Matt Cooper

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WGC-HSBC Champions Preview

Monday, October 23, 2017


The European Tour's regular season is over and the journeyman drama complete (chapeau to Daniel Brooks, Jamie Donaldson, Wade Ormsby, Ashley Chesters and Ricardo Gouveia for their successful card-clinching missions in Valderrama). 
 
Next on the agenda? It's time for the big boys to load the wheelbarrows with cash. Ahead of us is a four week chase to the end of the season, a dizzying journey between the corporate hubs of Shanghai and Dubai via the man-made tourist traps of Turkey and South Africa. 
 
Those hefty prize funds will not only have a significant impact on the Race to Dubai (and who qualifies for the DP World Tour Championship), but also, for gamers, will decide their fate in this year's Fantasy Game.
 
There is also, in the first instance, the little matter of a World Golf Championship title to fight for, a gong that will, of course, improve any golfing CV. 
 
World number one Dustin Johnson, winner here in 2013, and defending champion Hideki Matsuyama, who demolished the field by seven shots 12 months ago, return, but Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia are all missing.
 
This preview focuses on the European challenge as it seeks to win the event for the fifth time (but includes all those eligible for the Official Fantasy Game). The current count is Euro wins 4, Americans 3, and the Rest of the World 1. 
 
 
Sheshan International Golf Club
 
The track measures 7,261 yards and plays to a par of 72. There have been times when the longer holes were key. Bubba Watson was 14-under on the par-5s when winning in 2014 (yet only 11-under for the tournament) and last year Hideki Matsuyama was joint leading scorer on the long holes. In contrast Russell Knox, Francesco Molinari and even Dustin Johnson excelled on the par-4s. It was designed by Robin Nelson and Neil Haworth, is tree-lined and features Bentgrass greens. There are water hazards aplenty with the 16th and 17th played over a water-filled quarry.
 
 
Past winners, winning scores and stats
 
2016 Hideki Matsuyama -23 (DD: NA, DA: 43, GIR: 10, Scr: 9, PA: 1, AA: 8)
2015 Russell Knox -20 (DD: 54, DA: 5, GIR: 9, Scr: 31, PA: 6, AA: 1)
2014 Bubba Watson -11 (DD: 1, DA: 16, GIR: 18, Scr: 17, PA: 18, AA: 4)
2013 Dustin Johnson -24 (DD: NA, DA: 13, GIR: 1, Scr: 23, PA: 1, AA: 1)
2012 Ian Poulter -21 (played at Mission Hills)
2011 Martin Kaymer -20 (DD: 19, DA: 29, GIR: 10, Scr: 3, PA: 4, AA: 2)
2010 Francesco Molinari -19 (DD: NA, DA: 7, GIR: 23, Scr: 2, PA: 2, AA: 1)
2009 Phil Mickelson -17 (DD: 5, DA: 71, GIR: 20, Scr: 1, PA: 15, AA: 5)
 
Notes: A strong roster of past winners, with four major champions and seven of the eight Ryder/Presidents Cup competitors (Knox, the exception, probably should have been). There seems little sway towards big or steady hitters. A strong All-Round game allied to a fine week of putting seems to be the key. The Nelson-Haworth design team were also behind Genzon GC and Shenzhen GC, each one of which have been used on the European Tour and players who excel at Sheshan have performed well on both those tracks.
 
 
The weather
 
Admittedly this is written Monday, but the forecast looks remarkably settled with temperatures consistently in the high 60s and almost no chance of rain. On Thursday and Friday the wind should be nothing more than 12mph zephyrs, but there is a prediction of gusts up to 20mph at the weekend.
 
 
The Leading Contenders
 
The Spaniard probably arrived in China a little earlier than he might have expected. Chastened, too, no doubt, after a week that was full of promise at Valderrama, but which ended with rounds of 74-75 and a missed cut. The best players kick back at such indignities and use them as fuel for the fire. A tournament debut for him but his WGC rookie year has witnessed T3 in the Mexico Championship, runner-up in the World Match Play and T28 in the Bridgestone Invitational (T3 after 18 holes).
 
The conclusion of the Swede's PGA Tour season was a bit flat (T17 in The Northern Trust, T51 in the BMW Championship), can he make greater headway in the European Tour's finale? His record in this event is solid with six top 20 finishes in ten starts. He was closest to victory the final year before it attained WGC status (2008 when T5 having led for large periods), but his best finish was 12 months ago (2nd) when he pegged his third final round of 65 in four years.
 
Only a fifth return to the HSBC for the Englishman and his four previous visits are split into two. In 2012 (at Mission Hills) and 2014 he never got going (opened with 72s) and never featured inside the top 20 at any stage. In 2011 and 2013 he opened with 68s to be top five after round one, hung around the top 20 all week, recording T7 and T5. Last seen clocking up four top ten finishes in the FedEx Cup Play-Offs.
 
