An estimated 1.357 billion people live in China. That’s equivalent to nearly 20% of the world’s population.
At some point, as the game spreads, one of them is going to become really good at golf. It has to happen. It’s a numbers game.
We’ve seen rumblings before but last week’s Shenzhen International really highlighted the point.
Due to his age (34) and the fact that he hadn’t picked up a club until he was 22, we didn’t really expect Wen-yi Huang to follow up his first-round lead although, to be fair, he played extremely well to finish T4.
No, it was the performance of Hao-Tong Li that really made everyone sit up. The teenager came within a whisker of becoming the first Chinese golfer to win a European Tour event on home soil as he lost out in a playoff to Kiradech Aphibarnrat.
This was no fluke though. Li has been more than holding his own on the Web.Com Tour and returned home to China on the back of a pair of top 16 finishes. This kid looks the real deal.
Li arrives at this week’s Volvo China Open as the World No. 125. That slots him in between three-time European Tour winner Scott Stallings and former Ryder Cup star Edoardo Molinari.
His rise has been rapid. After a T50 in this event last year he was down in 701st.
He’ll have a strong and familiar cast of European Tour players to beat although most won’t know this week’s course.
The Volvo China Open continues its policy of moving the event around China’s best courses and this week it pitches up at (look away now if you like brevity) Tomson Shanghai Pudong GC.
Here are the last 11 winners of the event since it became part of the European Tour.
Past winners and scores at Volvo China Open
2014 Alexander Levy (-19)
2013 Brett Rumford (-16)
2012 Branden Grace (-21)
2011 Nicolas Colsaerts (-24)
2010 Y.E. Yang (-15)
2009 Scott Strange (-8)
2008 Damien McGrane (-10)
2007 Markus Brier (-10)
2006 Jeev Milkha Singh (-10)
2005 Paul Casey (-13)
2004 Stephen Dodd (-12)
That list breaks down into three from Continental Europe, three from GB & Ireland, two Australians, a South African, a Korean and an Indian.
The course – Tomson Shanghai Pudong GC
It cost $100 million to build, is situated on 1.4 million square meters of land and measures in at 7,343 yards. The official tournament website says it imported 30,000 camphor trees, maples and various precious seasonal trees as well as 30 thousand cubic meters of rocks and stones. In other words, they haven’t held back. The form may be a little old but it did stage the BMW Asian Open between 2004 and 2008 so there are there some past course results to wade through.
R1 leader Peter O’Malley (2008): “There is certainly a premium on accuracy off the tee and the ball is rolling too so it is not playing as long as it can. On the fairways, you couldn’t ask for a better playing surface so the course is well suited to my game.”
R2 leader Robert-Jan Derksen (2008): “It is important to hit fairways and I did that well today. That meant I didn’t always hit driver and preferred to hit a longer shot in. The greens are firm and downwind, it is tough to stop the ball.”
Winner Darren Clarke (2008): “It is very demanding and if you miss one shot and get yourself out of position you have got to really battle to make par. It is a really good golf course, a stern test. You have to control your ball flight and shape of your shots to get it close and it is the type of course I enjoy.”
Past BMW Asian Open winners and scores at Tomson Shanghai Pudong GC
2008 Darren Clarke (-8)
2007 Raphael Jacquelin (-10)
2006 Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (-7)
2005 Ernie Els (-26 but won by 13 strokes)
2004 Miguel Angel Jimenez (-14)
Take out Ernie Els’ ridiculous score in 2005 and it is no pushover. A common trait amongst those winners? All had won before and they’re players who know how to work their ball.
The forecast says the sun will turn to cloud for most of the tournament although no rain is predicted until Saturday afternoon and even then it will be light. Wind could be a factor though and might get above 15mph on Sunday.
The Leading Contenders
Freed from what had become the burden of trying to qualify for the Masters (he failed), Fleetwood is flowing again and nearly holed a huge putt to make the playoff in last week’s Shenzhen International. That solo third (he was 1st for greens in regulation) built on a T17 in the Trophee Hassan II (3rd greens in reg). In his last five starts in China he’s had a second, a third and two other top 25s.
