With four titles this season, Rory McIlroy has already wrapped up the PGA Tour money title and eliminated much of the suspense surrounding the Player of the Year award.
Not so across the pond.
McIlroy, who has sat atop the European Tour’s Order of Merit for much of the season, may have to fend off an unlikely challenge from rookie Branden Grace if he’s to capture both money titles – and Player of the Year awards – in 2012.
Grace, a 24-year-old South African, won his fourth European Tour title of the season Sunday (and fifth overall this year) at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
At one point last year, Grace was No. 362 in the world, toiling on the Sunshine Tour, needing to go through Q-School just to earn his European Tour card. Now, he’s one of the game’s brightest stars.
With his victory Sunday, Grace moved to 37th in the world. He’s the first European Tour player to win four times in his first season on the circuit, and only the 11th player to accomplish the feat overall. He’s earned €2,028,215, which puts him only €730,000 ($953,000) behind McIlroy in the yearlong Race to Dubai, the top honor in European golf.
Even Grace conceded that his goals have changed. Speaking to reporters after the final round at St. Andrews, he said, “I am all for catching Rory. … Now I am in third place, (and) first place is definitely in my sights. With a lot of big-money events coming up, €800,000 is not a lot to make up.”
Eight events remain on the European Tour schedule, including the Nov. 22-25 DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, one of the richest prizes in golf. In Grace’s case, that closing stretch is even more critical because four of those events feature a purse of at least €6,000,000.
Grace was scheduled to compete in this week’s Portugal Masters, with a winner’s share of €600,000, but instead withdrew on Monday, saying he was “pretty knackered.” McIlroy, meanwhile, is playing in the inaugural Turkey Airlines World Golf Final, an eight-man match-play event that is not sanctioned by the EuropeanTour. According to the schedule posted on his website, McIlroy is slated for three more European Tour events: the Oct. 25-28 BMW Masters, Nov. 8-11 Barclays Singapore Open and Nov. 22-25 season finale in Dubai.
It seemed unfathomable a few months ago – heck, even a week ago – but the question now must be asked: Could Branden Grace steal the money title and European Tour Player of the Year? Might Justin Rose?
Here is a tale of the tape for the favorite and two leading contenders:
The favorite: Rory McIlroy
Order of Merit: 1st
Victories: 1 (PGA Championship)
Scoring average: 70.33
The skinny: The 23-year-old Ulsterman has done much of his damage in the events co-sanctioned by both the PGA and European tours. His emphatic victory at Kiawah Island netted him a first-place prize of €1,190,937, which accounts for 42 percent of his yearly earnings on the Euro tour. He was second in Abu Dhabi and also had three top-5 finishes in the World Golf Championships events, including a runner-up at the WGC-Match Play in February.
The contender: Justin Rose
Order of Merit: 2nd
Victories: 1 (WGC-Cadillac Championship)
Scoring average: 70.03
The skinny: Like McIlroy, Rose’s lone title this season came in a co-sanctioned event, the WGC tournament at Doral. The Englishman last played a full-fledged Euro tour event in July, at the French Open (T-9), but he is scheduled to play at least the BMW Masters and WGC-HSBC Champions to meet the 13-event minimum.
The contender: Branden Grace
Order of Merit: 3rd
Victories: 4 (Joburg Open, Volvo Golf Champions, China Open, Dunhill Links)
Scoring average: 70.80
The skinny: Only one of his victories came against an elite field (Volvo), but there’s no discounting what this rookie has accomplished. The knocks against Grace will be his four missed cuts, and his poor performances in three majors, in which his best finish was a T-51 at the U.S. Open (T-77 at British, MC at PGA).