There was a time, of course, when topping what was once grandly called the “Order of Merit” on the European Tour qualified as a pretty big deal. First played for in 1937, winning the Harry Vardon Trophy represented at least a pretty strong consolation prize, one step down from golf’s biggest and most important titles. As such, it was a sure indication of prolonged excellence and season-long consistency of the highest order on a circuit well-supported by many of the game’s elite.
As you’d expect, the list of winners is impressive, one that includes a vast array of leading players born outside the United States (no American has yet annexed the trophy). Henry Cotton. Bobby Locke. Flory Van Donck. Dai Rees. Christy O’Connor. Neil Coles. Peter Alliss. Peter Oosterhuis. Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo. Sandy Lyle. Greg Norman. Bernhard Langer. Ian Woosnam. Lee Westwood. Retief Goosen. Ernie Els. Padraig Harrington. Justin Rose. Martin Kaymer. Luke Donald. Rory McIlroy. Henrik Stenson. Francesco Molinari. They’re all there.
Little wonder then that, with some justification—and in the glaring absence of a major championship victory on his otherwise impressive CV—Colin Montgomerie revelled in what became his most familiar accolade: eight-time European No. 1.
More recently, however, things have been very different. And not in a good way. For a while, topping what has become the “Race to Dubai” has been at best an afterthought, a bauble provoking little more than a shrug of the shoulders from those with bigger priorities in their professional lives. Indeed, the gradual decline in its importance has mirrored that of the European Tour itself.
Where once the likes of Ballesteros, Lyle, Langer, Woosnam and Faldo—major champions all—plied the majority of their trades at “home,” over the last few years the Old World circuit has been a place the absolute best have visited only occasionally, invariably when they were highly compensated for doing so. Only when appearance money speaks loudly do they even begin to take heed.
A brief glance at the names atop this year’s Race to Dubai confirms all of the above. Somewhat ridiculously, Open champion Collin Morikawa will arrive in Dubai next week for the season-ending DP World Tour Championship looking down on all of his fellow European Tour members. He has achieved that admirable status having teed-up in nine counting events, only two of which—the Scottish Open and the Open—actually took place in Europe. Of the other six, just the Dubai Desert Classic qualifies as a “regular” tournament. The rest? Three American majors and three U.S.-based World Golf Championships.
In other words, the “European Tour” played by Morikawa—and his nearest challenger, another American, Billy Horschel—bears only a passing resemblance to that experienced by most players lower on what might more accurately be termed, the “Order of Mediocrity.” Take Englishman Richard Bland, who currently sits in eighth place having taken part in 22 counting events. So far, the British Masters champion has played for purses totalling approximately $89 million. In comparison, Morikawa’s nine starts have offered $90,250,000 in prize money. A level playing field this is not.
None of which is entirely surprising. As the old saying goes, the clue is in the title. “Professional” golfers go where the money is. And yes, there has always been a financial gap between the PGA Tour and its European counterpart. But over the last couple of years or so, that crevice became a chasm, especially in the wake of a pandemic that left European Tour chief executive officer Keith Pelley and his staff scrambling to maintain any sort of meaningful schedule (for which they deserve much credit).
That dire situation has now been alleviated, of course. The re-branding of the European Tour as the DP World Tour and the introduction of substantial sponsorship shines a bright economic light where before there was near darkness. Although the ongoing prospect of a rival circuit remains, a guarantee of events offering at least $2 million in prize money should remove some of the temptation European Tour members may have had to jump into the arms of Greg Norman and his Saudi cohorts.
In time, it is to be hoped that the changes to the tour might go even further. It would be nice, for example, to see a rise in the minimum commitment required for DP World Tour membership. Currently, that number is four tournament appearances (excluding majors and WGCs). That has been understandable, and Pelley’s motivation clear. The presence of big names on the Race to Dubai standings adds a superficial prestige to the thing, even if close inspection revealed a house of scorecards riddled with metaphorically drivable and hazard-free par 4s. It is no coincidence that, in the nick of qualifying time, next week will be Morikawa’s fourth regular start of the 2020-21 season.
But no criticism of the former PGA champion is implied here. The personable Californian is far from alone in attending European Tour events only sporadically. Seven of the top 11 players on the “RtoD” have played fewer than 11 counting events. And of those, only Horschel, who has made 10 official appearances, made the effort to attend (and win) the tour’s flagship event: the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. The others apparently had something better to do, the prospect of enhancing their chances of a Vardon Trophy triumph more a tasteless lettuce than a juicy carrot.
Still, the future looks brighter. Early doubts that the evolution of the European Tour’s strategic alliance with the PGA Tour would be more likely to enhance the stature of the latter at the expense of the former have been appeased. Like we said, money talks. Now let’s hope more big names start listening more often. If nothing else, the Vardon Trophy deserves a greater level of attention.