With its highest-ranking member Justin Rose staying home and an agitated main attraction on the premises in Dubai, the European Tour really could do with a Moliwood cliffhanger at its season’s finale this weekend.
After 47 tournaments across four continents, the European Tour’s Race To Dubai is almost run and the mantle of European number one is up for grabs at the €8 million DP World Tour Championship. Who claims the biggest share of a $5m bonus pool and with it the Harry Vardon Trophy will be decided in a showdown between just two men with Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood set to duke it out over the Jumeirah Golf Estates’ course after their rivals all fell by the wayside.
A stacked field will vie to win the tournament itself and succeed last year’s champion Jon Rahm but only Molinari and Fleetwood are in with a shout of the overall prize. Of those two, Open champion Molinari is the clear front-runner thanks to his amazingly consistent campaign in 2018 which really took off after he won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in May.
He will tee off on Thursday with the cushion of a more than £1m lead over his friend and Ryder Cup partner Fleetwood, who has to win on Sunday to have any hope of retaining the number one status he earned 12 months ago. Molinari needs to tie fifth with one other or better to take Fleetwood out of the equation and succeed his pal as Europe’s top dog.
The pair will have one less rival to worry about with the decision by world number two Justin Rose to skip the seasonal finale of his home tour. That’s quite a body blow to the organisation he represented with such passion alongside Molinari and Fleetwood at the Ryder Cup in Paris just seven weeks ago.
And the declaration by another hero of Le Golf National, Rory McIlroy, that he could give up his European Tour membership for 2019 in favour of better fields and bigger pots on the other side of the Atlantic is quite another.
McIlroy’s pronouncements also place in doubt his participation at next July’s Irish Open as the following week’s Scottish Open could be added to his schedule instead if he is true to his promise to play the week before every Major championship while only playing two regular-season events, one of which is a sponsor’s obligation.
Either way, his comments are bound to have hurt coming as they did on the eve of a big finale that has on three occasions seen him crowned European number one at its conclusion. And it will sting the European Tour that he tees off on Thursday with the possibility that 12 months down the line he may not even be in the field.
It is a storyline that will run and run but as regards this season, can McIlroy still make an impact and finally notch a victory on his home tour in 2018? His sole success this year came at the PGA Tour’s Bay Hill Invitational in Orlando last March, which seems an awfully long time ago now.
Last week’s Nedbank Challenge in South Africa’s Sun City should have seen him put pressure on Molinari and Fleetwood by closing the gap and making it a three-horse race in Dubai this week. Instead, a double bogey in round one effectively ended those hopes and McIlroy finished the week in mid-division, tied for 21st.
With Rose opting not to go to South Africa last week, the Englishman passed on the chance to build on impressive recent form, including a win at the Turkish Airlines Open a fortnight ago, by pressing his claims to Race To Dubai glory. The trio of McIlroy, Li Haotong and Lucas Bjerregaard that did compete in the Nedbank with a chance of topping the end of season standings each failed to reach their objectives. However, with that bonus pool still on offer to the top 10 finishers on the Race To Dubai ladder, they should still be motivated to finish on a high.
With a tiring Molinari’s modus operandi this week likely to be conservative as he seeks to hold on with what little energy remains in the tank after his stellar year, there will be plenty of others in the hunt to take a little piece of the limelight themselves at Jumeirah Golf Estates.
Here’s five that have what it takes to make a splash in the desert.
1. Tommy Fleetwood 14/1
Four consecutive top-10 finishes have closed the gap on Molinari, but Fleetwood is yet to properly conquer this course, failing to keep a round of 70 or more off his card in each of his five appearances. Best finish is a tie for ninth in 2016, but this has been a year like no other for Fleetwood, including a win in the Middle East in Abu Dhabi at the start of the season. He has the momentum to put that record right this week.
2. Rory McIlroy 8/1
The root of his recent problems has been his driving, with McIlroy’s ball feeding right in times of trouble. He insists he has made the necessary tweaks to correct the issue in time to revisit a course on which he has won twice, in 2012 and 2015. Looking for his first European Tour win since the 2016 Irish Open.
3. Patrick Reed 20/1
The Masters champion has pitched up in the desert with fellow American and HSBC-Champions victor Xander Schauffele, with both aiming to consolidate a top-10 Race To Dubai finish. Reed, with a tie for 10th in both 2015 and 2017, appears best placed. His tournament-leading opening round of 65 last years makes his 22/1 odds of being first-round leader on Thursday evening very inviting.
4. Sergio Garcia 10/1
Invigorated by his redemption as a captain’s pick at the Ryder Cup, the Spaniard won at Valderrama three weeks ago and came close to a second win in quick succession at last week’s Nedbank Challenge in South Africa, his third top-10 finish in a row. He’s also very consistent around Jumeirah Golf Estates, with a worst finish of T21 in his seven appearances at the DP World Tour Championship and a best of T4 last year and two further top-10s in 2009 and 2012.
5. Shane Lowry 30/1
The Irishman is another coming into some late-season form with a runner-up finish behind Garcia at Valderrama at the end of October and a T14 at the Turkish Airlines Open, both of which helped him back up to 70th in the world rankings. Lowry is another who likes this course having finished joint runner-up behind Rahm a year ago, with two further top-10 finishes in 2014 and 2011. As an interesting side bet he is also 2/1 to finish ahead of both McIlroy (1/2) and Paul Dunne (15/2) as top Irish player.
*Prices correct at time of publishing