There are big bucks on offer this week on the European Tour as its Race to Dubai hustles to a conclusion at the DP World Tour Championship on the Earth Course at Jumeirah in Dubai.
Just last week Tommy Fleetwood banked $2.5 million for winning the penultimate event of the season, the Nedbank Challenge. It was the largest prize in tournament golf and will be usurped by the winner’s check this Sunday.
To put the first prize of $3 million into perspective, winning it alone would jump a player to 209th in the European Tour’s career money list – in other words, it is greater reward in one week than everyone, bar 208 players, have accumulated throughout their career in the entire history of the circuit.
It’s a dazzling sum and yet the hard truth is that money alone is an insufficient enticement for the world’s elite golfers.
Only the top five players in the Race to Dubai rankings can claim top spot in the secondary cash incentive of this week – the bonus pool for the top five at the end of the week.
Two of those men, Jon Rahm and Shane Lowry, opted not to play in last week’s event, both of them resting with both this week and next year in mind. Another competitor, Rory McIlroy, missed the last two weeks and consequently lies sixth in the rankings, unable to reach number one at season’s end.
It is a thorny problem for Keith Pelley, CEO of the European Tour, whose lucrative Rolex Series is a key initiative in his upgrade of the circuit: He is dangling many cash-filled carrots and yet still they fail to tempt as often as he’d like.
Here’s a closer look at the top five in the Race to Dubai ahead of this week’s action:
First – Bernd Wiesberger
This time last year the Austrian was in Dubai, but not contending in this tournament. Instead he was recuperating after a year of injury problems. He remained rusty deep into 2019, but when he won he discovered it was contagious. He’s claimed three titles this season, two of them Rolex Series events, hence his position of strength.
His thoughts on this week? “To be as offensive as possible out there. There's absolutely no point in getting into the mathematics, the what ifs and all that. Just try to play as good golf as possible and that's all I can do.”
He’s s six-time visitor to the course, with a best of fourth in 2016, but that is his only top 15 finish. His average Earth Course performance may not be enough to hang onto top spot.
Second – Tommy Fleetwood
The winner of the Race to Dubai in 2017 jumped into contention with last week’s superb win in South Africa. The popular Englishman had not tasted victory since January 2018, compiling 19 top tens in the meantime. Little wonder he was overcome following a blistering final round of 65 and then play-off success.
“I’ve played so consistently for a couple of years and just haven't crossed the line,” he said. “Winning does feel amazing, but it's not necessarily emotion for myself really. It's your team and your family who go through the highs and lows. I feel it for them.”
His gameplan this week? “I have a lot of experience, this is my third year in a row with a chance to win The Race to Dubai. But realistically, I hadn’t thought about it all year until sort of the last few events.”
He’s another six-time visitor to the course with just the one top ten, when ninth in 2016. He’ll need more than that to end the year number one.
Third – Jon Rahm
This has been the year when the big Spaniard has added maturity to his explosive driving, aggressive approach play and bold putting, never better displayed than when thrashing a sensational 62 to win the Irish Open. Twice he might have lost his temper, both times he kept himself in check and turned a large deficit into a win. In October he added the Open de Espana.
He’s honest about finding himself behind two men. “I'd rather be the front man,” he said. “You don't necessarily have to win, you just need to play good. But I'm here to win.”
Ahead of his tournament debut in 2017 he said the course suited him and he proved it with victory. He was then fourth in defense. In those two appearances he’s never ended a round here more than four shots back of the lead.
Fourth – Shane Lowry
He started the year with a win in Abu Dhabi, added Claret Jug glory in July and he now has the chance to complete a neat hat-trick, but he will need a spectacular week and for results elsewhere to go his way.
He’s also honest about the current state of his game. “I'd be lying if I said it was great,” he revealed. “I don't feel unbelievably comfortable out there, but it's good. Obviously I would have taken your hand off for what I've done this year. It's a dream come true, really, but my main focus right now is the next few days, trying to shoot the best scores I can.”
He has three top eight finishes, including second in 2017, on the course from seven starts.
Fifth – Matthew Fitzpatrick
The nearly man of 2019. He’s not just finished second four times, he has also been the solo halfway leader in four of his last eights starts, spurning the victory every time.
“Technically my best year,” he insisted. “You know, in terms of world ranking points, my play in general, my strokes gained stats and stuff like that. The only thing that's missing so far is the win, but a chance to fix that this week.”
He needs that win to have hope of grabbing number one, but has done it in the past, lifting the trophy in 2016. He was also fourth on debut 12 months before that.
Sixth – Rory McIlroy
No chance in this race, but every chance he can win the tournament itself and claim a fifth win for the year.
Any regrets that he’s not chasing the seasonal gong? “No, I've won it three times,” he said. “It's a wonderful feeling to do it, but I just haven't played enough European Tour events. The guys that deserve to be up there have that chance.”
He’s grabbed six top five finishes in nine appearances in the tournament, winning in 2012 and 2015.