Matt Cooper

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Hong Kong Open Preview

Monday, November 20, 2017


 
The wicked get no rest and neither do European Tour golfers.
 
The 2017 season drew to an exciting close on Sunday and just four sleeps later the 2018 schedule begins. 
 
From the Middle East to the Far East, from ultramodern Dubai to historical Hong Kong, for a tournament which is 59-years-old and is a date on the European Tour calendar for a 17th time.
 
The likes of Peter Thomson, Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal have lifted the trophy, whilst the first winner was no other than Mr Lu, cult hero of the 1971 Open Championship.
 
The UBS Hong Kong Open is a favorite tour stop, with players enjoying the thrills of the cosmopolitan city as well as the colonial flavor of the host, the Hong Kong Golf Club, and the field has depth, including 13 players who have made the journey from Dubai.
 
Last year unheralded Australian Sam Brazel held off the challenge of Rafa Cabrera Bello, whilst Tommy Fleetwood hinted at his season to come in a tie for third.
 
 
The course
 
Hong Kong Golf Club (frequently referred to as Fanling) is one of the shortest tracks on tour, protected by narrow fairways. A par 70 it is 6,703 yards with the front nine (including one par-5 and three par-3s) measuring just 3,149 yards. 2015 champion Justin Rose said: “It'ss a very traditional, tree-lined, tight course. It’s not long, but a great test of golf and not easy – as the winning score usually tells you.” The putting surfaces are Bermuda grass and there are six distinct doglegs (four left, two right).
 
 
Winners, winning scores, stats
 
2016 -13 Sam Brazel (DD: 37, DA: 35, GIR: 10, Scr: 3, PA: 3)
2015 -17 Justin Rose (DD: 11, DA: 21, GIR: 1, Scr: 1, PA: 28)
2014 -14 Scott Hend (DD: 1, DA: 37, GIR: 5, Scr: 3, PA: 26)
2013 -12 Miguel Angel Jimenez (DD: 42, DA: 31, GIR: 8, Scr: 23, PA: 14)
2012 -15 Miguel Angel Jimenez (DD: 39, DA: 9, GIR: 11, Scr: 1, PA: 11)
2011 -12 Rory McIlroy (DD: 11, DA: 25, GIR: 1, Scr: 6, PA: 15)
 
Notes: Hitting greens matters at Fanling and Brazel reiterated it (as did Rafa Cabrera Bello who finished second and ranked 1st for GIR). It's also important to save par from those few greens missed. In other words, limiting errors is key. Rose made just three bogeys in 2015 and Jimenez (a four-time winner) just the two in 2012.
 
 
The weather
 
Expect pleasant temperatures in the high 70s all week. There is a strong chance of rain on Saturday but otherwise clear skies. The wind will freshen with predictions of constant 13 to 15mphs breezes that could rise to as much as 20mph on Thursday and Friday morning. 
 
 
The Leading Contenders
 
In the immediate aftermath of Sunday's round Rose was keen to avoid overplaying the importance of nine badly played holes in the context of three weeks of great golf. His caddie posted a Twitter photo which talked of half an hour of sulking and then getting on with it. The battle will be to remain true to those sentiments, which are clearly sensible ones, the sort of approach which would allow him to move on quickly. The difficulty we all know, even if not world class athletes, is that memories can linger. The good news is the venue: he was a winner in 2015 and has, in three visits, always hit plenty of greens. The difference between the win and the MC-T36? Scrambling. He ranked first (91%) when winning and less than 40% those other two weeks.
 
A first visit to the tournament for Garcia and it won't have gone unnoticed that his compatriots have fared well at Fanling (Olazabal, Lara, Jimenez all winning; Cabrera Bello second last year). Perhaps the Bermuda greens and tight fairways are reminiscent of so many similar layouts in Spain? If that's true his victory on such courses will make him very popular this week. He has ranked fourth and third for Ball Striking in his last two starts which would help this week. He also improved with every lap of the Earth Course (70-69-67-65). If there is a doubt it is the extent to which he will rue not making birdie at the 72nd hole - it would have earned him a play-off on Sunday. It could also be a positive of course.
 
If you were to create a course that suited the game of the young Englishman Fanling might be it and he backed it up when T3 here two years ago, never once needing more than 69 swipes to complete a lap. His stats were good too: third for Driving Accuracy, fifth for Greens in Regulation and third for Putt Average. He made a very fine defense of his DP World Tour Championship title last week, notching a seventh top 15 finish since his win at Crans in September. 
 
There was a sense that the Englishman, for so long the leader of the Race to Dubai, was tiring badly as he approached the tape last Sunday. Toss into that an apprehension on the brink of the greatest triumph of his career and the sighs were understandable. It makes for a tricky assessment of his chances this week. He kicked off last season with third in this event (ranking first for Total Driving and Ball Striking) so might he float on a cloud of relief, back in a happy place? Or will he be hit by fatigue?
 
The Spaniard adores his new home of Dubai and yet he's not quite sussed the Earth Course. In the circumstances last week's T21 is not a bad effort and an improvement on the T42 at the Nedbank Golf Challenge a week prior. Bear in mind, too, that he ranked second for Greens in Regulation, which is key this week. He ranked first for that category 12 months ago when second behind surprise winner Sam Brazel. Before that he had logged MC-T16-T60 in the tournament.
 
A case of what might have been for the big Thai performer last Sunday: he finished just one back of Jon Rahm and yet burned the edge of so many holes throughout the weekend. It was testimony to the state of his game and mental strength that he stayed patient. In fact in recent weeks he has talked a lot of how well he is playing. This is, however, his 12th tournament in 13 weeks - that's some itinerary. And this is not an especially happy hunting ground: T29-T7-T30-MC-MC.
 
The South African started the 2017 season with T25 in the Alfred Dunhill Championship followed by a missed cut in this event. He would not have known then just what a spectacular season he had ahead of him: a play-off near miss in China, victory in Austria, second in the Turkish Airlines Open, contending for the DP World Tour Championship (eventually T4). He has two top six finishes in China on the Challenge Tour, was T5 and second in the country in April - will he ride the wave of form and add to that record?
 
A fifth visit to China for the Irishman and his log book so far reads "consistent". His best effort was T29 in this event 12 months ago; his worst no worse than T38 in the (elite field) World Golf Championship HSBC Champions a few weeks ago. In all those efforts he's been somewhat hampered by not hitting a high percentage of greens which doesn't bode well, but it's not a part of his game that has ever really excelled statistically. Lost a play-off in the Trophee Hassan II in April at the tight and tree-lined  Royal Dar Es Salam.
 
The new experiences keep piling up for the 26-year-old. If Frittelli's season ended unexpectedly Suri's is on another level entirely. He was grabbing invites on the Sunshine Tour in February; now he is a full member of the European Tour coming off three finishes of T8 in the Andalucia Masters, Turkish Airlines Open and DP World Tour Championship. The first of those is probably the best guide to his likely performance this week, being a tight test. 
 
There has been plenty of good form for Li in mainland China (victory in the 2014 China Masters and 2016 China Open, second in the 2015 Shenzhen International, T7 in the 2015 WGC-HSBC Champions), but his one appearance in this event saw him head home early after laps of 72-75. He finished the 2017 season strong with T4 in the Nedbank Golf Challenge and T13 in the DP World Tour Championship (fourth for GIR at the latter).
 

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