It’s not the start of the European Tour’s Final Series this year (that’s next week’s Turkish Airlines Open) but the co-sanctioned WGC-HSBC Champions in China is still a big deal. One look at the field will tell you that.
Now in its eighth year as an official European Tour event, this final WGC tournament of the season will feature all four of 2016’s major winners – Danny Willett, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Jimmy Walker – and 19 stars from the recent Ryder Cup.
With a hefty purse on offer, it will also have a significant impact on this year’s Race to Dubai. In all, 43 European Tour members take part and that includes the top three, Danny Willett (3,543,175pts), Henrik Stenson (3,130,447pts) and Rory McIlroy (2,487,204pts).
The defending champion is another Euro, Russell Knox. Twelve months ago, the Scot’s two-shot victory came as something of a surprise (it was his first win anywhere) but, in time, that will probably change. Another win in August’s Travelers Championship suggests Knox will land many more trophies.
This preview will focus on the European challenge as they look to win the event for the fifth time. The current count is Euro wins 4, Americans 3, Rest of the World 0.
Sheshan International Golf Club
The course measures 7,261 yards and has the standard par 72 mix of 10 pars 4s, four par 3s and four par 5s. Scoring on the longer holes can be key. When Bubba took the title in 2014 he actually played them in 14-under despite winning with just 11-under! It’s not the only way to skin a cat though. Knox was 8-under but won with -20. Designed by Robin Nelson and Neil Haworth, the course is tree-lined and features Bentgrass geens. There’s plenty of water in play too (2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 13, 14, 16, 17 and 18) so double bogeys can creep up and bite. The 16th and 17th are played over a water-filled quarry.
Past winners, winning scores and stats
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: That’s a pretty classy list of winners and Knox is the only non-Ryder Cup player (he should have been this year but that’s another subject!). The trio of Americans are all big hitters but the Euros aren’t and short-hitting Tim Clark almost beat Bubba two years ago. Every winner was in the top five for All-Around while putting is key too. Francesco Molinari’s atypically hot putter was a huge reason for his win in 2010.
Rain is forecast in the build-up and over the first two rounds as well so the course could get softened up. Temperatures gradually go down through tournament week from the high 70s on Thursday and it could get windy on Friday and Sunday. The European Tour website also offers this comment: “The course suffered the hottest summer in 130 years with temperatures exceeding 40 degrees for over a month. We have now had 5 inches of rain in the last 48 hours (Saturday/Sunday). Both issues have clearly impacted course preparation.”
The Leading Contenders
It’s an event which has rather teased McIlroy. His finishes show a high level of consistency – 11-6-4-5-4 – but he’s always tended to throw in the odd average round that has stopped him winning or even making the top three. After probably getting too hyped at the Ryder Cup, a calmer Rory should be ready to make a title challenge. He has three wins in his last 10 worldwide starts and that includes two in the last three, those triumphs at the Deutsche Bank Championship and Tour Championship landing him the FedExCup jackpot.
Since it became a WGC event, Stenson’s form as Sheshan is below what you might expect. He’s played it five times and not had a top 10 although T11 last year and T13 in 2010 shows he can score well. You’ll also find a top five from 2008 before it gained WGC status. Stenson only managed two points from five at the Ryder Cup and didn’t even make it to the Tour Championship but his Open performance was incredible and in his last seven worldwide strokeplay starts he has two wins and a second.
Firstly, let’s point out he’s no longer a member so not available for the official European Tour Fantasy game. But in other formats, Casey has to be given huge respect. He’s posted four top fours in his last five worldwide starts and has five top 10s at this venue. Also a winner in China, it will be a surprise if he’s not prominent.
A Ryder Cup phenomenon again, Reed may have needed last week’s CIMB Classic to re-set himself for strokeplay. He looked to be making a decent job of it when shooting a 66 on Saturday but he clearly lost focus in round four and slipped from T22nd to T51st. The American, a European Tour member, was T22 on his debut in 2014 and was a presence on the leaderboard all last year, eventually taking T7. If he can conjure up some of the magic of Hazeltine, watch out!
Sergio won this tournament in 2008 so knows he can conquer the course even though it wasn’t a WGC event at that time. He’s played it just four times since but managed fourth in 2013 and T11 last year. His recent form is a little mixed and T17 in last week’s CIMB Classic was a little underwhelming although being in Asia should help him deal easier with the time difference in China. His putting stats of late aren’t great but he holed his share in the Ryder Cup.
The German tends to have his favorite courses and this must be one of them. He shot a brilliant 63 to win this event in 2011 and topped the leaderboard again in the final round two years ago before settling for T6. Also in the top eight in both 2009 and 2013, it was a surprise to see him down in T30 last year. He heads to China with eight top 20s in his last nine starts, the last four of those 6-6-20-6. From tee to green he’s doing enough to win so it’s down to the putter.
