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Race to Dubai changes may discourage player participation

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Early in the FedEx Cup era some scribes took to calling the PGA Tour’s transition to a faux post-season the Fix-it Cup because of the ongoing alterations to the format and formulas.

From point alterations to resets, the Tour found itself trying to please everyone. So when European Tour officials decided to overhaul its Final Series, a four-event, end-of-the-year run modeled after the FedEx Cup, it seemed likely they would fall into the same trap door. But if early reviews of the Final Series’ new format are any indication, the European circuit has succeeded in pleasing few.

To be fair, officials set out to create a system that would assure player participation in as many post-season events as possible – which would definitely please the sponsors of the four events. But the end result is a Draconian system that may actually alienate some top players.

“I think it has been dreadfully thought through,” said International Sports Management’s Chubby Chandler, whose clients include a who’s-who list of European Tour players including Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke and Charl Schwartzel. “They are making it more difficult to play (the Final Series).”

Chandler had just spent the better part of a dinner explaining the new format to Schwartzel last week when contacted by GolfChannel.com so he’d come by his frustration honestly.

In order to qualify for the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai next month, players must play two of the three Final Series events, which begin this week at the BMW Masters in China, leading up to the finale.

That creates a scheduling pile up for players like Schwartzel, who has already played 24 global events this year including all four FedEx Cup Playoff events and the Presidents Cup.

“He has had a horrific run and wants to play (the Turkish Airlines Open) and Dubai but they won’t let him play Dubai unless he plays two of the three before it,” Chandler said.

Schwartzel’s fix is hardly unique. Many of the European Tour’s top players, including Sergio Garcia, face significant schedule alterations if they are going to play the finale in Dubai.

It also doesn’t help that the limited-field WGC-HSBC Champions, the second leg of the Final Series, is co-sanctioned with the PGA Tour. Which means players who qualified for the Final Series, the top 110 from a season-long points list, are not assured a spot in the HSBC field.

“If you are not in the top 20 in the world or so you’re not going to know if you are in some of those events until the last minute,” said Rocky Hambric, president of Hambric Sports Management. “How can you hold someone to that kind of standard? You have to play two out of three and you may not be in one of them.”

Players like Mikko Ilonen (20th on the Race for Dubai list), Thorbjorn Olesen (No. 24) and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (35th) are all deep in the Race for Dubai but currently not in the field next week at the HSBC.

Imagine if Steve Stricker, who finished the 2013 regular season 20th on the FedEx Cup points list, wasn’t allowed to play the BMW Championship but had to participate in The Barclays and Deutsche Bank Championship just to earn a trip to East Lake.

“They do not have the qualifications correct for the HSBC is the problem,” Chandler said.

To complicate matters even more, some players outside the top 110 on the Race for Dubai can still compete in some of the post-season events, like American phenom Brooks Koepka who was exempt into this week’s BMW Masters, but their earnings would not count toward qualifying for the DP World Tour Championship.

“His money wasn’t going to count, so the European Tour changed their rules and encouraged him to stay in the U.S. and play,” said Hambric of Koepka, who tied for third at the Frys.com Open two weeks ago.

Confused yet?

And if all this sounds like administrative minutia, consider that the top finishers on the season-ending Race for Dubai list qualify for some of the game’s biggest events, like the WGC-Cadillac Championship (top 20), and under the new system the European circuit has started a 20-percent bonus pool for players who participate in all four Final Series events which could skew the final list.

Fundamentally, the European Tour’s new system will likely strengthen the Final Series fields. Some players seemed content to simply add to their schedules rather than miss the finale.

“Some of the new policies on the European Tour, where you have to play certain events leading up to Dubai, (but) you also get a 20-percent hike, so you would probably want to do that,” said Luke Donald, who is 60th on the points list.

But at what cost?

“Even the FedEx Cup doesn’t work like that. If you don’t play Barclays or BMW you can still play (the Tour Championship as long as you are in the top 30 in points),” Chandler said. “Go to Adam Scott and ask, ‘What can we do?’ That’s how they should be doing it. Instead they are making it more difficult.”

In the short term, European officials have, in theory, created a better product, but strong-arm tactics and a confusing post-season lineup could tip the delicate balance for players who ply their trade on both sides of the transatlantic divide. And that’s not good for the tour or its sponsors.