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Across the Pond

WGC-HSBC Champions Preview

by Matt Cooper
Updated On: October 23, 2018, 4:56 am ET

Last week's rain in Spain (plus frequent thunder and lightning) resulted in a messy conclusion to the European Tour's regular season, but now, with the card-chasing completed for 2018, attention turns to the top of the rankings, starting with the final World Golf Championship event of the year.
The large purses on offer for the next month means that the fortunes of players in the Race to Dubai are volatile - and so are Fantasy Game hopes too.
Talking of volatile, last year's finale witnessed a scrap between Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose that had a touch of the erratic about it. Eventually Rose made up eight shots on Johnson in the final round to claim the title, as the American posted 77.
Volatile is also a word you could use about the top of the world rankings currently and guess what? The same three men have been at number one in the last few weeks and all have the potential to return there at the conclusion of Sunday's play. A repeat of last year's excitement would then have extra edge.
We've plenty of course form to ponder as Sheshan International GC hosts the WGC-HSBC Champions for an eighth time and this preview focuses only on those players eligible for the European Tour's official Fantasy Game.
Sheshan International Golf Club
The layout measures 7,261 yards and plays to a par of 72. Designed by Robin Nelson and Neil Haworth, it is tree-lined and features Bentgrass greens. There are water hazards aplenty with the 16th and 17th played over a water-filled quarry. Long-hitters and plotters have all thrived down the year.
Past winners, winning scores and stats
2017 Justin Rose (DD: NA, DA: 29, GIR: 3, Scr: 42, PA: 7, AA: 8)
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: Eight of the nine tournament winners were veterans of either the Ryder or Presidents Cup, suggesting classy types are required (even the exception - Russell Knox - has twice come mighty close to the Ryder Cup). Five of them hailed from Europe.
The Weather
The temperature is predicted to start in the low 70s on Thursday and slowly descend throughout the week, whilst always remaining sunny. There is the outside chance of shower on Thursday or Friday. Wind will be pretty non-existent, perhaps up to 11mph at times, but more often less than that. 
The Leading Contenders
Justin Rose
The Englishman started the final round eight swings back of Dustin Johnson 12 months ago and ended it two clear. It owed much to the American's collapse but it was also a ruthless effort and his third top seven finish in just four visits to the course. That win came flush in the middle of a run of nine worldwide top tens and he's now on a trot of four of them. What he lacks since the Fort Worth Invitational in May is a win and he's also now a former world number one. It's an on-going question: How will he deal with such a brief experience of top spot?
Rory McIlroy
You have to believe that the Northern Irishman is looking forward to putting this season to bed. Yes he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but that's it and it is a pitiful return for a player of his ability. He's been second at 54 holes (including shares) in his last two starts but not won and that's no surprise: He's been top three with a round to go eight times his year and only has the Bay Hill success to show for it. Six course visits have reaped six top 11 finishes but only once has he been closer than six swings from the lead with a round to go and that was four (in 2011).
Tommy Fleetwood
His course record is the kind which frustrates because it is consistent but of the wrong kind: Four starts, four top 30s, not one top 15 (a best of T18 on debut in 2013). Better news is that his last four starts have all been T11 or better and he is also on record as saying he is hungry to chase down his Ryder Cup partner and friend Francesco Molinari in the Race to Dubai. The hunted man last year, he's looking forward to being the hunter this time around.
Jon Rahm
Not an especially promising debut for the big Spaniard last year, when he recorded laps of 72-74-69-73 to end the week T36, fully 14 swings back of the winner. He's also not been seen playing for himself since the Tour Championship where he failed, for the fourth start in a row, to make the top ten. Against that he made a solid Ryder Cup debut and ended it on a high, defeating Tiger Woods. He finished third and second in his first two WGC starts, but has now gone another five without a top 15.