With five finishes of T16 or better at Sheshan, Oosthuizen clearly gets on well with this par 72. That run includes a second-round 63 in 2011 when he was second with 18 to play before ending T7. He was also the R1, R2 and R3 leader when the event took place at Mission Hills in 2012 but stumbled to T6 after a closing 72. His current form shows five top 25s in his last six starts although only one (T8 at the Deutsche Bank) was better than T17.
Three wins (Scottish Open, European Masters, British Masters) in eight starts have elevated the Swede to fourth spot on the Race to Dubai and another big pay-day or two in these closing four events would give him a shot at finishing as Europe’s No.1. After a more relaxed T37 in Portugal last week, he heads back to a country where he placed T9 in the China Open on his last visit. At Sheshan, he’s only managed 54-49-19 but he did post a Saturday 66 last year and an opening 67 in his previous visit so he can shoot good numbers on this course.
The concern for managers with Pieters is that he hasn’t come down from the giddy high of being top points scorer (across both teams) in the Ryder Cup. Since those four wins at Hazeltine, the big-hitting Belgian has only managed T50 in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and T31 in the Portugal Masters. However, a closing 65 in Portugal could be the green light gamers need and last year’s T23 at Sheshan looks a nice foundation for a big one this time.
Molinari will obviously appeal to gamers given that he’s a former course winner who won on his very latest start. The latter came in last month’s Italian Open where he thrilled the locals by coming through with 64-65 on the weekend. Note, he was also 10th for Putting Average. It was a much hotter than usual putter that helped him win this title in 2010 while he also cracked the top 10 in 2009. This is his first start at the course since T21 in 2013.
He’s one of the European Tour’s form horses right now even though the ‘W’ is proving elusive. Not worse than T7 in his last four starts, that run includes second places at the KLM Open in the Netherlands and the British Masters in England. He was 4th and 2nd respectively on the All-Around in those two events so is doing everything well. He’s appeared in this event just once before but made an encouraging debut last year, shooting 70-66-69-70 to post T17.
The defending champion took his chance superbly 12 months ago when he might have been forgiven a late wobble given that he hadn’t even won a regular Tour event. In the end the US-based Scot shot 67-65-68-68, made 25 birdies and won by two. A winner of the Travelers just six starts ago, he also cracked the top 10 in last week’s CIMB Classic. That included 63 on day two and 81.9% GIR (5th) for the week.
The Next Rung
It looked as if his FedExCup run would end at the BMW but he shot a Sunday 64 to finish fourth and sneak into the Tour Championship and cashed another good cheque at East Lake after taking T10. Vastly improved putting was the key and that bodes well here. The South African hasn’t played well at Sheshan the last two years but was fourth in 2011 and 6th back in 2008.
The Englishman is definitely in the crosshairs this week. A runner-up at Sheshan in 2007 (he should have won), Fisher shot 69-69-65-68 to take third place last year in his first start at the course since T16 (4th after 54 holes) in 2010. To course form, add current form. Although down the field at the British Masters, he finished second in both his starts before that, firstly at the European Open in Germany and again at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland.
RCB rarely has a bad week it seems and he continued his best ever season with T10 at last week’s CIMB Classic where he hit 84.7% of greens in regulation (third). This will be the Spaniard’s first look at Sheshan but he’s playing well everywhere right now and top 10s in the 2014 China Open and 2013 BMW Masters shows that there’s no reason why we shouldn’t expect another strong display when he arrives on Chinese soil again.
One of the few available for selection who played in the CIMB last week. The young Argentine started poorly in Malaysia but middle rounds of 65-66 helped him finish T17. That added to T26 in the Safeway Open and T10 at the Tour Championship. Grillo was T35 on his HSBC debut last year but did show some form in the region when third at last year’s China Open.
One of just five men on this year’s Race to Dubai with over 2 million points, Hatton has banked over 75% of those in the last seven events. That includes a first European Tour win at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, second in the Scottish Open, T5 in the Open Championship and T10 in the PGA Championship. He clearly relishes mixing it in elite company and although he was only T54 on his HSBC debut last year, it included three rounds of 2-under 70.
The Masters champion’s last round at Sheshan was a brilliant 10-under 62 that lifted him to third place. He’d also shot 65 in round one. After the chaotic disappointment of the Ryder Cup and not very surprising missed cut in the following week’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, Willett will want to get his head back on here as he looks to increase his lead at the top of the Race to Dubai. Before Hazeltine, he was runner-up in the Italian Open and T12 in the European Open. One extra worry is that he pulled out of the British Masters with a tweaked back.
On the plus side, the South African was fifth here last year after opening with a 65 while he also won the 2012 China Open. Any hints of current form and managers would be jumping to get him on board but since a top four in the year’s final major he’s gone seven events without so much as a top 30. That run has continued with T34 in the Macau Open and T33 in the CIMB Classic in the last two weeks. The reason? A very cold putter.
