DON’T worry. You are excused if you haven’t noticed. As momentous occasions go in the long and proud history of golf, this ranks somewhere south of the invention of the plastic tee and maybe just ahead of the reintroduction of the white belt into modern-day on-course fashion. We’re talking, of course, about the European Tour’s up-coming “Finals Series”, the four-strong succession of big-money events that will climax next month with the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
Ring any bells? If it does, it may be because of what went on last year. Not on the course, but off it. When it transpired that every player had to compete in at least two of the three events leading up to the super-duper extravaganza in the United Arab Emirates, three rather high-profile tour members took umbrage. And so it was that the event took place with only 57 players – Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia and Charl Schwartzel the notable absentees.
“Why would they make a decision like that?” asked Els at the time. “It’s farcical. I’ve been playing both tours [European and PGA] since 1994 and it’s been no problem. But for some reason the European Tour expects us to play a full schedule.”
Apparently accepting Els’ point, the tour subsequently rescinded that sneaky little clause and this year no such problems should arise. But nothing is certain when it comes to top-level golf these days. Citing preparation for his upcoming court date with his former management company, Horizon Sports, world No.1 Rory McIlroy has already said he will miss the first half of the series, namely the BMW Masters and the HSBC Champions events, both of which are held in Shanghai.
Still, it’s not all bad news. To its credit, the European Tour has not attempted to blindly copy the endlessly complicated and contrived Fed-Ex Cup format that now forms the mathematically intricate end to every PGA Tour season. Instead, all monies won on tour this season will be converted into points following the Perth International that ends today in Australia. One euro won equals one point. Next, each Finals Series event will offer 10 million points, with the winner of each receiving 1.66 million of the total “purse”.
Ah, but we’re not done yet. At the end of the third event, the Turkish Airlines Open, the top 15 players on the Race to Dubai will share a $5m bonus pool, before the leading 60 move on to the Tour Championship. It’s all very exciting – if you like arithmetic, that is. On the other hand, with McIlroy so far ahead in the Race to Dubai – aka the money list, aka the Order of Merit – it will take an almighty effort by the Ulsterman’s closest pursuers to make the final event anything like interesting.
“We haven’t gone to anything like the ‘re-setting’ featured in the Fed-Ex Cup,” confirms George O’Grady, the European Tour’s chief executive. “In comparison, ours is quite easy to understand. Plus, to get sponsors like BMW and Turkish Airlines involved, we had to offer some guarantee that they would each get strong fields. If they are going to invest that kind of money, they need to feel a bit special.
“We didn’t get it quite right last year, when it became clear some players were going to have trouble playing at least two of the three tournaments before Dubai. So this year we changed that. As long as you play in the minimum requirement of 13 to be on the Race to Dubai, then you are in. And that has meant we will see fields of almost equal strength all through the series.
“This year – to the best of my knowledge – we will have a full field of 60 players in Dubai. And yes, it will take something special from another player to come close to catching Rory – he has had such an extraordinary year – but you never know.”
There’s a way round all of this, of course. And it doesn’t involve slide rules or calculators either. Stick with the Finals Series by all means, but let’s make the last event something really special. Let’s make it match play, with only the top 32 players heading to Dubai. And let’s make it proper match play. There should be none of this round robin, league table nonsense that turned the recent World Match Play Championship at the London Club into a huge snoozerama. When you lose, that’s it – yer oot.
There’s another problem with the new status quo too, one that highlights yet again how the European Tour is anything but a level playing field. There are, in fact, maybe three or four separate tours going on simultaneously, with playing opportunities and levels of prize money available differing hugely depending on a player’s status going in. McIlroy, by way of example, has picked up ¤5.4m from 14 official events this year; the man in 100th place, Richard Finch, has won ¤256,788 from 22 events, his schedule vastly different from that of the Open and USPGA champion.
“The downside is that these Finals Series events are only for the elite players really,” says former European Tour player and Ryder Cup star, Andrew Coltart. “I preferred it as it was before. There was an Order of Merit you played on all year and at the end you had a showcase play-off final at Valderrama that highlighted the best players.
“My issue has always been that, if you are going to have ‘extra’ events everyone should get to play as much as possible. It’s a bit ridiculous when so many guys are finished after the event in Perth, but the rest get four more events – all with huge money. Which is sort of fine if only the top 78 get to play in those. But that’s not how it works necessarily. Guys with the right connections can find their way into the so-called ‘elite’ fields and maybe keep their cards without even playing that well in a series of no-cut events. I can’t get my head round that.”
As ever, Coltart makes a good point. The end result is that the race to be “European No.1” has never meant less. Not so long ago, Justin Rose topped the money list having played only twice in Europe. Before that, Paul Casey was hailed the champion having won half as much money as the ineligible Tiger Woods, who had played in half as many tournaments.
“The PGA Tour has fudged the Fed-Ex Cup to make it somewhat interesting right to the end,” points out Coltart. “I’m not sure they manage that, but at least the winner is usually in doubt before the last event. But it’s a losing battle. None of this nonsense has any real historical significance. It is just millionaires playing for more millions. The days when the top guys wanted to get their names on trophies because of who had gone before them have gone forever. Now they play for money and things that few will remember five years on.”
Actually, even that estimate may be something of an exaggeration. Hands up anyone who can name the winners of all four Finals Series events from 12 months ago. Thought so.