Finnish golfer Sami Valimaki started the 2023 season with a world ranking near No. 400 and just one top-10 finish in his previous two years on the European tour.
Ryo Hisatsune was a 20-year-old from Japan who was outside the world’s top 200 and had just squeezed through qualifying school to earn European tour status for the first time.
By Sunday, they could be members of the lucrative PGA Tour.
A life-changing few days await a number of globally unrecognized players in Dubai this week as they head into the World Tour Championship with far more than simply winning the tournament on their minds.
The focus of the tour’s season-ending event is typically on the battle to win the Race to Dubai and be crowned European golf's No. 1 player.
With Rory McIlroy having already sewn up that title before play begins, plenty of intrigue centers on a new facet to the tournament that has been created in the wake of the so-called strategic alliance formed between the European tour and PGA Tour, in the face of mounting pressure from the breakaway LIV Golf series.
PGA Tour membership is now awarded to the top 10 players in the season-ending Race to Dubai rankings who are not already exempt, which discounts the likes of McIlroy, defending champion Jon Rahm and No. 4-ranked Viktor Hovland.
As it stands, the players in position to gain PGA Tour status for the 2024 season — while maintaining their European tour status — are Adrian Meronk, Ryan Fox, Victor Perez, Thorbjorn Olesen, Alexander Bjork, Valimaki, Robert MacIntyre, Jorge Campillo, Hisatsune and Rasmus Hojgaard.
For Valimaki and Hisatsune — the winners of the Qatar Masters and French Open this year, respectively — it would be a massive moment in their careers and one they likely wouldn't have predicted 12 months ago. For Hojgaard, meanwhile, he'd be joining his twin brother, Nicolai, in getting a card for the other side of the Atlantic.
Any non-exempt player in the curtailed 50-man field would get a PGA Tour card by winning at the Earth Course, so even Dan Brown — the last man to qualify at No. 50 in the Race to Dubai — is not without a chance.
That particular race for a PGA Tour status doesn’t affect McIlroy, who — aside from looking for a third victory at Jumeirah Golf Estates and a winner’s check of $3 million — is also concerned with trying out a new driver in his bag for this week.
“I still want to go out and try to win the golf tournament, but it could be a good time to test it out in competition,” said McIlroy, who is playing competitively for the first time since the Ryder Cup six weeks ago.
“In terms of working on stuff, I think it’s an endless pursuit. You are always trying to get better and try to refine things.”
McIlroy has now been crowned as Europe’s top player five times (2012, 2014, 2015, 2022 and 2023). That’s just three behind Colin Montgomerie’s record of eight, when it was called the Order of Merit.
McIlroy would love to be a major champion five times, too, but he remains stuck on four with his winless run in golf's biggest events now stretching to a decade. A near miss at the U.S. Open in June was particularly painful for the Northern Irishman, whose undoubted highlight was helping Europe win back the Ryder Cup last month with a career-high four points out of a possible five.
For that reason, he is giving his year a “seven out of 10.”
“Played good golf. I had the two wins. I had my best-ever Ryder Cup, which feels like a win to me, especially coming off the back of Whistling Straits. If I looked back on one thing, I’ll rue that miss at L.A," McIlroy said Tuesday of the U.S. Open. "I had a great opportunity there to pick up another major and I didn’t. But I’m still not going to let that take away from the fact that it’s been another really consistent, solid year with some really good performances.
"I’m feeling like my game is in as good a shape as it has ever been throughout my ... career. I’m happy with that and try to finish this year off on a high and play well this week and reset and get ready for 2024.”
Rahm, who is second in the Race to Dubai, is seeking to back up wins here in 2019 and last year — titles coming either side of victories for Collin Morikawa (2021) and Matt Fitzpatrick (2020).