Hong Kong - Golf sensation Rory McIlroy has warned he can bring his breakthrough year to a thrilling close by snatching the European money title from leader Luke Donald, starting with this week's Hong Kong Open.
The world number two trails Donald in season earnings by just over US$1.5 million, meaning he has to win or finish second in Hong Kong and triumph in the year-ending Dubai World Championship to have a shot at denying the Englishman.
But Donald and second-placed Martin Kaymer have both opted to skip Hong Kong, the season's penultimate event, potentially opening the door for US Open champion McIlroy -- who is a two-time runner-up at Fanling.
"Luke Donald has won the money title in America and it looks like barring Martin Kaymer or myself doing something very good in the last couple of weeks, he's going to win the money list in Europe as well," said McIlroy.
"But it's not over yet and I am here to play and to play well."
McIlroy's career was turned upside-down by his US Open victory in June and he has shown why he's the most exciting talent in golf with four straight top-four finishes since September, plus a US$2 million exhibition win in China.
And the 22-year-old Northern Irishman makes no secret of the fact he would dearly love to win in a city he has been visiting since he was just 16 and plying his trade on the junior Faldo Tour.
The venerable Fanling course clearly suits the laid-back McIlroy after he finished runner-up after a thrilling play-off in 2008, repeated that performance in 2009 and was sixth behind England's Ian Poulter last year.
"I've played very, very well this year," said McIlroy. "Climbing to number two in the world rankings feels like a big achievement for me, and it would be great to finish off the season well with a good result here.
"I would love to have the chance to win here; it's a tournament that I've wanted to win for the past number of years and haven't quite been able to do it."
McIlroy is not the only player with much riding on the US$2.75 million, co-sanctioned event.
Triple Major winner Padraig Harrington - the Hong Kong winner in 2003 - needs to finish sixth or better to reach Europe's top 60 and earn a ticket to Dubai, which carries a lucrative US$7.5 million purse.
"I won in 2003 and was second in 2004," said the Irishman. "I think everyone who comes here likes the course so nobody has an advantage here."
He added: "I am happy with my game, I've been happy with it all year but I haven't been getting the most out of it but I think maybe I have turned the corner with that."
Asia's money race is also coming down to the wire with Filipino Juvic Pagunsan, a Hong Kong runner-up in 2006, about US$288,000 ahead of India's S.S.P. Chowrasia with both players set to tee off here Thursday.
Meanwhile Poulter showed his fierce competitive nature as he arrived to defend his title.
When South Korea's one-time US PGA Championship winner Y.E. Yang said he was in town to "take away Ian's trophy", the Englishman simply cast his rival a steely gaze and muttered coldly: "Bring it on."
The 53rd edition of Hong Kong's oldest professional sporting event also has a field that includes former Hong Kong champions Miguel Angel Jimenez, Colin Montgomerie and Jose Maria Olazabal, along with England's Justin Rose.
Title sponsor UBS's seven-year deal comes to an end this week and the Open was forced to seek government help for its hefty appearance fees. However, rumours are swirling that a new sponsor is set to be unveiled.