2011 keeps on giving
Some could be forgiven for wanting this extraordinary golf season to go on forever rather than end with this week's Dubai World Championship.
There has been a conveyor belt of excitement relentlessly rolling through the 2011 season – and last week’s tournaments were entirely in keeping.
Rory McIlroy enjoyed a dramatic triumph in Hong Kong; Lee Westwood carded one of the rounds of his life on his way to victory in Sun City, South Africa, while Tiger Woods rediscovered his winning touch for the first time in more than two years.
McIlroy and Westwood play in the Middle East this week, with the former having kept alive his hopes of overhauling Luke Donald in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai – formerly the Order of Merit.
Luke Donald (left) and Rory McIlroy prepare to battle it out with 60 of the top money winners in 2011 for the coveted Race to Dubai trophy. PHOTO: Getty
As for Woods, his season has now ended on a highly encouraging note.
But it was McIlroy’s performance in Hong Kong that was most eye-catching. The US Open champion beat a full field with a timely final-day surge, a closing round of 65 putting him two shots clear of Gregory Havret.
Going forward, this may prove a significant triumph for the Northern Irishman. He has squandered similar winning opportunities in the past – he had been runner-up in Hong Kong twice – so victory can only add confidence for the next time he is in contention.
The quality of his ball striking is such that his name is on leaderboards every time he competes. If he is to win the Race to Dubai he still needs a victory this week and for Donald to finish outside the top nine.
In America, Woods finished brilliantly with back-to-back birdies to beat Zach Johnson and demonstrate that his killer instinct is back.
The lingering concern for his fans is his continued inconsistency on the greens. The former world number one may have been able to beat an 18-man field but would his comparatively shaky putting have prevailed in a full-field tournament?
Westwood topped a field of 12 as he triumphed in the Nedbank Golf Challenge, effectively sealing a successful title defence with a stunning third-round 62 that featured probably his best golf since he romped to victory at the 2009 Dubai World Championship.
How the world number three would love a repeat in the desert this week to end the season on a genuine high and remind the two men above him in the rankings, Donald and McIlroy, of his threat for next year.
Aside from those big names, it is interesting to note which other players have made it to the end-of-season event. Qualifying for the elite 60-man field is an achievement in itself for many of the stalwarts of the Tour.
Perhaps this applies more than most to Englishman Mark Foster, who will be playing the Dubai World Championship for the first time after enjoying the best season of his career.
The 36-year-old did not add to his lone European Tour victory, which dates back to 2003’s Dunhill Championship at Houghton, South Africa, but he secured no fewer than four top-four finishes in his 10th year on the main circuit.
Foster relocated to Singapore two years ago where his then girlfriend – now wife – was working.
Although they spent only 12 months in Asia and have now settled in Balham, south London, Foster believes the move gave his golfing life the kick-start it needed.
He said: “It was like wiping the slate clean. I know everybody does it when it comes to January – they join gyms and stuff – but I was able to get rid of the garbage that might have been holding me back.”
Foster is from Worksop, Westwood's home town in Nottinghamshire, and readily admits he has lived in the shadow of the man who was top of the world rankings this time last year.
He added: “I've done more interviews about him than I have about myself.”
The spotlight has fallen a bit more on Foster in 2011 and he says standards have never been higher on the European Tour – which he feels is as interesting as ever.
He told BBC Sport: “If I was playing the same golf I did 10 years ago, there's no way I would be out here now.
"People say with modern equipment it must be easier but that's not the case because standards are so high. That’s why I’m working harder than ever to do as well as I can.
“At this stage, I really feel like I’m getting to know myself.
“You only have to look at the world rankings to see it is a special time. There is a real buzz when people like Rory (McIlroy) turn up at tournaments.
"Hopefully Europe can keep these players because they are brilliant for golf. My opinion is that everybody benefits.”
And what about his own future? He added: “I would love to break into that club at the top of the game. I have shown signs of it and want to go forward from this.”
In the meantime, Foster, a little frustrated by recent results, is concentrating on trying to make the most of his appearance in Dubai.
With just the one week to go, we already know that, for the European game, 2011 will go down as a year of rare vintage.