Tuesday, November 20, 2007

JACKSONVILLE, Florida (AP) — By adding a couple of tournaments to an already thin schedule and paying a small membership fee to join the European Tour, Tiger Woods already could have won the Order of Merit seven times.

That was never his priority.

And there's no reason to believe that will change after Monday's announcement in Dubai.

Starting in 2009, the European Tour season will end with the new Dubai World Championship, where the $10 million (6.8 million) purse makes it the richest tournament in golf - for the moment. Also, the Order of Merit now will be called the Race to Dubai, offering $10 million (6.8 million) in bonus money with $2 million (1.36 million) for the winner.

But there's a catch.

The Dubai World Championship is for the top 60 on the European money list, which would exclude Woods, Phil Mickelson and four other players among the top 10 in the world who aren't European Tour members and aren't likely to join.

"You've got to be committed to the European Tour to be in it," European Tour chief executive George O'Grady said at a press conference in Dubai. "And I think it's not a huge commitment."

All it takes is 11 tournaments to be a European Tour member. That includes the four majors and the three World Golf Championships, so a player really only has to play four times to keep his membership. Justin Rose played six rank-and-file tour events this year and captured his first Order of Merit.

Woods played nine events that count toward European membership last year, and 10 events the year before. Would a potential $3.66 million (2.5 million) payoff in Dubai, where he is building his first golf course, be incentive for him to join the European Tour?

"No," Mark Steinberg, his agent and the leader of golf division at IMG, said Monday. "He'll always play where he wants to play, and he's building a schedule around what's most important to him. And that's the majors."

There had been talk the week leading up to Monday's announcement that Europe was considering changing membership requirements to nine tournaments, making it even easier for Woods or any other top American to join. O'Grady said any decision would come in January at the next player committee meeting.

But he seemed to quash the notion in comments to PA Sport.

"There is absolutely no way it will be dropped from 11," O'Grady said. "Quite a lot of our players think we should raise the number, and that is being discussed by the committee in January. This isn't all about Tiger Woods."

That's refreshing - a tour making wholesale changes for the good of the whole.

On the U.S. PGA Tour, Woods and Mickelson were forceful voices in asking for a shorter season, and the American tour delivered the FedEx Cup, in which players compete for $63 million (43 million) over the final four weeks of the season that ends in September.

Whether top American players will consider dual membership in Europe for a $20 million (13.7 million) bonanza is doubtful. They already have a tough time turning down U.S. tour events to stay fresh for the final two months of their season.

For Europe, this is more about protecting its territory, not to mention its players.

There has been a steady stream of European players migrating to America - eight of the 12 players on the last Ryder Cup team were U.S. PGA Tour members this year. And U.S. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem flaunted that strength by adding FedEx Cup and moving The Players Championship to May, the heart of the "European" portion of Europe's schedule.

Europe doesn't have the corporate resources to match the U.S. PGA Tour's $280 million (191 million) in prize money next year. And the Dubai World Championship might not be the richest in golf when the first tee shot is struck in 2009. The Players Championship purse was $9 million (6.1 million) this year, and you can get it will be every bit of $10 million (6.8 million) two years from now.

Even so, Europe got a hefty handout of $200 million (136.5 million) in support from Dubai-based Leisurecorp, which will sponsor the fitness trucks on tour and build Europe's international headquarters in Dubai.

"I think for our ambition - to unite the European Tour, to unite it on the global stage - I personally don't think we could have found a better partner," O'Grady said. "And what you see here today is the beginning."

In other words, Europe is fighting back.

It already offers riches in January during its Middle East swing of Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Dubai. There's already talk some American players, such as Scott Verplank, might skip U.S. tournaments they normally play to go to another kind of desert. Plus, Steinberg said Woods would return next year to Dubai.

And now, Europe has a blockbuster finish to its season without having to use the word "playoffs."

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