Els closing in on order of merit title

THE battle for the European Tour order of merit title is put on ice this week as the three remaining contenders for the honours go their separate ways.

And it is now very much on the cards that South Africa’s Ernie Els will claim the title without playing in either of the three final counting tournaments, the Portugal Masters that ended on Sunday, the Majorca Open beginning on Thursday and next week’s season ending Volvo Masters.

Els finished his 2007 European campaign by winning the HSBC World Match Play Championship after which he led the money list by 217,295 points from holder Pádraig Harrington and by another 31,407 from England’s Justin Rose in third place.

Rose moved to within 657 points of Harrington in Portugal and while that is a tiny amount in terms of the order of merit, one or the other needs to finish fourth on his own or better in the Volvo to overtake Els.

Many will be surprised that Harrington is playing in the non-counting King Hassan Trophy in Morocco this week instead of the Majorca Open, which carries a very respectable €2m prize fund not to mention €333,330 for the winner, €222,220 for second and €125,000 for third. Translate those sums into order of merit points and you see how influential they could become by the end of the Volvo Masters.

The Irish in the Majorca field are Damien McGrane, Paul McGinley, Peter Lawrie and Gary Murphy. The top 60 after Majorca qualify for the Volvo Masters and each of the four is still in with a chance. Mads Vibe-Hastrup currently holds the 60th and last spot with 467,949 points, so a good week in Majorca could see McGrane (70th with 398,073), McGinley (74th, 378,252), Lawrie (75th, 372,691) and Murphy (85th, 301,595) still make it into the lucrative season ending classic at Valderrama.

So far, the only Irish qualifiers for Valderrama are Harrington and Graeme McDowell, currently 52nd in the order of merit.

The good news for all these players along with Rory McIlroy (94th with 277,256) is that their cards for 2008 have already been secured. Darren Clarke is way back in 132nd place with 172,110 after a miserable season but he will continue on tour because of his career earnings.

That leaves Ireland assured of at least eight players on the main tour in 2008 and that could be increased further depending on how a number of others fare in the Challenge Tour’s Grand Final at Apulia, San Domenico, Italy, this week. The top 20 from the secondary circuit win cards on the main tour next year and those to have qualified for the final are Colm Moriarty from Athlone, currently in 32nd place with 37,384, and Dubliner Stephen Browne, 37th with 35,881.

The current target is in excess of 52,356, the sum held in 20th place by Dutchman Nicolas Van Hootegem.

Later still, the second pre-qualifiers for the Tour School will be staged at four different venues throughout Spain and the Irish involved in that exercise are Stephen Browne, Mark Campbell, Gary David Cullen, Chris Devlin, Noel Fox, David Higgins, Michael Hoey, Michael McGeady, Damien Mooney, Alan Murray, Peter O’Keeffe, Glen Robinson, Simon Thornton and Philip Walton.

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