Martin Dempster: Euro Tour can capitalise on Middle East money

Lucrative as it may be, the combined prize pot for the three events that make up the European Tour's Desert Swing is less than the circuit's end-of-season finale in the same part of the world.

Sergio Garcia was probably the biggest earner in Doha last week. Picture: Getty

This week’s $2.65million Omega Dubai Desert Classic completes the now traditional early-year Gulf segment, which has already seen $2.7m and $2.5m shared out in the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship and Commercial Bank Qatar Masters respectively.

It might come as a surprise that neither of the three comes close in monetary terms to the Dunhill Links Championship, which is worth $5 million yet tends to get overlooked a bit these days by some of the game’s top players, and, even more so, the DP World Tour Championship.

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It will offer $8m when the Tour’s Race to Dubai reaches its conclusion at Jumeirah Golf Estates in November, yet, in comparison certainly to the HSBC event in Abu Dhabi a fortnight ago, it is unlikely to feature such a strong field.

There’s a simple reason, though, why world No 1 Jordan Spieth and fellow American Rickie Fowler, the winner, of course, joined third-ranked Rory McIlroy at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. It was down to appearance money, which was also the lure for Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson when they made the long journey to the Middle East to tee up in the same event in recent years.

The other two Desert Swing events are no different. Sergio Garcia was probably the biggest earner in Doha last week while McIlroy, the defending champion, will be getting a hefty sum for spearheading a strong line-up at The Emirates from Thursday onwards. It was rumoured that organisers tried to tempt Dustin Johnson to also be in that line-up, but the American turned down a lucrative offer.

By all accounts, it’s the way the sponsors/promoters of these respective events prefer to operate and who can really blame them? It was certainly interesting to hear Giles Morgan, HSBC’s head of sponsorship, gushing in Abu Dhabi about the value, effectively, that Spieth, McIlroy and Fowler had provided in that event.

He didn’t mention him by name, but there’s no doubting that Morgan was having a slight dig at Tiger Woods, a huge beneficiary from that company in the past, when he talked about how he’d enjoyed seeing the trio having fun at a pre-event stunt and picked up, too, on how relaxed and forthcoming they had been at press conferences.

In short, it’s unlikely that much will change as far as the Abu Dhabi, Oatar and Dubai events are concerned when Keith Pelley, the new chief executive, takes the wraps off the 2017 schedule – the first that will have his stamp on it.

The bumper deal for the Italian Open that has stemmed from that country getting the 2022 Ryder Cup may be an indication of what he has in mind (increased prize funds) but it’s abundantly clear that in the Middle East big names are more important than big money. Which is why it is has to be hoped that the DP World Tour Championship can benefit in the long run from the European Tour changing its membership criteria to five regular events, increasing the chances of the likes of Spieth, Fowler and Johnson following in compatriot Patrick Reed’s spikemarks by locking horns with Europe’s big guns on the Greg Norman-designed Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates in the next year or two.

Pelley’s aim is to make the European Tour a “viable alternative” to the PGA Tour. That being the case, then why shouldn’t the Final Series be that to the FedEx Cup Play-Offs, especially as the two schedules actually permit playing in both works pretty well?

“The European Tour have been fortunate for a long time that they’ve had stars on their circuit who are stars of world golf,” observed Julian Small, the former chief executive at Wentworth who is settling in as managing director of club operations at Jumeirah Golf Estates. “We can never under-estimate the strength of European golf and what I’d call global players that exist on the European Tour.

“But, clearly, if the European Tour could put in place a structure that could attract the likes of Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, those players would be a huge draw for the DP World Tour Championship as they are very popular in the Middle East.

“People want to see the best players and the world rankings highlight who the best players are. I’m not sure the normal golf watcher understands the qualification criteria for the DP World Tour Championship. You get in because your performance merits it, you don’t get here on an invitation from a sponsor. There’s a set criteria to qualify and we are really pleased that the Europen Tour looked at that criteria and the change to that is a very progressive step. As a result of that, the more higher ranking players playing on both Tours the better as that can only be good for golf.”

Luring the likes of Spieth, Fowler and Garcia to the Middle East early in the year is great; it would be even better to see them all back here when the curtain comes down on the circuit.

Grace worth your money if you fancy an Open flutter

If you fancy a flutter, then get a pound or two on Branden Grace to become South Africa’s latest major winner in the Open Championship at Royal Troon in July.

In becoming the first player to defend the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters title at the weekend, Grace showed yet again that he’s one of the best in the game constructing a round in windy conditions on a links-type course.

We are talking here, remember, about a former Dunhill Links champion who mastered the tests of Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and St Andrews to claim that coveted title in 2012. The following year, he might also have been crowned as Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open champion but for a moment of magic from Phil Mickelson in a play-off at Castle Stuart.

Grace’s weekend win in Doha was his seventh European Tour title triumph and, having finished fourth then third in the US Open and US PGA Championship respectively, it would be no surprise whatsoever if joined Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel in turning potential into something really tangible in one of this year’s four majors.

With 20th at St Andrews last year being his best effort so far, Grace’s Open record is pretty modest, but Troon, especially in the wind, could be just the test to bring out the best in him in the game’s oldest major.