The Spaniard had a golden chance to win at Shenzhen last week but faltered badly down the stretch. He summed it up on Twitter. “Tough back nine that just cost me a golf tournament… Golf is hard, that’s why we love it so much… We will give it a go next week…” The late slide took him down to T22 and that followed finishes of 3rd, T20, T20 so he’s certainly close to getting it right. Has seven previous top 20s in China.
Another strong week for the rising Argentine star at Shenzhen where he finished T11 and threatened something better. For the second straight event he was third in Driving Accuracy and that might be a more advantageous asset here at Tomson than it was at Genzon GC. Grillo has made the top 25 in all four starts in China so looks a player to get on the team this week.
Levy is the defending champion although he won last year’s tournament at last week’s venue, Genzon. Logic says this track won’t suit him as it’s much more of a test off the tee although he’ll have some confidence back after ending a run of three missed cuts in four starts with a T25 in Shenzhen. He now owns four straight top 25s in China – including a win and a second – and his putter warmed up last week too.
His sixth place at Bay Hill was a warning sign that another European Tour win could be brewing and so it came to pass as he celebrated (and, boy, did he celebrate when the winning putt dropped) victory in the Shenzhen International after a playoff. It means his form figures now are 1-MC-6-4 so he’s the form player in the field. He’s also putting better than almost all his rivals so could shine again here.
The search for a first European Tour win goes on after a slightly disappointing finish at the Shenzhen (T34). Before that he was runner-up at the Trophee Hassan II and T7 in India two starts earlier. Wattel should enjoy this week’s course but needs to sharpen up on the greens. He finished T6 in the 2014 BMW Masters in China which is another plus.
This course looks a nice fit for Bourdy given his accuracy off the tee (15th in DA this season) and strong iron play (14th in greens in reg). He did actually play at Tomson back in 2004 when contesting the BMW Asian Open and made a reasonable fist of it, finishing T37. The Frenchman closed with a 66 for a T15 in Shenzhen last week and that was his fifth top 25 in his last six starts in China. Looks an ideal candidate for the European Tour Fantasy Game.
Ramsay followed up his win at the Trophee Hassan II with a strong T11 at Shenzhen last week after shooting 66-68 over the final 36 holes. His assessment on Twitter: “Great play on the weekend. Sharper short game in first 2 days I would have been right amongst it. Onward and upward.” The T11 extended his cut streak in China to nine tournaments so he’s a reliable performer in this part of the globe.
RCB is making cuts but just one top 30 so far this season (a 10th place at the PGA TOUR’s Puerto Rico Open) is a disappointing return for someone of his ability. His one experience of Tomson resulted in a missed cut (74-76) in 2007 but he does have two top 10s in his last five starts in China. A closing 73 left him in T47 at Shenzhen last week.
A T4 in China last week was a welcome return to form for the American and he said later he’d “take it” after trying to bring a new swing to the table following a recent change of coach. He hit just 50% of fairways which could be a concern at Tomson (wayward driving wasn’t really punished at Genzon) so the American it’s the fantasy shoo-in he might seem.
The Englishman did everything pretty well at Shenzhen last week but a second-round 74 eventually cost him as he finished T15. At least it showed that his 77-77 (MC) in Morocco on his previous start was nothing more than a curious blip. Fisher has played at Tomson (yes, let’s call it that from now on) twice before but fared pretty poorly – T42 in 2008 and MC in 2007 and he didn’t break par once.
Yep, the young Chinese star deserves his spot in the leading contenders list after his excellent second place at Shenzhen. In six previous Web.com Tour starts before that he’d posted two T11s and a T16 so his star is very much on the rise. He won the OneAsia’s China Masters back in October and looks fearless. Li is not available to pick in the European Tour Fantasy Game unfortunately.
The Next Rung
A steady-eddie rather than a bomber, you’d expect Fraser to have some decent form at Tomson. However, in four previous starts at the course his form reads 35-MC-34-MC which is slightly disappointing. Current form is a plus though and he took his top 25 streak to four in five tournaments with a T25 at Shenzhen.
