Race to Dubai: Danny Willett is steeled for final assault on summit

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DANNY WILLETT goes into the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai today in good shape to be crowned Europe’s No 1 golfer – well aware that next season he will have a fight on his hands if he is even to be considered the best player in Sheffield.

Matt Fitzpatrick will play only a walk-on part this week in the European Tour’s climax to a season that could see fellow Sheffielder Willett leapfrog four-time major champion Rory McIlroy to win the ‘Race To Dubai’ – the Order of Merit.

But the former US Amateur champion has made such a forceful impact on his first season on tour, lifting the British Masters crown and amassing over £1.25m in prize money, that in future the race to be the Steel City’s top golfer could conceiveably run in tandem with that of becoming Europe’s finest.

That is something to look forward to in the long term; in the short-term Yorkshire will this week be rooting for Willett, one of seven players who can win the ‘Race to Dubai’ title.

The others in contention besides McIlroy and Willett, in descending order of probability, are Justin Rose, Shane Lowry, Louis Oosthuizen, Branden Grace and Byeong-hun An.

The permutations for an individual’s success become more complex the further you drop down the list.

But for Willett the equation is simple, at least in terms of articulation – execution is another thing entirely.

If the 28-year-old wins on Sunday, not only will he have fashioned victorious bookends to the season – having won the Nedbank Challenge that kicked off the ‘Race to Dubai’ – he will also come close to doubling his prize money for the campaign, a sum that currently stands at around £2.3m.

The DP World Tour champion will bank in the region of £933,00 and to that would be added ‘Race to Dubai’ bonuses of £1.3m.

Willett could have given himself the upper hand ahead of this week had he taken full advantage of McIlroy sitting out last week’s BMW Masters in Shanghai, but a tie for 28th left him 1,613 points adrift. He accepts that ultimately it could turn into a straight shoot-out between the two in Dubai, but is focused on putting himself in a position to win coming down the stretch on Sunday.

“I think it could potentially become (a match-play situation) on Sunday,” acknowledged Willett.

“(But) I think it’s difficult to play like that all week. Potentially Sunday, if we are in and around each other, it could turn into that, especially if you were to play with him Sunday.

“But Thursday, Friday, you don’t want to play a match-play scenario where one of you shoots 70 and one of you shoots 74.

“It’s one of them where you have to go out and it’s a stroke-play event, and you just have to play your game and try to shoot a good number or as good a number as you can shoot on that particular day.”

With McIlroy having taken last week off – and having played only 11 European events to Willett’s 22, partly due to a lay-off necessary after he tore ankle ligaments playing football with friends – the world No 3 might be the fresher of the two. McIlroy is only playing in the four-event ‘Final Series’ by virtue of a special dispensation afforded him by the European Tour after he failed to meet the minimum number of events requirement of 13.

“Obviously playing a lower amount of events than what’s required was one of the main benefits, I would have said, for Rory how things panned out,” said Willett. “I appreciate that him playing makes a massive difference for the Tour and you have to kind of let him off with the events.

“But certainly he has more of an advantage over the guys who have played all three (of the ‘Final Series’ events so far).

“There’s a lot of travelling, a lot of golf, time changes, sleeping patterns, everything like that can really take its toll. Especially at the end of a season.

“At the beginning of the season, maybe not, but this is the 52nd week of the season, and I think having had a week off might have benefitted him. But, you know, regardless of what he’s been doing in preparation, we’ve still got a goal in mind to go out there and beat him and that’s what we’ve got to look at.”

McIlroy insists he would not feel aggrieved if he was in Willett’s shoes. “If I can win more money in 12 events than someone can win in 23, I don’t see any reason why – I played half the events and won more money,” he said.

“I know obviously you play majors and you play World Golf Championships, but, you know, that’s the decision that the European Tour came to and obviously it’s great for me that I’m able to be here and compete this week.”

He added: “I’d gladly take the trophy and you know they can keep the money and do whatever they want with it. It’s more about trying to win the ‘Race to Dubai’ again.”