Having got underway almost exactly a year ago in China, The 2008 European Tour International Schedule will reach a thrilling climax at Club de Golf Valderrama in Spain this week with the staging of the Volvo Masters.
As always, there are a myriad of issues to unravel amongst the splendour of the Sotogrande course – one of the truly iconic venues in European Tour history over the past two decades – with the main one being the battle to crown the winner of the Order of Merit.
With The Race to Dubai taking The European Tour on a new and exciting journey from the 2009 season onwards, there will be an added sense of history and poignancy for the man who picks up the Harry Vardon Trophy on Sunday night in this, the 21st and final edition of the Volvo Masters.
In pole position, as the Tour enters the 50th and final event of 2008, is Robert Karlsson, but three men who stood alongside the Swede as part of Europe’s Ryder Cup Team in September – second placed Padraig Harrington of Ireland, third placed Lee Westwood of England and fourth placed Miguel Angel Jiménez of Spain – can all still, mathematically, claim the Number One spot should results fall their way.
However the man they all have to catch is Karlsson who, thanks to a wonderfully consistent season, stands on the verge of becoming the first Swedish golfer in history to top the Order of Merit.
No fewer than 12 top ten finishes – including back-to-back victories in the Mercedes-Benz Championship and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship – bear eloquent statistical testimony to his play in 2008, while his performances in the year’s four Major Championships also demand the highest respect.
He was tied eighth in the Masters Tournament, tied fourth in the US Open Championship, tied seventh in The Open Championship and tied 20th in the US PGA Championship, all performances which have helped him amass total prize money of €2,695,248 at present.
Of course, no mention of the year’s Major Championships can be complete without due deference to the man leading the pursuit of the Swede, Padraig Harrington, who managed to gather half on offer in 2008 after stirring victories in The Open at Royal Birkdale and the US PGA Championship at Oakland Hills.
Harrington goes into the week with €2,397,823 to his name, some €297,425 adrift of Karlsson. However, with the first prize on offer being a record €708,000, it is still very much an attainable target for the Irishman who will utilise every ounce of his now legendary determination in an effort to add The 2008 Order of Merit title to the one he claimed in 2006.
The man in third place, Lee Westwood – with €2,228,642 (€466,606 behind Karlsson) – also knows well what it takes to finish the season on top of the pile, having done so in 2000, the year the Englishman brought to an end Colin Montgomerie’s astonishing run of seven Order of Merit titles in a row; while Jiménez – with €2,018,596 (€676,652 behind Karlsson) – a winner of the Volvo Masters itself in 1999, will be hoping to add the honour to an already impressive golfing CV.
Other issues to be resolved during the week include; indentifying the top 15 players on the Order of Merit who will secure a place in next season’s US Open Championship at Bethpage State Park in New York in June; outlining the top 20 players who will gain, by rights, a place in the 2009 World Golf Championships – CA Championship at Doral Golf Resort and Spa in Florida in March; and finalising the top 30 on the final Order of Merit who will take their places in The 138th Open Championship on The Ailsa Course at Turnberry in Scotland in July.
But, most importantly, the destination of both the historic Volvo Masters trophy and The Harry Vardon Trophy are at stake and the man who received them both last season, Justin Rose, returns as defending champion amongst a 57 strong field.
“To be Number One on the Order of Merit as I was last year, and to follow in the footsteps of so many great players, is an awesome feeling,” he said. “It was huge for me to receive The Harry Vardon Trophy. It’s like English football’s Premiership – a season-long challenge that tests all your skills and demands consistency.
“Obviously I can’t win the Order of Merit this time but the Volvo Masters is a huge tournament to win too and I’d love to make history by becoming the first player to successfully defend the crown.”