Like Rose, Grace's opening day seems to indicate exactly what will happen in Shanghai. Three times he has opened with rounds of mid-70s (75-77-73) and never been part of the wider picture, earning a best of T30 from those three trips. But in 2015 he thrashed an opening 63 and hung around the top ten all week before signing off with T5. He was T15 last week in the CJ Cup and it might be worth noting he topped the Ball-Striking and Total Driving stats. Won the 2012 China Open at Binhai Lake.
 
The tone of the Swede's visits to Sheshan are clear. In 2009 and 2016 he was consistent (all laps between 68 and 72) in finishing T19 and T12. But in 2011 and 2015 he shot lower rounds (a 66 and a 67), but also wilder ones too (four in the 74-77 range) as he logged T49 and T54. Only managed MC-T38 in his last two outings.
 
The Englishman has enjoyed plenty of success in China, in fact he has three top three finishes at Genzon GC alone. The Nelson-Haworth design team were also behind that course so it might be a pointer although his trend at Sheshan has been to make a smart start (all three visits he's been top ten after 18 holes) before drifting (always finished top 30, never inside the top 15). T6 on his last start in the Italian Open.
 
Seven tournament starts for the Italian and the good news is that his worst results came the one year it ventured to Mission Hills (T39 in 2012). Every other visit has reaped T23 or better, there have been four top tens (including last year's T6) and 2010 witnessed a stunning week on the greens which allowed him to make the most of his perpetually wonderful long game and claim the win. His form reads: MC-T61-T12-T6.
 
A fourth visit to Sheshan and a motley collection of rounds. On debut in 2014 he was consistent (71-73-71-71) for T22. In 2015 he looked sharp (65-70-68-70) for T7. Last year he opened 78-75, closed with a 76, but in between smashed a 66 for T60. Which Reed will appear this year? Warmed up with a nice T11 last week in Korea and does have the good Chinese vibes of T3 in the 2015 Hong Kong Open and T2 in the same year's BMW Masters, also in Shanghai although at Lake Malaren GC.
 
But for a round three 75 on his only previous appearance in this event, Perez might have contended this title in the final round. He had opened up with 68-69 to be T7 at halfway before that Moving-in-the-Wrong-Direction Day. Ending with a 66 for T10 ought to provide good memories however, even if they are eight years old. Responded to his win in Malaysia with T5 in Korea. Interesting prospect.
 
In ten previous visits to China the Englishman has always played four rounds of golf. Okay, four of those tournaments had no cut, but he's steady. Never finished worse than T56 and clocked seven top 30s. His two visits here have had an element of deja vu about them. Both times he opened 70-76 to be out of the picture at halfway (ultimately finishing T54 and T23). Form speaks for itself: T3-T8-1-1.
 
 
The Next Rung
 
In 2012 the South African led through 18, 36 and 54 holes before ending the week T6, his best effort in this tournament. Alas the other nine times he's teed it up they've played Sheshan, as they do again this year of course. He does have five top 20s at the course, including a best of T7 in 2011, but he's also finished well out the picture and beyond the top 40 on four occasions, including both 2015 and 2016. Not seen since T63 in the BMW Championship. UPDATE: Oosthuizen has withdrawn prior to the start of the event.
 
Just the two tournament starts for Rafa. He was erratic at Mission Hills in 2012 (75-69-76-67 for T46) and a steady improver here at Sheshan last year (71-74-68-69). Fond recent memories of China? He was runner-up in the Hong Kong Open just under one year ago. Logged T10 and T11 at the CIMB Classic and CJ Cup, topping the Greens in Regulation stats at the latter.
 
Expectations are dangerous in golf, but this kind of week is, at least in theory, a great opportunity for Fitzpatrick. He's proved himself on the European Tour and is ready to take a step up. Where better than in a WGC event with half the world's top ten missing? Add to that T7 and T16 on the course in the last two years, a round four average of 66 in that time, and a win and another three top 15 finishes in his last four starts.
 
No-one can argue with the Austrian's form in China this year. He won the Shenzhen International (at Genzon, that Nelson-Haworth design) and was T4 a week later in the China Open. The concern would be form (just one top ten in 14 starts since that fourth) and the course (he was T17 and T35 the last two years). 
 
A welcome return to this event for the Scot whose two previous trips were contrasting and proved the importance of getting off to a good start. In 2012 he notched 72-71 at the weekend for T65, two years earlier 71-71 on Saturday and Sunday helped him to T3. The difference was a 69-68 start to a 78-71 one. T8 in the British Masters he withdrew in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and was T40 in the Italian Open.
 
