This week, the European Tour season will finally reach its conclusion at the DP World Tour Championship. It’s supposed to be a fun, intense event that will end with one lucky golfer winning the Race to Dubai (think of the FedEx Cup, but European) on Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, the week will likely be at least partly eclipsed by a persistent truth: the European Tour is dying a slow, painful death.
Just take a look at the top of the Race to Dubai points standings — basically a glorified money list. Unsurprisingly, Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, the European Tour’s highest ranked player at No. 3 in the world, occupies the top spot. He’s been there since his solo fourth at the Masters back in April. However, in the seven months since that week, he’s teed it up in just seven European Tour events for a grand total of 11 for the season.
The second man on the list is Danny Willett, who had a career year at the age of 27. Since the Masters, the Englishman has played more than twice as many European Tour events as McIlroy, but continues to trail by the slimmest of margins. Don’t think that you can just chalk that up to timing — Willett was leading the Race to Dubai for the season’s first few months, before McIlroy notched his second win of the year.
While he was excellent when he teed it up, McIlroy didn’t achieve his great Race to Dubai success all on his own—the Ulsterman was helped by a fair amount of modern golf-onomics. Co-sanctioned by the PGA and European Tours, the majors and World Golf Championship events (there are four of each every year) are the most lucrative in the world; their purses dwarf those of other tournaments. This difference is especially pronounced on the European Tour — its events invariably award considerably less prize money than their stateside counterparts. More than half of McIlroy’s European Tour starts in 2015 came at these ultra-rich events (he went one-for-six, winning the WGC-Match Play).
Meanwhile, Willett found most of his success at the European Tour’s smaller events, notching wins at the Nedbank Golf Challenge and Omega European Masters this season. This puts him at a considerable disadvantage, despite the fact that he was more consistent than McIlroy on the whole. Basically, McIlroy has coasted on good play in less than half as many events as Willett. They just happen to have been the right events.
If the tour wants to keep its top players, this is the wrong message to send — that the rank-and-file tournaments are inconsequential. It only serves to drive home the point that the real prosperity to be had in golf is in America.
This rampant level of big-event bias isn’t the only thing plaguing the European Tour this year. Sergio Garcia, world No. 11, won’t be playing in Dubai this week. On the record, he hinted that he was a bit fatigued, but it could have something to do with his meltdown at the BMW Masters on Sunday. The Spaniard was trailing by just one when he dropped three shots over the last two holes to fall into a tie for 11th.
Garcia’s absence isn’t as much of a problem in and of itself as it is a manifestation of a larger crisis facing the European Tour. It simply can’t hold onto its top players, not when the world’s elite have demanding schedules, growing families and swollen bank accounts. It’s telling that a $7.5 million bonus pool isn’t enough. The players just don’t want to spend 30 weeks on the road per year.
It was bad enough when guys like Brooks, Koepka and Paul Casey announced their plans to focus solely on the PGA Tour in 2016. Now, Garcia, one of the European Tour’s most prominent superstars for almost 20 years, is refusing to show up for one of its flagship events for the second time in three years. If this isn’t a tour in trouble, I don’t know what is.
So enjoy this week, golf fans — after all, the conclusion of a season-long competition is always exciting — but realize that it’s not all peaches and cream for the European Tour right now. McIlroy’s unceasing dominance and the absence of Garcia are symptomatic of the circuit’s ill health.