Like a snowball gathering pace and scale as it cannons down the hill there was something inexorable about the way Justin Rose bowled into golf’s DP World Championship in Dubai to contest the European Tour finale.
With Rory McIlroy in enforced abeyance while his body heals the tour was denied the game’s biggest needle-mover at its end-of-year party.
A month ago Tommy Fleetwood was without a meaningful foe in pursuit of the Race to Dubai crown and then, as if by decree, Sergio Garcia triumphed on home soil in Spain and Rose went back-to-back in China and Turkey having not won a sausage since his Olympic triumph 15 months ago.
Hands began to rub at Wentworth HQ and corks started popping in sponsors’ boardrooms. We had a fight on our hands, a Rose v Garcia reprise to sell on the back pages.
Though golf, like tennis, is pretty much a 12-month a year business, it rises in the sporting imagination only four times a year. Outside of the major championships golf flickers episodically but can be a hard sell to mainstream media.
That is not to say the game is not well supported. Whenever a tournament pitches up in these isles the crowds flood out.
In America, too, with its well-established West Coast and Florida ‘swings’, the galleries are hopping. But in media terms the events remain largely trade affairs, broadcast on dedicated golf channels and reported on golfing platforms.
Money Makes The World Go Around
The Race to Dubai, like the Fed-Ex Series in the United States, offers the European Tour stakeholders a chance to create a splash, to share the media space with football if only for a week in November.
The European Tour is working slavishly to raise golf’s profile, throwing money at the season with innovations like the Rolex Series and its ramped prize money to match the riches on offer on the PGA Tour.
Ultimately golf is about the players, and the only way to attract the best is to up the ackers. And thus we have the scourge of Ryder Cup Europe Patrick Reid, one of the few Americans to inhabit both major tours, chasing the cash in Dubai alongside the European Tour elite.
The late flourish by Rose and Garcia returns us to the season’s most dramatic duel when they went head-to-head in the final group at the Masters on championship Sunday. The capacity of Augusta to throw up a compelling tale is inexhaustible.
Garcia, who seemed permanently clothed in the banner ‘the most talented current player never to win a major’ duly shed the sackcloth in the most arresting fashion.
After his tee shot lodged beneath a bush at the edge of Rae’s Creek to the left of the 13th fairway, Garcia did what he had spent a career failing to accomplish, he accepted the hand fate dealt. It was nobody’s fault but his own that he hit an errant tee shot and when he walked to the ball there was no self-reproach, no psychological meltdown, which was all the more unlikely after bogeys at 10 and 11 had handed the initiative to Rose.
Master Golfer Garcia took a drop and eventually made his par. Rose, on the green in two, was looking at a four-shot lead had he sunk his eagle putt. Instead he three-putted to offer Garcia a lifeline.
Two holes later, after a birdie and an eagle, a two shot-deficit had become a one-shot lead. Garcia still needed a play-off to get it done, but get it done he did. It was a second runners-up finish in three Masters Tournaments, but Rose lost like a champion, offering congratulations to the winner and pledging to go one better next year. He might just do that.
After a summer of subtle swing changes under coach Sean Foley after aggravating a persistent back problem on the 15th during that epic final round at Augusta, Rose has his rhythm back. And just as importantly, the work he has been doing with putting coach Phil Kenyon is paying off.
Rose was eight shots back of third round leader Dustin Johnson in Shanghai but reeled in Sweet D and the rest with a final round 66. His one-shot victory in Turkey was returned with a final round 65, and after a week off practicing at home in Albany, he opened in Dubai with a 66 before following that with a second-round 70. He sits on eight-under, two back of leader Matthew Fitzpatrick.
Race Is On
"There's two things to think about this week: winning the golf tournament and winning the Race to Dubai," Rose said. "I know that if I do one of those, the first one, then the second one happens.
"I was definitely keen to come out to try and get going as quick as I could and see where it goes from here."
Poor Fleetwood. The Southport leviathan has had a year to remember, leading the Race to Dubai from the off, winning twice, finishing fourth at the US Open after sharing the last group with winner Brooks Koepka and becoming a father for the first time.
For the opening three holes Fleetwood failed to remind himself that he was an equal - not a fan - playing alongside Rose, but from three-over-par he got it back to level at the turn before signing for a 73.
It’s not over yet, he pledged in his post-round address, and, as good as his word, he turned the scoreboard a sea of red on day two to prove it. His second-round 65 has Fleetwood two behind Rose.
Garcia, who is five-under after two rounds, needs to win to take the merit title, and even then he would be dependent on the finishing positions of Rose and Fleetwood. A win for either of the latter guarantees all the sweeties.
“If you look in terms of the tournament, I've got to shoot something really low then it will depend on how he plays. There are a lot of holes and anything can happen,” Fleetwood said.
“It's been similar to the last few weeks where I've not had great first rounds but climbed the leaderboard steadily. Just go out and do my best.”
Fleetwood may not have the gravitas yet of Rose or Garcia but he does not want for charm. Should he cleve his way into contention just as Rose did after slow starts in China and Turkey this might yet be a tightrope walk to rival the final round at Augusta.
Either way the year will end happily for one golfer and the European Tour will make the headlines on Sunday.