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22 February 2024

The greatest show on Earth

George O'Grady has overseen a revamp of the Tour that has seen prize-money go up from $753,000 to $175 million (GETTY IMAGES)

By John McAuley

The European Tour may have swept through the desert and left in a puff of sand last Sunday night, but the emirate will never be far from thoughts of the golfing world this year.

The ubiquitous influence of the Race to Dubai, the brainchild of the sport and leisure group Leisurecorp, was evident in all its glittering glory at the Dubai Desert Classic last week, a shrewd marketing move by the Dubai-based company that guarantees the rebranded Order of Merit will garner much attention.

Launched by a Robert Karlsson tee shot at the HSBC Champions tournament on November 6 in Shanghai, the $20 million (Dh73.5m) prize fund has breathed new life into the Tour, something that George O'Grady, the Chief Executive of the European Tour, was eager to implement when announced 15 months ago.

"The time has gone very quickly, but it's gone outstandingly well," says O'Grady outside the Tour's temporary base at the Emirates Golf Club. "It's given a great focus and a great cohesion to the European Tour on the global stage.

"The players are excited by it, the media seem excited by it and our tournament promoters love it because they've got another force to get top golfers playing. So far we're on track, but it's still very early days."

Although unveiled to the world in November 2007, the Race to Dubai is very much in its infancy. Only nine of the 53 scheduled tournaments have taken place, with Tour members still needing to travel to such diverse destinations as Australia, South Korea, America and Indonesia.

The programme will culminate at the Dubai World Championship (DWC) on November 22 – the most lucrative tournament in the history of the game – where the top 60 players of the season will tee-up to battle it out for riches and reverence.

The competition is structured in such a way – the Race to Dubai has a $10m bonus pool and the DWC a prize fund of $10m – that one player could be faced with a fraught four-footer worth $3.6m on the final green of the Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates. O'Grady admits the profitable nature of the competition is one of its many attractions.

"Everybody would expect me to say the money, but when you can put a bonus pool out like that, and have the Dubai World Championship, it really is," he says proudly. "I think the sustainability of the money has to be one of the great things to come out of the Race to Dubai, but it's also the attention to detail on really good conditions.

"We've just had the opening of the Earth Course and, although there's still a lot of building going on outside, the course itself looks immaculate for one so young. The finishing holes look tremendous from a tournament point of view, offering risk and reward.

"The players could birdie all the last four holes – not easily, but it could be done – yet if they're just off they could really struggle too."

O'Grady is understandably proud of this latest gimmick. When he joined the Tour as Tournament Director in 1974, only 17 events existed with a total prize fund of $753,000. Now, after succeeding Ken Schofield in 2004, the Chief Executive has overseen a revamp that offers close to $175m.

He witnessed Volvo's attempts to bring the European format on a par with the PGA Tour, its American sibling, in 1988. Thanks mainly to investment through the 'Volvo Bonus Pool', the Tour formed its own television and production companies and, for the first time, could broadcast their events to the world.

Now, because of the Race to Dubai's profile, the Tour stands even stronger having negotiated profitable contracts in Britain, with Sky Sports and the BBC, and in America after sealing a seven-year contract with the Golf Channel.

Other deals have been secured throughout Europe and options in China and Japan are currently being explored. Today, the Tour has gone global with events in 27 countries. O'Grady attributes its prosperity to the backing from Leisurecorp.

"Confidence is a big thing and we've definitely lifted our act on all fronts," he says triumphantly. "There's a confidence in the product and a confidence to go and do things that have, until now, only been in the back of our minds.

"The Race to Dubai's almost had to us what 'the Tiger Woods effect' had to the rest of the golfing world. Every player now works that little bit harder because of Tiger – they see him as a model professional and how much he puts into his game – and now, with the reward structure on the European Tour, people strive to be a part of it too.

"I always believe our product is great value for money as it gives wonderful visibility and fantastic credibility. I use the English phrase 'raising the bar' and the Race to Dubai has raised the bar no doubt...on the world stage."