x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Rose eschews pointed critique but others blast away at European Tour changes

Top players unimpressed with tweaks to Race to Dubai

Ernie Els says he will join Sergio Garcia and Charl Schwartzel in sitting out the European Tour's Finals Series as a form of protest.  Andrew Redington / Getty Images
Ernie Els says he will join Sergio Garcia and Charl Schwartzel in sitting out the European Tour's Finals Series as a form of protest. Andrew Redington / Getty Images

Steve Elling

The reigning US Open champion attempted to channel humour and a measure of diplomacy where others had used harsh terms and incendiary declaratives.

Given a chance to render a verdict on the first iteration of the European Tour’s new concluding series to the Race to Dubai, English star Justin Rose somewhat sarcastically compared the sequence to the year-end play-offs in the United States.

The PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup series, which partly served as a model for the new European Tour plan, has been massaged multiple times over its six-year history and still seems convoluted. Likewise, the year-old European system already has villagers lined up at the gates, toting torches.

Rose kept any blistering opinion in check and his tongue firmly in cheek.

“There were many tweaks and changes before it was so-called, ‘got right’,” Rose quipped of the FedEx series. “So I don’t think anything is set in stone.”

Tweaks require a torque wrench. A European makeover might require blasting caps.

Twelve months after it was announced with great fanfare at last year’s DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, the first version of the four-tournament Final Series stumbles toward completion this week at Jumeirah Golf Estates, its pulse barely detectable.

Grousing about the FedEx system is nothing new, but the European Tour’s new concoction has taken critical blowback to another level, spawning a Dubai boycott by three of the most prominent players in the game.

Former world No 1 Ernie Els, whose four major titles are the most among active European Tour members, began the bonfire last week, declaring that he would skip the DP World finale in protest.

“It’s farcical,” Els said. “In my view, it’s an absolute joke.”

While the broader notion of implementing a FedEx-style series in Europe was applauded, the devil is surely in the details. In an attempt to coerce players into competing in as many of the Final Series tournaments as possible, the European Tour added a contentious provision.

Players must compete in at least two of the first three Final Series events – all held in China and Turkey – to be eligible for the cash-rich, no-cut finale in Dubai this week. Growing pains begat groaning pains.

Cue the revolt.

For top-25 players Els, Sergio Garcia and Charl Schwartzel, who play on the US and European circuits and juggle the membership requirements of each, it was a Dubai deal-breaker. The trio hardly represent the lone voices in the critical wilderness, either.

“The disappointing thing about it is, the only people that are losing out are the sponsors in Dubai,” said former world No 1 Lee Westwood, the 2009 Race to Dubai champion. “They have been penalised for a silly rule made by the European Tour.”

Schwartzel, a former Masters champion, said he is considering dropping his membership on the European Tour, which requires players to play in 13 sanctioned events. However, the Final Series effectively adds to the total.

“I think it does make you think about your future,” Schwartzel told the BBC. “I’m really disappointed and feel sorry for the sponsors.

“I really want to play, but I think there’s been some bad decisions made. I’m not going to carry on about it, but it really needs to be looked at.”

It took one swing by a key player at the first series event, the 78-player BMW Masters in China, before the design began to show other flaws.

Mindful of the requirement that he needed to play in two of the three lead-in events to be eligible to tee it up in Dubai, injured Dutch standout Joost Luiten hit one shot and then tactically withdrew, costing first alternate Justin Walters a spot in the field. Walters is no stiff – he was a 36-hole co-leader over the weekend in Turkey.

Bigger cracks emerged at the second event in the series, the lucrative HSBC Champions in Shanghai. The co-sanctioned, 78-man event event is not run by the European Tour, which has little sway over the composition of the field. As a result, 10 of the top 40 on the Race to Dubai points list did not find a place on the tee sheet, including Ryder Cup player Nicolas Colsaerts, Thorbjorn Olesen, Rafael Cabrera-Bello and Shane Lowry.

In theory, a points race represents a season-long meritocracy. But if all three of Dubai’s lead-in events have fields of 78 players or fewer, it crimps the opportunity for top players in the points list to participate. In reality, designating co-sanctioned events as Finals Series stops meant even fewer spots were available to European Tour regulars.

It felt like a closed shop.

At the co-sanctioned BMW Masters, 14 players from the China Golf Association were included in the field. At the HSBC, because of the tournament format, Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald played, while players having better 2013 seasons were benched. In points, both players were outside the crucial top 60, the number required to land a spot in the Dubai finale.

Six of the 78 players at HSBC were from China, including two ranked outside the top 800 in the world. One of them failed to break 80 in three of his four rounds and finished a whopping 59 shots off the lead. Ouch.

Then there is the matter of the Race to Dubai scorekeeping. The US tour employs a critically panned points system.

“Our system is cleaner,” European Tour commissioner George O’Grady said when the Final Series was unveiled last November.

Well, it used to be.

European Tour players are ranked by money – until the Final Series begins. Then, cold cash is converted to a points system, with a confusing 20 per cent bonus offered for those who play all four year-end tournaments. During last week’s Turkish Airlines Open, broadcasters gave up trying to extrapolate and explain the bonus points to viewers. For clarity alone, it is better to pick a system and stick with it for the entire season.

First-year construct or otherwise, the Final Series has unwittingly undercut its principle design notion: The delivery of deserving top players to the four-event series culminating this week in Dubai.

“The direction they’re going in, I just think it’s the wrong one,” Els said.

So, like Schwartzel and Garcia, he went a new direction, too.