x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The race is on to emulate Westwood

The Englishman is likely to begin the defence of his title at the Abu Dhabi Championship.

Lee Westwood's putting underpinned his victory at Earth, handing him the Dubai World Championship and Race to Dubai double.
Lee Westwood's putting underpinned his victory at Earth, handing him the Dubai World Championship and Race to Dubai double.

No sooner has the ink dried on Lee Westwood's bumper cheque for US$2.75m (Dh10.1m) - the reward for completing the Dubai World Championship/Race to Dubai double - European Tour professionals are embarking on what promises to be another exhausting but rewarding campaign.

The Race to Dubai is off and running again in South Africa today with the first of four events co-sanctioned by the European and Sunshine Tours. Richard Sterne, who got off to a flying start a year ago by winning back-to-back tournaments in his homeland, defends the first of them - the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek. Sterne, who went on to finish 42nd in the inaugural Race, will be seeking to enjoy similar early fortunes before the Tour's bigger guns return to action after the briefest of close-seasons.

Westwood, who played in the South African Open last December, has so far only declared his intention to start his next campaign in the Abu Dhabi Championship which begins on January 21. He will have Rory McIlroy, his closest rival in what was previously called the Order of Merit, in opposition at the National Course in the UAE capital along with three other players from the world's top 10 - Paul Casey, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia.

The fifth staging of the high-class Abu Dhabi tournament is the opening leg of what is becoming an increasingly popular three-week "Desert Swing" for the leading players who can also enjoy the mid-winter sunshine in Doha and Dubai. Casey, the powerfully-built Englishman ruled Abu Dhabi for the second time in three visits last January, while Spain's immense hitter Alvaro Quiros, winner of the Tour's longest drive award for the last three seasons, took the honours in Qatar.

McIlroy became the third triumphant desert swinger with his maiden professional victory in Dubai and the young Northern Irishman is confident of making a similar impact when he returns to the Middle East. The precocious McIlroy, 20, would normally be a logical choice to succeed Westwood as Europe's No 1 after his consistently impressive performances over the last 12 months, but that title is likely to be taken out of the youngster's reach during the forthcoming campaign.

After much soul-searching, he has decided to commit himself to the US PGA Tour in 2010 but believes he will still earn enough from the jointly-sanctioned tournaments in America to be in contention for glory again when the second Race reaches its conclusion on Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates. Barring any financial problems with the various fixtures scheduled around the world over the next 12 months, the second staging of the Dubai World Championship is likely to be the 47th event on the 2010 European Tour.

Six of those tournaments will be taking place for the first time, including one in New Delhi, India, and another in Rabat, Morocco, as the Tour seeks to increase its worldwide appeal and create opportunities for an affiliated player to emulate Westwood's 2009 achievement in amassing a total of ?4,237,762 (Dh22.9m) after his emphatic six-stroke Dubai World Championship triumph. With Tour sponsors Leisurecorp confirming this week that funding for the second year of their five-year agreement will remain at US$15m, that is again a distinct possibility at Jumeirah Golf Estates next November.

There is an option to stage the second World Championship on Fire, Earth's sister course, but the overall success of the first showpiece tournament there suggests that the organisers will stick to Plan A. A spokesman for Leisurecorp said that a decision on next year's venue would be taken later in the year but suggested that the success of what was billed as "The Greatest Show on Earth" meant it made sense to stick with that formula for at least one more year.

The spokesman added that Earth presented a true test of golf for 60 of the world's leading players and the hosts took great heart from an endorsement from Westwood who described it as a "good challenge" despite his aggregate score of 24 under par. There is every chance that whoever succeeds Westwood as the winner of the Dubai World Championship next November will also top the overall money list. Do not be surprised if the glorious double again goes Westwood's way. His golf over those four wonderful days in Dubai was irresistible and with McIlroy absent for much of the new season, the door is open for a lucrative repeat.