Race to Dubai: Can Danny Willett end Masters hangover & finish European number one?

Danny Willett acknowledges the crowd after his Masters victory
Danny Willett produced a shock when he won the Masters by three shots in April but has struggled for form since

Masters champion Danny Willett hopes he has rediscovered top form in time to snatch the European Tour's money list title for the first time this week.

The Englishman admits he has suffered a hangover following his Augusta triumph in April and says his recent struggles have been very frustrating.

Willett is one of four potential winners of the Race to Dubai and needs to overhaul leader Henrik Stenson to clinch the $1.5m (£952,000) bonus jackpot in the United Arab Emirates.

Alex Noren, now chasing his fifth win of the season, is also in the mix, while Rory McIlroy has a mathematical but improbable chance of retaining the season-long title.

The fact that the race remains fascinatingly poised provides a fitting climax to the European Tour season, which will be bolstered by increased prize funds next year. There will be at least seven events with purses in excess of $7m.

More immediately, Willett has his eyes on this week's DP World Tour Championship, knowing victory would enable him to pip Stenson for the Race to Dubai.

He kept the destiny of the race in his own hands with closing rounds of 67 and 69 to leave him in a tie for 11th at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa last weekend. "For me, the main thing was to back up Saturday's round with a nice round on the Sunday," Willett told BBC Sport.

After a disappointing Ryder Cup debut in September, Willett's game fell apart. He missed the cut in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, and was then 75th in Shanghai and 68th in Turkey.

His spirited finish in South Africa signals, he hopes, the end of a "very frustrating" spell in which he surrendered leadership of the Race to Dubai.

Alex Noren
Alex Noren is the form player on the European Tour having won the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa last weekend

"I feel like we've done everything pretty good, it's just not quite gone to plan," he said. "You throw in Henrik and Alex playing as well as they have in those weeks and although we had a nice healthy lead, all of a sudden you've gone behind.

"It's still been an amazing year and we've now got four rounds left to try and make something happen."

Willett admits his Masters victory, immediately after the birth of his first child, made it a life-changing year that eventually impacted negatively on his game. "There always is [a hangover]; you can't win the Masters every week," he said.

"For a golfer that is the ultimate high. Stenson, I'm guessing, would feel the same after winning the Open.

"I think he's been able to play more consistently after because he's been around the game a lot longer.

"I don't think it shook up his life as much as it did with me. Obviously there was the little man coming along the week before, as well. So yeah, there are going to be downs.

"But standing here, like last year, needing a victory to win the Race to Dubai is not the worst situation to be in."

Noren is the form man after last week's victory in South Africa followed triumphs at the Scottish Open, European Masters and British Masters, and the Swede has moved into the top 10 of the world rankings.

Keith Pelley talks to Lee Westwood
European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley, in conversation with Lee Westwood, says next year's Rolex Series is a "game changer" for the European Tour

Noren's progress gives European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley cause for a bullish outlook. He told BBC Sport: "Noren's the ninth ranked player in the world, Thomas Pieters made the Ryder Cup team - you don't have to go to America to be successful."

Pelley was speaking after the launch of the Rolex Series - a group of at least seven tournaments that will carry prize funds in excess of $7m next season.

These elite events include the PGA Championship at Wentworth, the Irish, Scottish and Italian Opens and the season-ender in Dubai. The European Tour boss claims the new series is a "game changer" for his circuit.

"It will transform our Tour," he said.

"It is something that will encourage our members to now and, for our younger members in four or five years, to say that maybe you don't have to go to the United States. This is an incredible opportunity to build something special."

McIlroy is delighted by the changes and believes they can have the desired effect. "It at least gives young players coming through, the likes of Thomas Pieters or Matt Fitzpatrick, it a viable alternative to the PGA Tour," he said.

"And I think that's a great thing. You are playing for similar prize money, you're playing on great courses and you're getting exposed to different cultures, which you don't get on the PGA Tour.

"It's more of a life experience and I think the European Tour should make more of that, because going to places like Paris and Rome, it's a huge carrot for the Tour to provide things like that."

Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson
Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson played three matches together at the Ryder Cup this year

Pelley is also promising format changes and further innovations at other events. In this respect he is seeking to keep pace with the PGA Tour, which has already signalled an evolving attitude by adding a pairs tournament to its calendar.

It will be played at the traditional New Orleans stop and Stenson has already announced he will team up with Ryder Cup partner Justin Rose, while world number one Jason Day will accompany Rickie Fowler.

There will be two rounds of foursomes and two rounds of fourball better ball competition in a tournament that will comprise 80 two-man teams.

It is a refreshing change from the relentless diet of 72-hole strokeplay and indicates an acceptance that golf has to adapt its outlook to maintain its popularity.

Pelley is more than aware of this too - but this week it is all about the traditional format and, for Willett and co, the chance to snatch the year-end spoils.