 despite Phil Mickelson’s stunning East Lake triumph.
Of course, 2010 champion Jim Furyk unquestionably deserved to take the lot. His was a third title of the year gained with a fabulous up-and-down under the most intense pressure on the famous par-three 18th. The same can be said of Woods and arguably Snedeker, the latter having raised his game at exactly the right time to deny McIlroy, whose three victories in the previous four events meant he entered the final week as the man to beat.
The basic difference between Tours is this: the last event of the European Tour season focuses on those at the top end and the battle for overall glory. The end of the PGA Tour season – with last year’s battle between Simpson and Luke Donald very much a break from the norm – has until now been focused around the fight for survival, as we saw when Charlie Beljan so dramatically secured his 2013 card by winning in Florida.
Debating which is better is futile, but while the FedEx Cup and its rich rewards doesn’t quite sit right with me, I do admire a PGA Tour system which allows separate events to provide thrills and spills as both ends of the earning spectrum.
To that end, the European Tour system needs revising. Perhaps opening up the final event to a field of 150, allowing 30-plus players the chance to step inside the 115 if they can perform alongside the Tour’s best, would be an appropriate compromise. After all, ability to produce on such a grand stage is surely worthy of high reward.
Moving on to the event itself, however formatted it offers up a chance for us all to back a winner in the final European Tour event of the season. With that firmly in mind, let’s take a look at some details:
Course: The Earth Course, Jumeirah Golf Estates, Dubai
Designer: Greg Norman
Past winners: Alvaro Quiros, Robert Karlsson and Lee Westwood
The emphasis at the Earth Course is always on making birdies and eagles. Victory for Quiros in 19-under means that the average winning score is now -18.67. To make the frame, a player has needed to shoot a minimum of 12-under par.
As with most modern tracks in the Middle East and Asia, length is an advantage. Three of the four easiest holes last year were par-fives, with the exception being the wonderful closing hole which still averaged just 4.83 strokes, ranking 12th most difficult.
In addition, the two toughest-ranking holes in 2011 were lengthy par-fours while the par-three fourth hole stretches well beyond 200 yards – indeed, all four par-threes typically rank among the toughest holes on the course.
This advantage for the bombers comes courtesy not only of the length of the course, but the width of the fairways. There is punishment for the errant, but ultimately that comes down to chance as the rough is thin but there are many trees and bushes that can cause problems, as can water which guards several holes.
Whenever a tournament comes down to going low, expect those who hit plenty of greens to figure prominently. Quiros ranked first in driving distance last year and second in greens in regulation alongside Shane Lowry, who finished eighth. Sixteenth-placed Johan Edfors led the field in greens hit but required a massive 130 putts over the four rounds, which cost him a top-10 finish.
In 2010, course specialist Quiros ranked second for distance and first for greens hit in finishing third, while the pair who tied for second in greens hit both finished inside the top 13 despite being names unfamiliar with the upper-end of high-class leaderboards. Karlsson and play-off loser Ian Poulter hit plenty of greens – Poulter led the Tour for the season – but both holed more putts than most of their pursuers.
And a year earlier the inaugural edition of this tournament was won by Westwood, who ranked first for greens in regulation and eighth in driving distance. The conclusion therefore that whoever leads the field in greens hit at the Earth Course will most likely be in contention for the title.
Of course, a hot hand with the putter is also key. All three winners ranked in the top 20 for putts per round, two ranked sixth for putts per greens in regulation and one led the field. Translated, that reflects the fact that all three were aggressive with their irons thus setting up plenty of opportunities. Therefore I would suggest that an aggressive iron player who can struggle on the greens – see Westwood – should be favoured over a player who hits to conservative targets but holes a lot of putts – a Peter Hanson, for example.
It stands to reason that all winners of an event limited to the upper-echelons of the Tour had already bagged multiple titles and at least one during the season of their Dubai victory, but it’s interesting to note that both Karlsson and Quiros had already won in the desert during that same season. This fact promotes the prospects of Rafael Cabrera-Bello, Paul Lawrie, Robert Rock, winners during the Middle East Swing which kick-starts the season.
Finally, in-play punters should note a key trend that’s emerged from three editions so far: a fast start is imperative. This is often the case on low-scoring courses and it’s borne out in the facts, as all three champions were in the top five after round one and indeed both Quiros and Westwood took the lead after round two and stayed in front. Interestingly, Karlsson is the only one of the trio to have led after round one yet he sat 12th at halfway having shot 75 in round two, only to recover with a pair of weekend 67s to beat Ian Poulter in a play-off.
Enjoy the final event of another wonderful season – I’ll be back before the start of the next one with some names to look out for in 2013.
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