Rising Stars Make Their Mark in Golf’s Rolex Series

Rising Stars Make Their Mark in Golf’s Rolex Series

As happens with many innovations, some European Tour pros have warmed up to the Rolex Series faster than others.

Yet even as such draws as Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia have been infrequent participants in its eight events, the second-year series has made a mark in identifying a lineup of talent on the verge of joining the top tier.

As proof, look no further than the five Ryder Cup rookies who helped Europe wrest the prestigious 17.5-inch trophy back from their American rivals a month ago.

The English pros Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton, Alex Noren of Sweden, Jon Rahm of Spain and Thorbjorn Olesen of Denmark had a hand in nine of the Europeans’ 17½ points in France. All five used Rolex Series wins to help secure their place on the team.

“They are quality golfers,” Thomas Bjorn, the European captain, said in the celebratory aftermath. “They are putting their stamp on the world scene, and there are a couple on this team who are right on the way to the top of the game over the next few years.”

Nor do they represent the only ones. As this week’s Turkish Airlines Open begins the three-event homestretch for the Rolex Series and the season as a whole — with the Nedbank Golf Challenge and DP World Tour Championship to come — the series has shown remarkable balance.

Since the concept made its debut at last year’s BMW PGA Championship, the 13 Rolex Series events have been won by 11 different golfers.

Rahm and Noren are the only ones with multiple titles, and the five events this year have been spread among five winners.

“They are top players in the world who are kind of ready to win big events,” Fleetwood told reporters in the summer. “It has that feel to it that when you’re coming down the stretch on Sunday, if you’re in contention to win a Rolex Series event, it’s a massive event to win. You’ve got to be ready for it.”

Francesco Molinari won May’s BMW PGA Championship at the Wentworth Club, just outside London, and went on to a banner summer. He was runner-up at the Italian Open — another Rolex Series event — and took the momentum to the United States to win the Quicken Loans National, capping it with a British Open triumph that made him Italy’s first major champion.

Nor was he done there. Molinari became the first European to go 5-0 at a Ryder Cup, teaming with Fleetwood to win all four paired matches and capping the weekend with a singles victory over Phil Mickelson.

“Winning always helps to bring confidence,” Molinari said early in October. “To be honest, up until Wentworth my season was nothing special. It was a little bit disappointing because I could feel that my game had improved a lot.”

Molinari also holds a commanding points lead in the tour’s Race to Dubai season, with a margin of 1.36 million points — based on euros earned — over second-place Fleetwood.

“With the year he’s having,” Fleetwood quipped, “I think he might deserve it.”

Fleetwood captured the Race to Dubai crown last year, aided by his Rolex Series win at the Open de France. Rahm was third in points, with two Rolex wins nearly making up for the 11 fewer European tournaments he played than Fleetwood.

“If you play good, you can take advantage toward the end of the year,” Rahm said.

Fleetwood, Hatton and Olesen are all in their late 20s; Rahm will be 24 this month.

“There are some good young guys coming through,” said Matthew Fitzpatrick, 24, who has five top-12 finishes in Rolex Series events. “I think it makes for some exciting years on the tour.”

It’s the kind of impact envisioned in the creation of the Rolex Series, with each tournament increasing its prize fund to at least $7 million. Bigger purses draw better lineups, and the money has a greater impact on the points race.

“You can win two smaller ones and still be behind someone who wins one Rolex Series,” said Thomas Pieters of Belgium. “I think it should be like that, because you get the best fields in the Rolex Series.”

The series also was given an elevated role in Ryder Cup qualification, with events held the same week as Rolex Series stops excluded from the points process to determine eight automatic qualifiers.

All five of Bjorn’s rookies got in via one of the two lists used — a European Tour points list and one measuring world ranking points.

“More events, more money, more world ranking points, bigger players — it’s always good for the tour,” said the English veteran Ian Poulter.

The interest level, though, hasn’t necessarily reached the old guard. Rose’s title defense in Turkey is just his sixth Rolex Series start since it began. McIlroy has teed up in just four events, and Garcia and Henrik Stenson in three each.

Contrast that with the new-guard core of Fleetwood, Molinari, Noren, Rahm, Hatton, Olesen and Fitzpatrick. That group has averaged 9.7 Rolex Series starts to this point. Fitzpatrick has teed up in all 13 events, Hatton in 12.

Keith Pelley, the European Tour’s chief executive, doesn’t seem bothered by the disparity. He acknowledges that it’s unrealistic to expect such ultra-elites as McIlroy and Rose to rearrange schedules that have been successful for them.

“What we have done,” Pelley said early this season, “is provide a wonderful option for the top players. And they have embraced it.

“Over all, I believe that they have more choice than they have ever had before.”

He also noted the trickle-down effect: The 100th player on last year’s money list, Pelle Edberg, pocketed about $135,000 more than the previous year’s No. 100, Lasse Jensen.

Sometimes, too, new concepts just need time to take hold. A dozen years ago, PGA Tour players were rather cool to the FedExCup points race, even with a $10 million bonus awaiting the winner at the finish.

But with McIlroy, Stenson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and now Rose taking FedExCup honors in recent years, that season title has strengthened in stature.

As Fleetwood, Hatton, Fitzpatrick and Olesen — and other rising Europeans — raise their profiles on the world stage, the Rolex Series could experience a similar boost.

“They have that prestige put on them,” Fleetwood said. “They get the fields that I think we’re looking for now. You win one of these Rolex Series events, and it opens up all kinds of avenues.”

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