Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 23, 2014

Two Seasons Wrap Up, With No Time To Spare

The new season on the PGA Tour, which now begins shortly after the Tour Championship in September, has already seen seven events played in far-flung locations from Napa Valley to Mississippi and from Shanghai to Playa del Carmen. But the calendars for the men’s European Tour, and in this country the LPGA, still march on into late November; so this weekend saw the season-ending tournaments for the second and third biggest golf tours on the planet.

While it is headquartered in England and is the majority partner in Ryder Cup Europe, the joint venture that organizes the biennial matches along with the PGA of America, the European Tour is increasingly that in name only. In its virtually continuous season far-flung fails to adequately describe the globe-trotting Tour members can undertake. From kickoff events last November in South Africa to assorted stops in Asia and the Middle East, as well as the four majors held in the U.S., this season 29 events were outside of European countries, compared to only 22 stops on European soil. Even the money title, long known as the Order of Merit, is now called The Race To Dubai in recognition of the location for the Tour’s championship event.

By the time Europe’s top players arrived at the Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates world number one Rory McIlory had already seen to it that there would be no final weekend drama in this year’s Race. On the strength of a victory at the Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship last May, plus twin major wins at the Open Championship in July and PGA Championship in August, McIlroy had clinched the money title before the first golfer teed off in Dubai. In addition to nearly €5.5 million won during the season McIlroy took home the lion’s share of a more than €4 million bonus pool.

Still there was a tournament to play, and by Sunday afternoon Henrik Stenson was happy about that. The Swede moved to the top of the leader board at 10-under par after Friday’s second round, only to be caught at 14-under by Spain’s Rafa Cabrera-Bello by the end of round three. Stenson, the defending champion at the event, was two adrift of Cabrera-Bello as the par walked off the 11th green on Sunday. But the Spaniard faded down the stretch with a bogey and two doubles, while Stenson closed with back-to-back birdies on the 17th and 18th to post a two shot win over McIlroy, Justin Rose, and Victor Dubuisson.

Stenson won’t have long to savor his successful defense at the season-ending DP World Tour Championship, nor McIlroy his second Race To Dubai title in three years. The peripatetic European Tour now takes exactly one week off before starting up all over again in Sun City, South Africa.

In this country the LPGA now has its own season-long points competition, similar to the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup, complete with a bonus pool. Of course it is a measure of the difference between the men’s and women’s tours that the winner of the FedEx Cup takes home $10 million, while the winner of the LPGA’s new Race to the CME Globe earns a bonus one-tenth of that amount. Still a million dollars is still a million dollars, and none of the women competing for it at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida were complaining about the opportunity. There was also a $500,000 winner’s check at hand for the victor of the CME Group Tour Championship.

The top three women in the season-long standings, Stacy Lewis, Inbee Park and Lydia Ko, controlled their own fate in the chase for the $1 million bonus; in that any one of them was guaranteed the prize if she won the tournament. As it turned out though the LPGA’s inaugural Race was decided well before the final putt was holed. On Saturday and Sunday Ko climbed up the leader board while Park was never a factor and Lewis hovered just inside the top ten. When Ko finished in a three-way tie for the lead and Lewis placed 9th, the 17-year old from New Zealand was assured of a seven-digit payday to go along with the Tour’s Rookie of the Year Award, which she had already claimed.

It took Ko four more trips up Tiburon’s difficult par-4 18th hole before she could finally slip free of Paraguay’s Julieta Granada and Spain’s Carlota Ciganda and add the tournament trophy to her growing collection. Granada stumbled first, three-putting from off the green on the second extra hole. Then Ciganda, who had missed a short birdie putt on the 17th in regulation that would have given her the outright lead, missed a birdie try from six feet when she and Ko made their third extra trip up the 18th. The next time around the Spaniard pulled her approach into the hazard next to the green, and Ko’s remarkable first year as a pro was assured of a storybook finish.

Yet the New Zealander didn’t take home all of the prizes the LPGA was handing out this week. The 29-year old American Lewis, currently number two in the world and twice ranked at the top of the Rolex World Rankings, swept the three most prestigious awards in women’s golf. She topped the Tour’s money list, won the Player of the Year Award, and took home the Vare Trophy for lowest season-long scoring average. She began the week with a virtual lock on the money title, but with just a three point edge over Park in the Player of the Year race and was less than one-tenth of a stroke ahead of the world number one in scoring average. But yet another top-ten finish was enough for Lewis to pull away from Park. She finished the year with three wins and a remarkable 18 top-ten finishes in 28 events. Of significance to American golf fans is the fact that Lewis becomes the first American to sweep all three awards since Betsy King in 1993.

As great a season as Lewis had, just like Stenson and McIlroy in Europe, she may not have much time to savor it. For the Europeans that’s a function of the calendar. But while the LPGA schedule continues to grow in both events and money under the outstanding leadership of Commissioner Michael Whan, Lewis and her fellow women pros don’t tee off again until late January. For Lewis and Park, and others, it’s not the calendar, it’s the competition. Her win at Tiburon was Lydia Ko’s fifth LPGA title, including two while still an amateur. That’s five wins before her 18th birthday. Last April Lexi Thompson, the only other woman to win a LPGA event before her 18th birthday, celebrated her 19th by winning her first major. The onrushing sound that Lewis and the rest of a generation of LPGA pros hear is that of yet younger youth being served, and coming back for more.

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