x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Garcia favourite on home course

All eyes will be on the Spaniard when the qualifying event for next week's Volvo Masters kicks off.

Journeymen golfers on the European Tour will today get an impression of what it will feel like to be on the brink of qualifying for next year's US$10million (Dh36.7m) Dubai World Championship when they step on to the tee for their opening round of the Castello Masters on the outskirts of Valencia.

The routine Spanish tournament is the final qualifying event for next week's season-ending Volvo Masters which for the last time this year will be the finale to the tour's order of merit before the Race to Dubai embarks on its 12-month odyssey from China in two weeks time. In all probability the 2008 order of merit will be won by the in-form Swede Robert Karlsson or Padraig Harrington, the Irishman who has won two out of the four major championships this season. They will both have to slip up badly to open the door for England's Lee Westwood, Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez and the Dubai-based Swede Henrik Stenson to snatch the honour.

The consistent Karlsson, whose earnings of ?2,695,248 (Dh12.8m) give him a slight lead in the money list over Harrington, will not be in attendance at the Club de Campo del Mediterraneo. However, neither will the Irishman, whose triumphs in the British Open and US PGA Championships gave a considerable boost to his total of ?2,397,823. They along with the third-placed Westwood and fourth-placed Jimenez are taking a week off in advance of the Masters at Valderrama when a successor to the 2007 winner Justin Rose will be determined.

Although Rose is competing this week along with his Ryder Cup teammates Sergio Garcia, Paul Casey, Henrik Stenson, the European vice-captain Jose Maria Olazabal and the exciting Colombian Camilo Villegas, the focus will be as much on the lesser lights of the Tour. A finishing position of 115 in the order of merit has enormous significance for whoever occupies it on Sunday evening because that is the cut-off point for the retention of playing privileges on the Tour for next season.

Those aiming higher for a finish in the top 60 will be rewarded with a position in next week's Valderrama field when 30 automatic exemptions for next year's Open Championship at Turnberry and 15 places in the US Open at Bethpage, New York will be up for grabs. A year from now the stakes will be even higher with the top 60 going through to the inaugural Race to Dubai finale - the Dubai World Championship - to be staged on the Greg Norman- designed Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates from Nov 6-9.

There, the winner will enjoy a record pay day of $2million out of a bonus pool of $10million to be shared out between the top 15 players. That enormous purse for the world's most valuable tournament means it is almost certain that the battle for the Harry Vardon Trophy, which is awarded annually to the man at the head of the order of merit will - like this year - go all the way to the last day of the season on the Leisurecorp-owned Dubai facility.

Garcia - who is co-designing one of the four courses at Jumeirah - will be the leading attraction this week on his native Spanish soil. He looks the favourite to take the first prize of ?333,330 having learned about every inch of the Castello course which he played as a boy with his father Victor - who was the club's resident professional. Garcia's Ryder Cup mentor Olazabal holds the course record, however, having posted an 11 under par 61 in Dec 2005.

The dual US Masters champion returned to competitive action earlier this month following recurring back problems and will be determined to give a good account in front of his home crowd. Their lesser-known compatriot Alvaro Quiros can also expect a rousing reception after his victory in Portugal last weekend. wjohnson@thenational.ae