Victory at the WGC – HSBC Champions gave Rory McIlroy his first European Tour title for three years. It was the 30-year-old Northern Irishman’s fourth win of the year. Yet his most impressive performances came in America, where he won The Players Championship for the first time and the Tour Championship/FedExCup for the second.
McIlroy had been initially reluctant to continue his European Tour membership in 2020, played the Scottish Open instead of the Irish Open, lost a playoff at the European Masters a week after his FedEx triumph, finished nine behind Danny Willett at the BMW PGA Championship and enjoyed the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship more for the team event in which he played with his father Gerry — they were denied victory only on countback. After that event McIlroy made some remarks criticizing the quality of courses on the European Tour. He later admitted the comments were ill judged, especially at an event where the rotation of courses — the Old Course, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns — are set up with the amateurs and the autumnal weather in mind. That he also rarely plays in many of the lower profile, and even lower scoring, events on the PGA Tour might also be pertinent. Victory at Sheshan International let his golf do the talking instead, and although he arrived at the DP World Tour Championship without a chance to win the Race to Dubai, a fourth-place finish capped perhaps his most consistent season yet.
However, it was not without disappointments, the biggest coming close to home. The return of the Open Championship to Royal Portrush after 68 years was a triumph in virtually every way bar McIlroy missing the cut. Even then the shocking disaster of his opening round was almost forgotten by a thrilling charge on Friday evening in an attempt to make the weekend. The roars of approval were no less passionate for an Irish golfer from south of the border who was cheered to a six-stroke victory.
There was an almost enchanted quality to Shane Lowry’s triumph as the 32-year-old from County Offaly experienced the week of his life. Tied for the lead at halfway, Lowry produced one of the great rounds of major championship golf with his 63 on Saturday. After a nervous start on Sunday, he stood firm against a battering from the Irish weather to proceed to the most joyful of celebrations down the 18th fairway. “I couldn’t believe it was happening to me,” he said. Tommy Fleetwood, his nearest yet distant pursuer, was the first to offer the heartiest of congratulations.
A year earlier Lowry, an obvious talent ever since winning the Irish Open as an amateur in 2009, had missed the cut at the Open for the fourth year running and sat in his car to cry. He lost his PGA Tour card, but early in 2019 he won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, a sign of better days ahead. Yet Lowry was pipped as the European Tour’s Golfer of the Year by Race to Dubai winner Jon Rahm. The age of 25, and in only his third full season as a professional, Rahm became only the second Spaniard to win the Harry Vardon Trophy as Europe’s No. 1. The other was six-time Order of Merit winner Seve Ballesteros.
ahm won three times, taking his European Tour tally to six titles in only 40 tournaments, a rate of success that not even Ballesteros achieved at the start of his stellar career. Rahm was also third at the U.S. Open and finished runner-up at the Andalucia Masters and the BMW PGA Championship. He won two Rolex Series events, making four out of the six in all, as he won both the Irish Open and the DP World Tour Championship for the second time in three years and successfully defended the title at his national championship — twin victories that have revived an event that had fallen off the schedule in 2017. Between winning in Madrid and at the season-ending event Rahm had taken six week off to rest and prepare for the more important year-ending occasion of his wedding.
With a new points system introduced for the Race to Dubai, along with vastly increased first prizes for the last three tournaments of $2 million, $2.5 million and $3 million, a dramatic finale to the season ensued at Jumeirah Golf Estates. Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger led the points table going into the final event thanks to victories at the Made in Denmark event and two Rolex Series events, the Scottish and Italian Opens.
This was a remarkable recovery for Wiesberger after spending seven months on the sidelines in 2018 with a wrist injury. He finished third at the penultimate event, the Nedbank Golf Challenge, when victory would have made his lead at the top of the table insurmountable. Finishing 28th the following week opened the door to his pursuers, however. Lowry and Matthew Fitzpatrick, after a season of four runner-up finishes which ended a streak of four years in a row of winning at least once, both had a chance and secured bonus place money behind Wiesberger in third.
But the No. 1 on the ranking came down to an exciting shoot-out between Rahm and Fleetwood. Rahm shared the 54-hole lead in Dubai and sprinted ahead with birdies at five of the first seven holes. Fleetwood, who won for the first time in 22 months the previous week at Sun City, was eight behind at one point but birdied five of the last seven holes to force Rahm to birdie the last hole for the title. Otherwise, there would have been a playoff for both the tournament and the Race to Dubai. With a fine bunker shot to four feet and a single putt, it was Rahm who scooped the $5 million double jackpot. “I’ve thought about winning the Race to Dubai all week,” Rahm admitted. “It’s really so hard to believe that some of the greatest champions in European golf and Spanish golf haven’t been able to accomplish what I have in just three years. That’s what I can’t really put my mind into.”
There was also a close duel for the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year award which went down to the final round of the season. Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre claimed the title by finishing 11th on the Race to Dubai, three places ahead of American Kurt Kitayama. While Kitayama and another rookie, Italy’s Guido Migliozzi, won twice during the 2018-19 season, MacIntyre produced consistently impressive results in some big events, finishing runner-up at the British Masters, the Made in Denmark and the European Open, as well as sixth at the Open Championship. The son of a greenkeeper from Oban, MacIntyre is familiarly known as “Bob” but is officially listed as “Robert” in deference to his mother, who still does his washing on weeks when he is back home.
While the season-ending event attracted a strong field, Keith Pelley, the chief executive of the European Tour, faced criticism that other Rolex Series events had not brought back the biggest names to the circuit as often as originally intended. Pelley replied that with around 35 tournament worldwide offering a purse of $7 million, the minimum for a Rolex Series event, there were simply too many opportunities for the game’s stars to fill out their schedules of 20-odd events. One tournament that proved controversial despite the attendance of many big names was the inaugural Saudi International, won by Dustin Johnson, although Sergio Garcia also created a stir when he was disqualified for damaging a number of greens by dragging his foot in frustration.
A quest for innovation continued with the introduction of the PGA Tour of Australasia’s Vic Open, where men’s and women’s tournaments take place alongside each other. A similar event was held on the Challenge Tour in Northern Ireland. There was also the inaugural Jordan Mixed event, where players from the Challenge Tour, the Ladies European Tour and the Staysure Tour competed against each other for one trophy using different tees. It was so successful, with the final threeball of the final round featuring a player from each tour, that the Scandinavian Mixed, hosted by Annika Sorenstam and Henrik Stenson, was introduced for 2020 with equal numbers of men and women playing in one tournament.
In a novel move, albeit in contingency rather than as planned, a playoff at the Turkish Airlines Open was concluded under floodlights, while due to a heatwave at the Alfred Dunhill Championship, the first event of the 2020 European Tour, players were allowed to wear shorts in competition, not just for practice and the pro-am. Ironically, one of the few to decline the opportunity, Pablo Larrazabal, was the winner.