An completed a quiet week in the CIMB Classic with a 67 to finish T37 so will hope that gives him momentum for his second start at Sheshan. He made a good go of it last year with an opening 69 and two 68s and eventually slotted in at T19. His results in China either side of that show third in last year’s BMW Masters and T8 at the 2015 China Open. An was also third at last month’s KLM Open.
When it comes to form in China, the Frenchman has it in abundance. Check his last eight starts in the country and he has a win (2014 China Open), a second, a third and a fourth. T14 on his only start at Sheshan in 2014 adds to his impressive body of work. Throw in current form of 4-MC-1-7 and there’s absolutely no need to raise an eyebrow if he’s in the mix on Sunday.
The Ryder Cupper (and he did well at Hazeltine) played in the 2013 and 2015 editions of this event but didn’t make much impression, finishing T39 on debut and T51 last year. He’s had top 25s either side of Europe’s loss (T20 Italian Open, T22 British Masters) and was in the top seven at halfway in both but his form on the Chinese mainland can only be viewed as disappointing.
After his Ryder Cup nightmare and second-round 82 at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship made it back-to-back missed cuts on the European Tour, Westwood was shunned by many for the British Masters but he bounced back in style to shoot three 67s and a 68 and take third spot. He was also fourth in September’s European Masters so it really is feast or famine right now. He has bags of experience at this course and was runner-up in both 2007 and 2010. On those numbers he makes appeal but the last three years at Sheshan have been low key (51-20-55).
It looked as if Lowry was playing himself back into form after T18 in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship but T41 at the British Masters was below expectations and he isn’t holing enough putts. The Irishman has had three looks at Sheshan but not performed well. He was T68 after failing to break 71 last year and T34 in 2014.
The Dane has enjoyed himself in big events this season, scoring top 10s at both the Masters and Open Championship. He’s continued a strong year with T8 in his home Made in Denmark and T7 at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. He didn’t make much of a mark when T46 at Sheshan 12 months ago after qualifying for the first time in six years but take note of his T10 there in 2009.
‘Beef’ makes his tournament debut this week so, in a field of such high class, is a long way down the betting. But, if it clicks, he could make an impact. A winner at Valderrama earlier this year, the bearded Englishman was also T8 in the Open Championship and at the British Masters a fortnight ago he was second at the midpoint before fading to T28.
Fitzpatrick was in a rich vein of form (win at the British Masters and three other top threes in his previous seven starts) when he arrived for his HSBC debut last year. He kept the good times flowing with T7, shooting all four rounds in the 60s. T49 and MC in two starts since his zero-point Ryder Cup performance suggest he’ll do very well to match that.
A course in his native Asia where he’s played numerous times should lend itself to some good results but Jaidee hasn’t cracked the top 10 in seven starts at Sheshan. But… he’s getting closer. The Thai closed with 68-66-68 to take T11 last year and he stayed on in China to bag third place in the following week’s BMW Masters. He returns after connecting four worldwide top 25s, the latest a T22 in the British Msters.
The Aussie strengthened his grip on the Asian Tour Order of Merit by finishing T7 at the CIMB Classic. That looks even better when you consider he had food poisoning at the start of the week and finished 63-67 on the weekend. He can stretch his lead further here (this week’s event also counts for the Asian Tour) and last year’s T19 (8th after 54 holes) was his best in five visits.
From two starts in October the South African has a second place in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and T9 at the British Masters. He’s only finished T39 and T60 on his last two starts at Sheshan but his last competitive round there was a 63 in 2013.
The veteran’s career season continued with fourth place on home English soil at the British Masters although there was an element of disappointment too as that first ever European Tour win slipped through his fingers again. Still, that’s six straight top 20s now and three top 10s in his last four starts. This is his first look at the course but, promisingly, his best result this season was third at the China Open so that should spark positive memories on his return to the country.
Luiten has had just one crack at Sheshan International, recovering from an opening 77 in 2014 to finish a respectable T28. A strong year (14th on the Race to Dubai) peaked with his home-soil win at the KLM Open last month although since then he’s been rather flat. One other plus is his second place at the Shenzhen International in China back in April.
T15 and T7 when the European Tour visited China earlier this year but he’ll need a memory jog to recall his last start at Sheshan. That came way back in 2007 when T21. Dredge missed the cut at the British Masters on his last start but he’d made the top 15 in his two previous events and was runner-up at August’s Made in Denmark.
Who’s On The Team?
I’ll list my six-man line-up for the official European Tour Fantasy game in Tuesday’s Playing The Tips feature.
One To Swerve?
I don’t think he’ll perform terribly but Branden Grace has been lacking a spark in recent events due to a cold putter.