He has been T3 and T6 in the last two years of this event, he's closed his last two events out with a 61 and a 63 to be second to Tyrrell Hatton both times - surely he's a no brainer this week? The only real concern would be that this is the site of one of the great what-ifs in his career. He was second on debut in 2007 when a bogey at the last would have won the trophy, but he found water with a chip to ultimately finish second.
 
A season full of promise (T2 at Riviera, T4 at Augusta and Firestone) is spluttering towards a messy close. Since that week at Firestone T28 in the CJ Cup is comfortably his best effort in six starts, a period in which his weekends round average is 75.13. He's been solid in his two visits here. T23 in 2015 and T14 12 months later, both times boosted by one good lap (an opening 67 the first year, a round three 66 last year).
 
Alexander Levy
His debut in this event in 2014 was a solid T14 which backed up the notion that he likes it in China, even if last year's T58 (not one round level to par or under it) was messy. Why the fondness for mainland China? 11 visits, ten top 30s, six of them top tens, two China Open wins, including this year. The first of them, however, was at Genzon (Nelson-Haworth design). He was T7 at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and T26 in the Italian Open. Might be one to watch.
 
His four appearances in this event on this course do not inspire much confidence. But there is improvement there. In 2010 and 2011 he opened with 78 and 79 on his way to T74 and T66. In 2013 and 2015 he improved with first lap 68s as he scratched together T55 and T30. He does, however, have a win at Genzon (2015 Shenzhen International) and was a fine runner-up in the Italian Open last time out.
 
 
Sleepers
 
Hao Tong Li
It's not quite happened for Li since his stunning T3 in the Open at Royal Birkdale (best of T25 in the Portugal Masters in five subsequent starts). But his best golf would make him a contender this week based on his 2015 performance, when opening rounds of 66-69-66 had him T3 with 18 holes to play. His 72 left him T7. Last year he posted a poor T63 and failed to break the top 30 in 2013 or 2014 but did card final round 67s both times.
 
Six weeks ago he made back-to-back T3s since when it's not quite happened and a MC on both his last two starts were a consequence of opening 74s, but a return to Asia should be a boost because he won the lucrative Maybank Championship in Malaysia in February. Making his tournament and course debut but is strong in China: 12-for-15 with four top tens, each of them on different courses and the best of them (T5 Shenzhen International) was in April.
 
A year of splendid debuts continues for the Englishman. He has become a first time European Tour member, grabbed his first victory (Porsche European Open), made his major debut (T9 in the PGA Championship) and now takes a bow in the World Golf Championship. Missed two cuts in China this time last year on the Challenge Tour, recorded T36-T14-MC there this season.
 
He's yet to break the top 50 in four European Tour starts in China but 12 months ago he finished T4 in the Challenge Tour's Foshan Open so he's not without hope. He's made five top ten in his impressive rookie campaign but arrives fresh off three consecutive missed weekends.
 
Thorbjorn Olesen
A fourth tournament appearance for a golfer who is extremely consistent in this part of the world. He's 13-for-13 in China with nine of those results T31 or better. He was T11 on event debut at Mission Hills and then T6 and T19 on the course. T10 on his last WGC start at Firestone in August. 
 
Back in 2008, his European Tour rookie year, the Frenchman finished second in the China Open, a fine result in appalling conditions. Since then he has been T25 and T11 in the same event, plus added another second in the country on the Challenge Tour. T10 on his last start in the Italian Open.
 
Plenty of experience of the course for the Australian. This will be his sixth start and whilst he's solid (all T54 or better) he's got a best of only T19. Final rounds are a problem: he's only once equalled par and four times been over it. He has eight top tens from 31 starts in China but five of them were in his first six starts over ten years ago. 
 
A WGC debut for the South African who has a best of T35 (this year's US Open) in five major championship appearances. On a run of 2-for-6, but the little ray of light was T2 at Genzon in last year's Shenzhen International and a round three 65 there this year.
 
Opened up the season as a PGA member with a MC in the Safeway Open and followed it with T10 in the CIMB Classic. Now returns to a country he has thrived in, finished T33 or better eight times in 12 starts. He was T55 at Sheshan back in 2013, but does have T4 at Genzon (2015 Shenzhen International).
 
 
Who's On The Team?
 
This feels like a quirky week with plenty of the high grade players having enigmatic records at this course.
 
I do feel, however, that Stenson and Rose should be motivated and have enough course form to suggest a strong week.
 
Course specialists Francesco Molinari and Ross Fisher look shoe-ins.
 
The American trio of Reed, Perez and Uihlein are intriguing. I favour Perez, but wonder if he can make it three good weeks in a row?
 
I'll list my full six man line-up for the official European Tour Fantasy game in Tuesday's Playing the Tips feature.
 

One To Swerve?
 
Bernd Wiesberger's win in China earlier this year ought to have heralded a big move from the Austrian. Instead he seems to have drifted away from his consistent ways.



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