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.
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.
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?
Rafa Cabrera Bello
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.
Hao Tong Li
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).
The Next Rung
Quite the conundrum. He's a past winner of the tournament (in 2014 when he posted three 67s and a 66) and he led last week's DP World Tour Championship after a 66. And yet the bookmakers have written him off, making him a 100/1 shot (and higher). Why? Seven other starts here have failed to reap one top 50, but he did open 69-68 last year and was second at Crans in September.
The Australian defending champion, who is a mate of Hend, finished T18 in the tournament in 2015 and surprised many by making the most of his European Tour card this year. True, he never again found the top ten, but he was T12 in the lucrative Maybank Championship and made three Rolex Series cuts. Add in two WGC starts and he was 67th on the Race to Dubai.
He finished runner-up three times this year, including the European Tour's Indian Open, before making the breakthrough with victory in the Taiwan Masters. He was also T7 last time out in the Manilla Masters. Making his debut in the tournament, but has long been touted as a future star. That second in the Indian Open was his penultimate Euro Tour start, his last one saw him T1 at halfway (the Fiji International, he ended the week T63). There are gaps between those effort of nearly half a year, but it's form of a sort.
Earned Battlefield Promotion from the Challenge Tour and did plenty thereafter to be of interest this season. He's a calm and measured personality who could easily thrive this week. His first win was among the trees in the Kenya Open, he was T7 in the Joburg Open (more trees) and then T8 at Valderrama in the Andalucia Masters (yet more of them).
The neat and tidy American has always opened this event with a round in the 60s, has never missed the cut, and has twice pushed on for a good result. On debut in 2013 he ended the week T12 and last year he was T5. Ended the 2017 season in solid if unspectacular form, playing four rounds nine out of ten times (excepting an illness withdrawal). Carded a fine 8-under-par 64 in Dubai on Saturday.
The Welshman is 6-for-6 in Fanling yet he hasn't been back since 2010 and that despite him putting on his best performance that year (T7, next best T19 in 2004). Interestingly - for what it is worth (given it is limited evidence and seven years old) - he averages 66.18 on Friday and has always gone sub-70 that day. Closed 2017 out with T26 in the Italian Open (opening round of 64) and then T4 in the Andalucia Masters.
The 2009 champion only made two top tens in 2017, something of a short return from such a consistent performer. One of those was in China, however: T3 in the Shenzhen International. The other was more recently in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. Above and beyond his win, his Fanling record is strong. He is 8-for-9 with two T11s either side of the victory.
The Aussie loves a tree-lined track and consistently uses this tournament as a nice boost to the coffers. He's 9-for-9 with six of those finishes T11 or better. His best finish was T3 in 2012 when he coasted home with a 64, but he was closest to the win when leading after 54 holes in 2014. A final lap 72 saw him end the week T5. Only four of his 27 first, second and third round laps have seen him fail to break par and he's always done so on the second circuit. He was T5 in the Italian Open (more trees) then T66 in the Turkish Airlines Open.
The Englishman was very excited to retain his card last year, having started it concerned about his form after long term injury worries. He started on a medical exemption but was strong in the early part of the year and earned himself a berth in the Dubai finale (T31) with back-to-back top 20s in Turkey and South Africa. He'll make a fond return to Hong Kong. He's 3-for-3 there and was T7 last year (second for Ball Striking).
There is only one word for the Thai veteran when in Fanling: Machine. He is 14-for-14 and 12 of those finishes are T21 or better. Between 2007 and 2009 he finished T7-T3-T2 since when he has always finished between T10 and T19. He has, however, missed his last four cuts, all on the European Tour. But before that? T9 in the European Masters at Crans, a short track not unlike this one in test (if definitely not altitude).
A solid and balanced debut 12 months ago when posting 69-71-71-69 for T45 and was T14 on return to China in April's Shenzhen International. Demands a look based on a fine season which saw him claim 11 top 20 finishes and end the year 43rd on the Race to Dubai.
Two appearances and two missed cuts doesn't hint at a good prospect but those visits were in 2013 and 2015, since when he has matured into one of the European Tour's most likely first-time winners. He went close in the Italian Open at Milano GC in 2015 so can play between the trees.
The diminutive South African is 6-for-7 on the course and finished T10 last year. He was third for Greens in Regulation in 2013, first for Ball Striking in 2014 and second for Scrambling last year. All three together would be a nice recipe.
The 38-year-old Filipino golfer has racked up eight top 15 finishes on the Japan and Asian Tours this year and has a strong record in this event. He was T5 in 2013, T2 in 2014 and T13 in 2015 before a missed cut 12 months ago.
The Aussie goes well on tight, tree-lined tracks in Asia, most obviously when winning the 2013 Panasonic Open at Delhi GC. He's 5-for-6 in this tournament and his best of T8 in 2013 promised more. He was T2 after 54 holes.
Almost an Indian version of Ormsby. He's a two-time winner this season on the Asian Tour and the most recent win was at Delhi GC. He's 6-for-11 in the event and has twice been T12, with both efforts more impressive at the 54-hole stage: he was T3 in 2007 and T2 in 2013.
You've got to wonder why he's not been here since 2012 because his record is exceptional: 67-63-67-62 for T2 in 2010 and 67-70-64-68 for T4 in 2012 with a missed cut in between. Last seen finishing a promising (T12 after R3) T30 in the Andalucia Masters.
Not a great season on the European Tour for the winner of the 2016 Shenzhen International, with his highlight (and only top 20 finish) T9 in the China Open, but he was T3 at Fanling in 2015 and T8 after 54 holes last year (finished T29).
Smashed a final round 65 to finish T2 back in 2013 and finished top 30 every year since. Contended the Dubai Desert Classic in February and made four top 12s on the trot before T29 last time out in the Manilla Masters.
Who's On The Team?
The official European Tour fantasy game doesn’t kick in until the turn of the year so this is more relevant to the bookmaker's prices and the top of the market is bunched.
Justin Rose's form and past win here are obviously strong and my hunch is that he's more likely to maintain the good form than suffer a hangover from last week.
Sergio Garcia should be a great fit for the challenge and I like compatriot Rafa Cabrera Bello's hopes of getting in contention again.
I prefer the claims of Matthew Fitzpatrick over Tommy Fleetwood if a young Englishman is to thrive, but it's very difficult to favour any of these over the others.
He wouldn't be a fantasy play, with so much poor course and recent form, but big three figures prices on Scott Hend are interesting for a previous champion who led last week and was second at Crans. His best golf could see him contend again.
One To Swerve
It would be a wonderful story if Tommy Fleetwood won, but after so much emotion I'm not keen to put money on him at the prices.