Great History of the European Tour Order of Merit and Race to Dubai
The European Tour season comes to its natural conclusion this week at the showpiece DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. It's been a memorable campaign for the circuit, following the inauguration of the lucrative Rolex Series and several high-profile winners of regular events, including Tommy Fleetwood, Justin Rose, and Sergio Garcia.
Indeed, those three players are the main protagonists in the chase to be crowned the Race to Dubai champion. Leading the season-long ranking - which directly transfers earnings into points - is a rare and fine achievement for any golfer, and one of these men will receive the coveted Harry Vardon Trophy on Sunday.
Admittedly, the popular Spaniard, who finally secured his maiden major championship victory at Augusta National in April, faces an ominous and unlikely challenge to oust both Englishmen, who look set to duel for the overall prize this weekend. Fleetwood - the supremely likeable 26-year-old from Southport - has played in 23 sanctioned events and leads the way on 4,235,987 points, while Rose - who won the Order of Merit in 2007 - is on 3,979,250 after 11 tournaments, buoyed after two stunning victories at the WGC HSBC Champions and Turkish Airlines Open.
Whoever is triumphant will follow in the footsteps of the all-time greats of European golf in completing the lengthy, essentially year-long ‘international schedule’ as the top player. Those of a romantic disposition may favour Fleetwood – who has been consistent force all year – but the ultimate professionalism of Rose understandably attracts admirers, and many will draw comparisons to his breakthrough success a decade ago when he finished top of the pack after winning the Volvo Masters at Valderrama. Indeed, that year, like this, he played in 12 European Tour events.
80 years ago, Charles Whitcombe – a former Ryder Cup captain – was the first Order of Merit winner on the old circuit. It was a much different scene back then, as the prize was awarded to the player with the lowest scoring average in seven major tournaments, including the Open Championship. The legendary Henry Cotton and Reg Whitcombe – younger brother of Charles – were successful in the late 1930s, before the award was abandoned with the advent of the Second World War.
Returning in 1946, the great South African Bobby Locke took the accolade based on his scoring average in 36 eligible rounds, before he was succeeded by Australia’s Norman Von Nida, who remains one of the most decorated golfers from Down Under.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the Order of Merit – then based on a points system – was claimed by names as significantly diverse as Dai Rees, Eric Brown, Peter Alliss, Christy O’Connor, Neil Coles, Brian Huggett, and Bernard Gallacher. These can be considered the founding fathers of the modern circuit that came several years later in 1972, when the tall Englishman Peter Oosterhuis secured the second of four successive victories as he dominated in the first half of that decade.
From 1975 – when Dale Hayes won with earnings of £20,508 – the prize was based purely on money, ensuring that the award was perhaps more reflective on consistent play in the bigger events. Young and charismatic Spaniard, Seve Ballesteros – who transformed the nature of the European Tour – won six Order of Merits between 1976 and 1991. The great Sandy Lyle – arguably the most naturally gifted of his peers – won in 1979 and 1980, years before his major triumphs at Sandwich and Augusta.
Bernhard Langer took the title in both 1981 and 1984, with the award shared in the interim between Greg Norman and Nick Faldo, who would develop into fierce rivals for the subsequent decade at the top of the World Rankings, culminating in their infamous duel at the Masters in 1996. Ian Woosnam – the Welsh representative of Europe’s Big Five – won in 1987, while young Irishman Ronan Rafferty ended that hegemony in 1989 with an Order of Merit triumph of his own after winning the Volvo Masters.
However, when it came to dominance, no one has matched the achievements of Colin Montgomerie, who led the money list over seven consecutive years between 1993 and 1999. He won 20 events in that span – including a stunning hattrick of PGA Championships at Wentworth – before finally being usurped by Lee Westwood in the new Millennium. The tempestuous Scot, Monty, returned to the summit in 2005 during a late-career rally that saw him finish runner-up to Tiger Woods in the Open Championship at St. Andrews. Eight Order of Merits was a remarkable record, and it’s something that the Ryder Cup legend perhaps isn’t appreciated enough for.
South Africa’s major winners Retief Goosen and Ernie Els led the way for four years, while Padraig Harrington – a season before his Claret Jug glory at Carnoustie – was triumphant in 2006, followed by Rose’s aforementioned success in 2007. Sweden’s Robert Karlsson was the final Order of Merit winner in 2008, before the European Tour embarked on its Race to Dubai schedule.
Lee Westwood was the first man to taste glory in the Middle East, followed by former world number ones Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald, and Rory McIlroy, who secured the first of three titles in 2012. The Northern Irishman – the most decorated European golfer of his generation – later won in 2014 and 2015. Henrik Stenson was last year’s Race to Dubai leader, culminating a season that saw him win the Open at Royal Troon, which came three years after his previous success in 2013.
History has shown the Harry Vardon Trophy as being a significant barometer of success and greatness. It’s an achievement that shouldn’t be underestimated, and the hopeful trio of Fleetwood, Rose and Garcia will be all too aware of its importance. One of them will join an ensemble cast of legends as the European Tour brings the curtain down on its 2017 season.
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