Increased prize fund doesn’t pay at Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 19: Shane Lowry of Ireland celebrates with the winners trophy after the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club on January 19, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images) Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Increased prize fund doesn’t pay at Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

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Increased prize fund doesn’t pay at Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

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The global banking giant and the sheikhs who bankroll the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship must be rethinking their decision to join the European Tour’s Rolex Series.

The 2019 tournament produced a good winner in Ireland’s Shane Lowry, but Abu Dhabi and HSBC didn’t get the best return on investment despite a massive cash injection.

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA, the tournament’s full title, went from a $3 million 2018 prize fund to $7 million this year, the minimum Rolex Series purse. An estimated additional $3 million helped lure World No. 2 Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson. Yet this year’s field was the weakest in the past five years, and the second weakest since 2008.

The Official World Golf Ranking gave the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship a strength of field rating of 299, with 48 ranking points going to Lowry. Tommy Fleetwood earned 52 points for winning last year, when the strength of field was 351.

The 299 strength of field was the lowest since the tournament was given a 291 rating in 2014, only the second time it has dropped below 300 since 2008.

Abu Dhabi has long been the strongest European Tour field outside the majors and WGCs. Last year it was stronger than the DP World Tour Championship, Dubai. The European Tour’s season finale carried a strength of field of 350, despite a prize fund of $8 million.

The 2012 Abu Dhabi HSBC tournament had the strongest field since the tournament began in 2006. It carried a rating of 454, with a whopping 58 points going to winner Robert Rock. Tiger Woods had something to do with that. He made his debut that year, lured to the Middle East like Koepka and Johnson by appearance money.

It was a surprise when the Abu Dhabi HSBC event joined the Rolex Series, since tournament organizers had previously turned down the opportunity to join the Rolex circuit. Keith Pelley wanted Abu Dhabi included in the Rolex Series when he launched the initiative in 2017. Giles Morgan, then HSBC’s global head of sponsorship and events but who has since left the bank, asked Pelley a pertinent question: “Can you guarantee the same field I get now?” When Pelley refused to give that guarantee, Morgan declined the offer. He was quite happy putting up a $3 million prize fund and spending another $4 million on appearance fees for marquee names such as Rory McIlroy, Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth.

McIlroy’s absence this year was a big blow. It was only the second time the former World No. 1 missed Abu Dhabi since he turned pro in 2008. Justin Rose’s decision to play in the PGA Tour’s Desert Classic didn’t help. European No. 1 Francesco Molinari stayed away, as did Sergio Garcia.

While the tournament’s financial backers must be wondering why they’re getting less of an investment despite spending more, Lowry isn’t complaining. Lowry earned $1.16 million for winning. Last year he’d have earned $500,000.

The larger prize fund also helps those further down the food chain. Take former University of San Diego player Grant Forrest. The Scot graduated to the main tour via finishing inside the top 15 of the 2018 European Challenge Tour. Forrest, 2015 British Amateur Championship runner-up, was making his Rolex Series debut. He earned $38,400 for finishing T-42. Last year he’d have made about $15,000. That $23,400 difference could help him keep his card this year.

Of course, tournament organizers couldn’t care about Grant Forrest. Tournaments don’t make an impact on the back of players ranked 235th in the world. They make noise with marquee names. They stayed away this year despite the presence of Koepka, Johnson, Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson and Fleetwood.

You can bet HSBC shareholders will be wondering why the bank’s getting a poorer return on its Abu Dhabi investment despite spending more money. Gwk

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