By STEVE DOUGLAS – AP Sports Writer
The European tour is weeks away from discovering whether it has the right to issue bans to those members who joined the Saudi-funded LIV Golf league in a development that rocked the world of golf last year.
While the legal dispute drags on, rebel players like Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson are happy to take what they can from the tour — world ranking points, Ryder Cup qualification points — whether they are welcome on it or not.
The veteran trio will play at the Abu Dhabi Championship this week, with the presence of Stenson the most eye-catching.
It has been six months since the 46-year-old Swede chose the guaranteed money of LIV Golf over the Ryder Cup, a decision which cost him the captaincy of the European team for this year’s event in Rome and has, for some, sullied his legacy.
He hasn’t played on the European tour since — his last non-LIV appearance was at the British Open in July — so he might expect a frosty reception in the warm temperatures forecast at Yas Island Links.
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Stenson might not have many more events on the tour that propelled his career.
A British arbitration judge is expected to give his verdict in February on the legal tussle between the European tour and its deserters at LIV Golf. The Desert Swing, which also comprises the Dubai Desert Classic next week, could be one last hurray.
“It’s going to be an interesting few months,” Irish golfer Shane Lowry told the BBC.
“There’s a couple of key dates in the next few months with what’s going to happen in golf.”
Luke Donald, who replaced Stenson as European Ryder Cup captain, will also be teeing it up in Abu Dhabi for one of the signature Rolex Series events that have prize money of $9 million.
That would be seen as a huge prize pot if it wasn’t for Saudi-bankrolled LIV Golf offering much, much more — a fact that doesn’t escape Lowry.
“I think what’s happened in the last year or so, we’ve got side-tracked in thinking that 20 million or 100 million (dollars) is just normal and that’s what we should be playing for and that’s what we’re worth,” said Lowry, who — at No. 20 — is the highest-ranked player in the field in Abu Dhabi. “And that if we are playing for 2 or 3 million (dollars) on this tour, that is not enough.
“I still think that this tour has grown, I think with their alliance with the PGA Tour, with the prize money guaranteed to grow … over the next 13 years every year, I think that’s good for the tour. I think it’s sustainable, which is the big thing. I think having a sustainable product is something that you need to have, and I do think this tour has that.”
Lowry and many others in the field are coming off playing in last week’s Hero Cup at nearby Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where Continental Europe beat Britain & Ireland in an event used by Donald to assess his options eight months out from the Ryder Cup.
Lowry didn’t collect even a half-point, despite feeling he played “all right,” whereas players like Francesco Molinari, Guido Migliozzi, Nicolai Hojgaard and Victor Perez made the short trip to Yas Island Links on the back of playing starring roles for Continental European with 3½ points each from a possible 4.
Thomas Pieters, who won last year’s Abu Dhabi Championship, was also on the winning team despite not playing as well as he’d hoped.
“I took away that I wasn’t quite ready,” the Belgian player said. “I should have done maybe a couple more days of practice but it was tough with a new-born. I feel like I’m very ready right now.”
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