It was just five weeks ago that Rory McIlroy was chasing European heroes Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood around Le Golf National’s putting green with a bottle of fizz, intent of drenching the pair in bubbles.
Yet Ryder Cup camaraderie is off the agenda this weekend as McIlroy heads to South Africa intent on taking a little limelight from the golden “Moliwood” duo as the 2018 Race To Dubai reaches its penultimate event.
The European Tour heads to Sun City for Thursday’s first round of the Nedbank Challenge, the final stop on its Race To Dubai before the following week’s grand finale at the DP World Championship.
And if you have ambitions to catch front-runners Molinari and Fleetwood and finish as Europe’s number one golfer for 2018 a week on Sunday, you have no option but to be teeing it up at the Gary Player Country Club on Thursday morning.
Race To Dubai rankings leader Molinari and second-placed Tommy Fleetwood can both afford to sidestep the jaunt to South Africa, especially given the decision by world number one Justin Rose not to follow up on his successful title defence at last Sunday’s lucrative Turkish Airlines Open.
Rose vaulted from 10th to third in the rankings with his dramatic play-off win over China’s Haotong Li – who rocks up again here – to claim the Rolex Series event for the second year in a row, but will skip the Nedbank Challenge and is undecided about whether to go to Dubai the following week for the season-ending DP World Championship.
With Americans Patrick Reed and Xander Schauffele fourth and fifth respectively and not slated to cross the Atlantic again this year, and sixth and seventh-placed Thorbjorn Olesen and Alex Noren also resting this week, that leaves just three golfers who can catch Molinari and Fleetwood and they will each need to make serious inroads into their deficits this weekend.
The Italian was of course the talisman for Europe’s Ryder Cup success over the United States in Paris in late September, forging an unbeaten partnership with Fleetwood which secured four points from a possible four on the Friday and Saturday at Le Golf National before making it five from five by seeing off Phil Mickelson in the Sunday singles, fittingly scoring the winning point for Thomas Bjorn’s team.
Yet that performance was built on a glorious summer of success which had seen Molinari win the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in May, then his maiden major championship at Carnoustie when he triumphed at The Open.
With remarkable consistency across the season including a top-10 at the Italian Open, another of the European Tour’s $7,000,000 blue-riband Rolex Series events and a tie for sixth at the US PGA Championship, it has helped establish a formidable 1,025,166 point lead at the top of the rankings and if he finishes in outright second or better in Dubai the European Number One ranking will be Molinari’s.
That will mean wresting the crown from defending title-holder Fleetwood, who is finishing the season strongly with four top 10s in most recent starts, although the Englishman needs to win in Dubai and hope his buddy Molinari manages worse than a tie for fifth.
All that could change if McIlroy and his rivals Li and Lucas Bjerregarrd fail to close the gap this weekend, but you can guarantee the trio are not heading to South Africa to go on safari.
McIlroy is the best placed of them to apply some pressure and he will start the Nedbank Challenge as the tournament’s favourite, despite a disappointing outing last time out at the HSBC Champions in China, when he finished in a tie for 54th and failed to break 70.
He has twice finished second to Molinari this year, at Wentworth and Carnoustie without winning on the European Tour in 2018 and if the Irishman wants to add to his three previous European number one end of year rankings, he needs to get his skates on in Sun City.
McIlroy has the comfort of knowing he has twice won in Dubai at the DP World Championship and in a lesser field this week he can make a giant leap towards his goal.
Victory in South Africa would mean that a solo second next week would give him the trophy, IF Molinairi finishes worse than a tie for sixth with one other player.
A lone second place this weekend would ease the pressure on Molinairi somewhat, as he would only need to finish worse than seventh outright or a share of sixth with two others, to be crowned Race to Dubai champion.
Not that McIlroy will be getting his calculator out just yet. Victory is the only target in his mind at the Gary Player CC, although in Chinese star Li, he faces an in-form rival. Li would have to win twice in the next two weeks to have a hope of reeling in Molinari as does Alfred Dunhill Links champion Bjerregarrd.
Yet there are others to contend with. The Race To Dubai crown may have eluded them but each has objectives of their own, all making it a fascinating tournament in its own right. Branden Grace defends in his homeland with Louis Oosthuizen another South African hoping for success this weekend while Sergio Garcia is still riding a wave after his Ryder Cup renaissance.
And then there is Shane Lowry, enjoying a late season charge that was sparked by a tie for 12th at Bellerive in the PGA Championship in August. Lowry has a world top-50 ranking in his sights now thanks to sixth place at the Portugal Masters, a runner-up finish at Valderrama and a tie for 14th at the Turkish Airlines Open.
He will be a confident starter in Sun City too, having finished T12 here last year and is nicely priced at 20/1.