Two contrasting trends have been evident during these last few golfing weeks of 2009. On the one hand, a year which started with much speculation about new candidates emerging as challengers for the game’s number one spot has ended with the status quo very much confirmed. Whether considering their stellar performances at the Presidents Cup, or the 11 titles gained between them, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson remain well clear of the remainder. On the other hand, there is clearly a wider generational shift underway amongst the golfing elite, which is illustrated in this week’s conclusion to the inaugural Race to Dubai.
This putative World Tour has attracted pretty much every star in the world game at some stage, yet three of the four potential winners are players that are nowhere near the finished article. Out in front is Rory McIlroy, rightly touted as a future number one since his amateur days, who has been a professional for barely two years. And while his closest challenger Lee Westwood is long-established, MARTIN KAYMER and ROSS FISHER are only playing their third and fourth full seasons respectively.
The story is of course slightly more complex. Were it not for a serious rib injury that effectively ended his season in August, Paul Casey may well have taken a commanding lead into this week’s Dubai finale. Moreover, these race leaders have enjoyed the significant advantage of being primarily based in Europe, and playing more tournaments than several other equally world-class candidates.
They will enjoy no such advantage in Dubai, though, where an enormous prize fund has ensured the presence of everyone who is anyone in European golf, with the sad exception of Casey. In addition to largely US-based Europeans such as Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter, Ernie Els, Geoff Ogilvy and Retief Goosen bring more Major winning pedigree to the line-up. ADAM SCOTT, Robert Allenby and Camilo Villegas add yet more PGA Tour class. Even besides these big-names, there are no mugs in this line-up and at least 30 highly plausible winners.
Such strength in depth means we must resist the tempting narrative of this week as a ‘showdown’ between the ‘big-four’. Moreover, it makes rather a mockery of McIlroy’s 9/1 best-priced odds. Yes, he is brilliant. Yes, he will win Majors galore. But at this stage, Rory has just one professional title to his name. True, his form in Asia over the past fortnight has had ‘winner in waiting’ stamped all over it, but does he really have double the chance of say, Harrington?
Also, while the prize money earned by second place in Hong Kong may well prove decisive in determining the $1.5 million first prize for the money list, I don’t think it’s done him any favours as far as winning this particular event is concerned. Rory’s weakness is his putting, (typically for a young player), and these greens will be very different to those played at Fanling. A similar concern must apply to Westwood, who must bounce back immediately from his worst performance for several months.