In the 50-year history of the European Tour, something could happen on Sunday at the final event of the season, the DP World Tour Championship, Dubai, that has never happened: An American could win the Race to Dubai competition.
Collin Morikawa, who won the British Open this year, is in first place, followed by Billy Horschel, winner of the BMW PGA Championship. Both players are Americans and members of the PGA and the European Tours.
This time last year, Patrick Reed, the 2018 Masters champion, was in contention. But Lee Westwood of England won the title for the third time. (The race had previously been called the Order of Merit.)
Jon Rahm, the top-ranked player in the world, was lurking in third place but he announced on Sunday that he wold not play in Dubai.
Still, why top Americans are surging on the European Tour and what it means is not obvious, except that professional golf is in flux.
The tour was once the province of European and non-American players. Then it became a testing ground for future stars, the way Brooks Koepka of the United States played on the European Tour early in his career to test his mettle and gain membership on the PGA Tour. He went on to win four major championships.
Today, the nationality of who is leading the Race to Dubai may be unimportant because next year the European Tour will not even be called the European Tour. Last week, the tour’s parent company, European Tour Group, announced its flagship tour will be known as the DP World Tour starting in 2022.
Even Keith Pelley, the European Tour’s chief executive, was at a loss when asked about American dominance in the yearlong race and what it meant.
“I’d have answered that question completely differently before November 2020,” he said, referring to when a strategic alliance was announced between the PGA Tour and the European Tour.
“Before the PGA Tour became our partner, as opposed to a competitor, it would have meant a lot more for an American to be in contention in the Race to Dubai,” Pelley said. “We are no longer competing for top players. Collin Morikawa and Billy Horschel are great players and great ambassadors of the game, and we are grateful for them. The importance of an American winning would have been much greater in the past.”
The PGA Tour and the European Tour have historically been rivals for players and commercial dollars. But out of the Covid lockdown came a partnership.
When major events — like the Masters, the United States Open, PGA Championship and the British Open — were initially canceled or postponed last year, the two tours came together to see which events could be salvaged and staged safely. While many regular-season events were lost, three of the four majors were held — albeit without fans. (The British Open was canceled.)
From that cooperation, the PGA Tour took a 15 percent stake in the European Tour Group in May. They also began to coordinate their schedules so the top players would be able to play in each tour’s big events. At the same time, the players excluded from those events because of their rankings would have other events to play that would count toward the rankings on both tours.
Next year, there will be three such events: the Genesis Scottish Open, the Barbasol Championship and the Barracuda Championship.
“There’s no question both organizations are going to be made stronger by working together,” said Rick Anderson, chief media officer for the PGA Tour.
Still, what this cooperation means for the golfers was not as easy to hash out as the scheduling, commercial licenses and big advertising dollars.
This mash-up of tours in partnerships and branding comes when the golf ecosystem is increasingly intertwined, but also incredibly scrambled. There used to be clear distinctions on what the tours meant. The PGA and the European Tours were rivals through the 1990s, with each tour’s players really only crossing the Atlantic for majors like the Masters or the British Open.
But starting in 1986, the European Tour started the Challenge Tour to serve as the proving ground for future European Tour players. Four years later, in 1990, the PGA Tour created the Ben Hogan Tour, now known as the Korn Ferry Tour, to serve the same purpose for the PGA Tour.
At the time, the developmental tours fed into the main tours. But over the decades, players began to shuffle among them as playing privileges became harder to come by in the Tiger Woods era.
“Our tours were vertically integrated,” Pelley said. “Now they’re horizontally integrated, and it’s a significant difference. What does that mean in the long run? That’s the $1 million question. I can’t emphatically give you an answer.”
There is definitely opportunity for the top players. Horschel realizes he could accomplish two firsts in winning or finishing high enough at the DP World Championship, Dubai, which ends on Sunday, to claim the Race to Dubai. In addition to being the first American to win the European Tour’s season-long title, he could be just the second player to win both the Race to Dubai and the FedEx Cup, the PGA Tour’s equivalent.
Yet Horschel, 34, who lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., where the PGA Tour is based, said he grew up watching tournaments like the BMW PGA Championship on the European Tour early in the day and then being inspired to play afterward. He has a growing fan base in Europe and said he hoped to play five to seven tournaments on the European Tour each year.
Facilitating this is what the alliance between the two tours and the increased sponsorship from DP World would achieve. Each tournament under the DP World Tour will have at least a $2 million prize purse, while next year’s version of the season-ending DP World Championship will have a $10 million purse, up from about $9 million this year.
There will also be more cooperation so the elite players can play in each tour’s biggest events. “The thinking was how can we organize our respective schedules, so this is more planned out,” Anderson said. “If you organize these things, it’ll be better for both organizations and not be disruptive to the tours.
(Neither Pelley nor Anderson would comment on Greg Norman’s new Saudi-backed golf venture, LIV Golf Investments, which aims to create a premier golf league to lure the top players.)
Where the new focus on the big events is less thought out is on its impact on all the other golfers who are not ranked in the Top 50. Their path is not as clear as it once was. Younger American and European players had a system of working their way from the Korn Ferry and Challenge Tours to the PGA and European Tours. But the alliance and higher prize money from DP World could crowd them out.
One nod to that is both tours are sanctioning two lesser events next year, in the Barbasol Championship and the Barracuda Championship, giving playing opportunities to professionals who did not qualify for the Scottish or the British Opens that are held the same weeks.
“Today the different ways you make it to the PGA Tour are varied, and there isn’t a clear path to get there,” Anderson said. “We want to identify clear lanes for the players who ask, how do I progress in our sport and create options?”
For now, though, all eyes are on golf’s elite players to see who will win this year’s Race to Dubai.
“Collin and I have a chance to do something that hasn’t been done before,” Horschel said. “It’s going to be a tight race. You have a lot of great players who have the chance to win the Race to Dubai.”