Barely Playing in a Tour, but Winning Its Championship Anyway

The DP World Tour will end its season at the championship in Dubai, which starts on Thursday, as it has done for more than a decade. But like the past several seasons, the winner of the Race to Dubai championship will be someone who has played sparingly on the tour itself. In fact, this may be its most anti-climactic finale yet.

This stands in stark contrast to the PGA Tour, where its FedEx Cup series funnels golfers into playing as many events on that tour as possible to accumulate points.

It wasn’t always this way. The Race to Dubai is an honor that dates well-before the FedEx Cup. It began in 1937 as the Order of Merit. Charles Whitcombe won the inaugural one. Subsequent winners are a who’s who of European golfers, including multiple winners like the Ryder Cup stalwarts Colin Montgomerie with eight and Seve Ballesteros with six.

But this year is another in which the closing event feels like a showcase for stars who have been largely absent from the tour. Rory McIlroy, a four-time winner of the Race to Dubai, and Jon Rahm, who won it in 2019, are in first and second place, but after last weekend’s Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa, no one can catch McIlroy.

Of the 43 events on the tour, Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, right, has played nine; Jon Rahm of Spain, left, has played seven.Credit…Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

And that makes the disconnect with the season-ending race even starker. The two players are ranked second and third in the world golf rankings. And they’re stalwarts of the European Ryder Cup team. But McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Rahm of Spain have hardly played this season on the DP World Tour. And while McIlroy is set to play in the event, he could skip it and still be crowned the winner for the fifth time.

Of the 43 events on the tour, McIlroy has played nine and is in first place in the Race To Dubai; Rahm has played seven to sit in second and the drama has turned to whether they will repeat as champion of the tournament itself. In third place is Adrian Meronk of Poland, who has played 23 tournaments on the DP World Tour.

Meronk is a lock to win another prize: full membership on the PGA Tour. This goes to the top 10 finishers in the Race to Dubai who are not already on the PGA Tour, which has higher purses and earns more points for the world golf rankings; it also means Meronk will probably, like McIlroy and Rahm, play more on the PGA Tour than on the DP World Tour next season.

Welcome to the new abnormal of golf, in which European Tour champions barely play on the tour. How did we get here? It’s complicated.

In the scrambled world of professional golf, with the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour working together to stave off the threat from LIV Golf, the new Saudi Arabia-backed league, new incentives abound. And they’re upending the existing order.

While there is a tentative agreement with LIV to pause litigation between it and the tours, one of their big concerns is players being lured away with more lucrative LIV contracts. But at the heart of the current agreement between the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour is a system for the highest-ranked players in Europe to play in the United States on the PGA Tour.

The leaderboard for the Race to Dubai is the result of two factors: how certain events, like the four majors, are sanctioned by the two tours and thus earn more points; and the higher number of points awarded to other elevated events. Because dominant players like McIlroy and Rahm compete in events with stronger fields, they end up earning more points by playing well in fewer events.

In McIlroy’s case, only four of his nine events that got credited toward the Race to Dubai were DP World Tour events; the others were on or sanctioned by the PGA Tour. With Rahm, it was fewer: only two of his seven tournaments.

It’s not the first time this has happened. Last year, McIlroy won the Race to Dubai (and Rahm won the DP World Tour Championship) with a similar amount of play on the DP World Tour.

In 2021, Collin Morikawa, a full member of the PGA Tour, became the first American to win the Race to Dubai. He also won the British Open, but only played in two other events outside the United States: the Scottish Open (which is also sanctioned by the PGA Tour) and the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. In neither event did he finish inside the top 50.

By contrast, this year Meronk played the four majors and the other 19 events on the DP World. While he is third in the Race to Dubai, he is ranked only 46th in the world because he earned fewer points from the European events.

Victor Hovland of Norway is ranked 14th in the Race to Dubai, but is the fourth-best player in the world rankings. Again, it’s the value of the points. He is credited with seven DP World Tour events, but all but one, the BMW PGA Championship, are also sanctioned by the PGA Tour.

At its core, the list of contenders for the Race to Dubai is a mix of players who did well in DP World Tour events and will move up to the PGA Tour, and players who have played well at the majors and other co-sanctioned events. The result is a season-ending tournament and season-long prize that could be more confusing than climactic.

Joost Luiten of the Netherlands is close to winning the opportunity to play more on the PGA Tour and thus play less on the DP World tour.Credit…Lorraine Osullivan/Reuters

In fact, the real drama may lie with the final player on the P.G.A. promotion list, Rasmus Hojgaard of Denmark, who jumped five spots into 16th place.

That spot had been held until the last tournament by Joost Luiten of the Netherlands, who dropped five spots after last week and is now in 22nd place. Both Hojgaard and Luiten have played over 20 events each on the DP World Tour to get an opportunity to play more on the PGA Tour and thus less on the DP tour next season.

On the flip side, current PGA Tour players who finish outside the top 125 on the money list get full membership on the DP World Tour, for numbers 126 to 200.

When this was announced last month, David Howell, chairman of the DP World Tour’s Tournament Committee, categorized the demotion to that tour as a positive for players. “When we announced our strategic alliance with the PGA Tour in November 2021, one of the prime objectives was to give as many opportunities as possible to members of both tours,” he said. “This is another perfect example of how this is working.”

An agent who represents players on the DP World Tour and LIV Golf said that elevating one group to the PGA Tour and demoting another group onto the DP World Tour was further dividing professional golf ranks. It has made it more difficult, the agent said, for many players to gain the world golf ranking points to get them into the majors and other marquee tournaments.

“All these PGA Tour events sit way above the European Tour in world golf ranking points,” said the agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid the ramifications of speaking publicly about the Tour. “They had an argument that the depth on the PGA Tour was better than anywhere else, so how could you be top 100 on PGA Tour and 300th in the world. I get it. But that pushed the European Tour into a corner. It made it into this feeder tour.”

Next year the format will change and be more like the FedEx Cup, where players qualify for an event and then the field shrinks with each tournament. So it will be 70 players at the Abu Dhabi Championship and 50 players at the final DP World Tour Championship in 2024.

What it comes down to is getting the sport’s stars to play in those final European Tour events, regardless of how much they have played on the tour during the season.

“The season-long narrative is for the die-hard golf geeks,” the agent said. “The average sports enthusiast just wants to see superstars. The commercial product lives and dies by it.”

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