LET’S not put on the blinkers and pretend that everything is rosy in George O’Grady’s garden on the European Tour. The chief executive is well aware, for instance, that his circuit is lacking strength in its heartland at the same time as it grows globally.
For the fourth year in a row, the schedule’s only stop in England next season is likely to be at Wentworth, the Tour’s HQ and venue for its flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship.
O’Grady is also faced with the prospect of seeing many of next year’s events missing key members of his cast. Of the 12 players involved in the ‘Miracle at Medinah’, it appears that only Paul Lawrie isn’t taking up membership of the PGA Tour for the 2013 season, meaning the others are going to be spending a fair chunk of the year playing in America.
Yet, in stopping to smell the roses at the end of another long season, O’Grady can look back over the year with a sense of contentment, especially after seeing that incredible Ryder Cup victory in Chicago being followed by an equally dramatic end to the campaign in Dubai on Sunday.
When Brandt Snedeker won the Tour Championship on the PGA Tour a few weeks back, Tim Finchem, O’Grady’s counterpart on the US circuit, got it in the neck from every man and his dog. Having won two of the four play-off events, they reckoned Rory McIlroy should really have emerged as the FedEx Cup winner instead of Snedeker.
At least Finchem’s race was still alive heading into that event. In contrast, the DP World Tour Championship, a mega-money tournament in the Middle East, determined little or nothing. McIlroy had already wrapped up the European Tour money-list a fortnight earlier, emulating Luke Donald’s feat the previous year by being crowned as the No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic in the same season. Yet, not only did O’Grady see his stars literally align as the world’s top two, as McIlroy and Luke Donald set up a last-day shoot-out, he also witnessed a finale that showed exactly why Europe is the envy of the golfing world, our American cousins in particular, right now.
McIlroy, of course, is the main reason for that. To finish with five straight birdies – it’s surely got to be known as an “Ian Poulter” henceforth after the Englishman achieved the feat so spectacularly in the Ryder Cup – to seal his win in Dubai was storybook stuff. It took his title haul for the season to five, including a major, and saw him set a new record for a single season’s earnings on the European Tour of €5,519,117. More and more, McIlroy is being compared to Tiger Woods. He plays the game with the same sense of freedom Woods did when he was winning titles for fun, though sadly no more. He also holes those clutch putts the way Woods once did. There’s one big difference, though. As you watch McIlroy, you instantly feel as though you warm to him. Woods, on the other hand, has always been hard work. He still is.
McIlroy never seems to be too hard on himself out on the course. He tried to get angry – or at least look it – when he missed a green just before launching that late birdie blitz on Sunday, but he is certainly no John MacEnroe. At 23, of course, there is still plenty of time for us to see a different side to him, though hopefully not. There has been the odd occasion when McIlroy has got it wrong. Notably, for instance, when he came out with some codswallop at Royal St George’s last year about not having the game to win an Open Championship. Sure, his high ball flight means he is probably more suited to US Open and USPGA Championship-style courses. But there’s nothing whatsoever that should stop him from adding the world’s oldest major to that glittering CV and, when Muirfield comes around next July, he should be dialled into those new clubs that are going to be in the bag at the start of next year.
While McIlroy is undoubtedly the ace in Europe’s pack, he is certainly not the only reason O’Grady should be feeling confident about the future of the Tour he oversees. Take Justin Rose, for example. There has been a reluctance, certainly among myself and other colleagues in the Scottish golfing media, to offer him even scant praise, having had this, that and the other thing about him rammed down our throats by English counterparts since he burst on to the scene as a young lad. On the back of his contribution at Medinah, though, he had already won me over before producing one of the great last rounds, a contender for one of the game’s greatest-ever putts and, overall, an effort that forced McIlroy to dig deep and come up with something special to deny the Englishman in Dubai.
The Eurozone may be losing tournaments at an alarming rate at the moment but, in terms of producing players, O’Grady has no concerns whatsoever.