The tall Englishman recovered well from a poor start at Shenzhen, shooting 75-70-69-69 to finish T29. That followed on from a top three in the Trophee Hassan II so he’s certainly back on track again after nearly five months out with injury. Strong recent Driving Accuracy stats (over 73% in last two starts) suggest he could be in for a very good week.
He’s 7-for-7 on the European Tour this season but there’s definitely been some cooling off in the last two months and Noren hasn’t broken 71 in his last 10 rounds. However, he closed with three 71s at Shenzhen to finish T44 so maybe he’s close to clicking again. The Swede was T6 in the 2012 Volvo China Open.
Another of the growing band of French golfers who make frequent waves on the European Tour. Quesne finished like a train (65) to take T4 at last week’s Shenzhen International while he was T8 in last month’s Africa Open. Has made seven of his last eight cuts in China, with four of those top 25s.
‘Howeller’ did have look at Tomson in 2008 but missed the cut after carding 75-73. That was one of five missed cuts in seven starts though so don’t dwell on it. Of more relevance is some strong recent play which shows a T4 at Shenzhen last week and a second place in the Joburg Open at the start of March. He topped the Putting Average stats at Genzon last week.
The experienced Englishman is an unfashionable pick given the perception that he’s a journeyman with a limited upside but his recent form can’t be ignored. A T11 in Shenzhen last week was his fourth top 15 in five starts and that includes a second place in the Joburg Open. He also finished T20 at this week’s course when it staged the 2005 BMW Asian Open.
Like Wall, the Aussie can boast recent form and a previous good showing at Tomson. The latter was via a T20 in the 2005 BMW Asian Open while his recent exploits combine for four top 11 finishes in his last five events. The latest came at Shenzhen last week when he banked T11 thanks to a 67-66 weekend finish.
The Spanish bomber threatened a 59 in the final round at Shenzhen before a couple of back-nine bogeys limited him to a still superb 63. It lifted Quiros to T15 and secured a third top 20 in five starts so he doesn’t seem too far away from having a huge week. Whether Tomson’s narrow fairways are conducive to that remains to be seen.
Jaco Van Zyl
His run of six top 15s (five of those top sixes) had to end at some point and it did in last week’s Shenzhen International where he crashed out at halfway following a pair of 74s. If we forgive him, the South African has to be on the radar.
Although the theory about Tomson suiting plotters rather than big hitters looks solid enough, Hend does his best to blow it apart. The Aussie, who was again top five in Driving Distance last week, has finished T9 and T3 on his two appearances here in the BMW Asian Open so clearly there’s something about his game that works here. He finished T15 at Shenzhen last week.
After starting his season with a missed cut, the young English prospect has gone 7-for-7 on the European Tour. Until last week his best finishes were T24 (Joburg) and T25 (Thailand) but he stepped it up at Shenzhen with a T4 after shining on the weekend. He’s also cracked the top four for greens in regulation in his last two starts.
The Dane was runner-up in the 2007 BMW Asian Open at Tomson and T18 in 2008 so ticks the course form box. He missed the cut last week but a T14 in the Trophee Hassan II shows you can still get a tune out of him.
Bourdy is yet another Frenchman to consider here. He has a particular liking for China and his T15 in Shenzhen on Sunday secured a fifth top 20 in seven starts in the land of the rising sun. Most impressive was his iron play (second in greens in reg with 84.7%). He has a bit of course experience too and took T33 at Tomson in the 2007 BMW Asian Open.
Who’s On The Team
Tommy Fleetwood and Emiliano Grillo may not appeal to bettors given their short prices but both are locks for the European Tour Fantasy Game and will be vying for star status when I pick my 10-man line-up on Tuesday.
For a bet, I think English duo Chris Wood and Tom Lewis are worth each-way plays at 50/1 and upwards given their recent stats.
Can Chinese youngster Hao-Tong Li go one better and win this week? He’s not available for the European Tour Fantasy Game but I’m tempted to have a wager on him.
One To Fade
Peter Uihlein performed strongly at Shenzhen last week when T4 but he barely hit a fairway on the weekend and that will punish him much more on this course.