VALDERRAMA // The morning after and Robert Karlsson is already setting about the task of defending his European Order of Merit crown. The Swede became the Tour's new No 1 despite finishing only 32nd out of 57 at the Volvo Masters. But rather than embarking on wild celebrations - it was no mean feat given the runner-up Padraig Harrington won two majors - Karlsson, 39, immediately flew from the Costa del Sol to Paris and today arrives in Shanghai to start the new season.
One which next November culminates in the Dubai World Championship, golf's richest-ever event with £6.2million (Dh36.3m) up for grabs in the tournament itself and the same amount from a money-list bonus pool. Not bad work if you can get it in these credit crunch times. Karlsson topped what from now on will be known as "The Race To Dubai" with £2.17m - £217,000 more than Harrington - who needing to finish first or second in Spain could do no better than joint 13th.
The third-placed Lee Westwood was the one who had the best chance to pip Karlsson on the final day. The Worksop golfer, who enters hospital this morning to have his tonsils removed, had to win and was sharing top spot after 11 holes of the third round. But he slipped back to joint fourth and, having failed to win for 14 months and said: "It's been a year of nearlys and it was nearly again. I didn't feel I was hitting it great all week. I wasn't straight enough, but I've played well all year and I'm pleased about being back in the world's top 10."
It is his first time there for five and a half years, and given during that time he slumped outside the top 250, he can take real pride in his comeback. So, of course, can Karlsson. Only four years ago he finished 116th on the money list and his undoubted talent - known about on Tour ever since he was runner-up to Nick Faldo in the 1992 European Open at Sunningdale - appeared to be going to waste. But Karlsson had a cold, hard look at himself, resolved to be not so much of a perfectionist and now he has two Ryder Cup caps and the Harry Vardon Trophy as No 1 to look at.
"It would have been fantastic to cap it off with a good week, but I'm not going to be ashamed about this week," he said. "In the last three and a half years I have taken myself to a new level and this is fantastic. But this has been the hardest week I've ever experienced in golf. It's one of those situations where you have it in your own hands, but not really and your focus wanders quite a bit." As at the Ryder Cup, Harrington admitted to being not as prepared as he needed to be to give of his best. But he will not be beating himself up about that.
"I know what this season is going to be remembered for in a week's time, a month's time and a year's time," the Open and US PGA champion said. "In the context of the season, it's not so disappointing." Not when you have become the first European to make a successful defence of The Open for over 100 years and the first since 1930 to land the final major of the season. That is certain to make him and not Karlsson the winner of the European Golfer of the Year award.
Karlsson is relishing the start of the title defence at HSBC Champions in Shanghai. "It feels fantastic to start the new season and The Race to Dubai so quickly after winning the Order of Merit," he said. "My form is good and I am playing well. I am still very confident that I can do something in China," he added. * With agencies