Francesco Molinari
Some year for the Italian and this week might be a neat reminder of it all. Yet he achieved BMW PGA Championship success, a first PGA Tour win, Open Championship glory and Ryder Cup superstardom whilst the chaser. This week he is the man at the top of the Race to Dubai and the daily questions will focus on him being the prey. How will he cope? He ought to have little fear of the course. He won on it in 2010 and owns another four top tens.
Paul Casey
The Englishman has been a long term visitor to this track, making headway on it as far back as 2005 when it was a regular tour stop. In his ten completed finishes (he withdrew when faring well in 2009) he has never finished worse than T23. Moreover he has eight efforts of T12 or better. In all of China he has one win in 26 starts, making the top ten 14 times. T3 after 36 holes in the CIMB Classic he fell back at the weekend but he has so far notched T13-T18 on this mini-Asian swing.
Tyrrell Hatton
The Englishman looks like he is getting to grips with the Sheshan International challenge. In 2015 he was T54, failing to break 70 once. A year later he was T23 (yet bear in mind he actually ended the week one shot further back of the leader). Last year was his best yet: T11. Couldn't quite land the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship hat-trick (he was second), he had a tough start in last week's CJ Cup (72-73) but closed 68-66 for T14.
Alex Noren
Five course visits for the Swede and he's yet to suggest that he's a sparkling fit for the examination. His best finish was T12 in 2016, followed by T19 on debut in 2009. That year he was ten swings back of the 54-hole leader and he's never been that close since. Of course he is a much better golfer now than in the past, but he hasn't made a top ten since the Open de France on the first day of July.
Rafa Cabrera Bello
Two starts at Sheshan and the Spaniard should have plenty of reasons to be happy to return. He was T19 on debut without ever looking like getting closer, but he was fifth for Greens in Regulation and built on it, tagging T5 last year. His inability to find the top five after June's Italian Open cost him a second Ryder Cup appearance and he finally returned to that altitude with a pair of weekend 65s last week in the CJ Cup (T3).
Patrick Reed
Not seen on the course since the tumultuous Ryder Cup the big question is how he will cope with any questions regarding his grumbling about America's defeat, Jim Furyk's captaincy and his partnerships. It's all quite intriguing. Hasn't made a PGA Tour top ten since he was T4 in the U.S. Open and has a varied course record: T7 in 2015 his only top 20 in four attempts; he was T60 in 2016 and T50 last year. Both times he posted a 66 and still recorded those poor results.
The Next Rung
Xander Schauffele
This might not be a course that shouts his name (he was T46 on debut without breaking 70), but don't make the mistake of assuming he's not up for selection: He owns ET membership and is currently 22nd on the Race to Dubai. Four top 20s (three top tens) in seven major starts and three top 20s in five WGC starts is a reminder of his class and ability to perform at the highest level.
Matthew Fitzpatrick
Not many golfers break 70 four times in a week at Sheshan International, but the Englishman did just that when T7 on debut in 2015. He was T16 a year later, courtesy of a final lap 65, and T9 12 months ago. More recently he was the winner of the European Masters and then T16 in the British Masters.
Ian Poulter
A winner of the event when it was held at Missions Hills in 2012, he was also runner-up on this layout in 2013 and sixth in 2014. Sharing second after 54 holes last week in Korea, he fell back for T10 in the final round, but it would be typical of him to bounce back and don't forget what we pointed out in The Roundup: Poulter owns eight wins in 439 career starts January to September; he owns another eight in just 85 October to December appearances.
Thorbjorn Olesen
He didn't play a huge role in the Ryder Cup, but he completed a fine destruction of Jordan Spieth in the singles and then took the week off. His return to action saw him log a missed cut in the British Masters so what comes next? He's played some good golf at this course: T6 on debut in 2014, an opening 64 in 2015 (T19) and T31 on his other appearance last year.
Byeong Hun An
He's made two starts on the course and played the first three round in very different style. On debut in 2015 he shot 69-68-68 to start, was five back, a 72 saw him finish T19. A year later he opened 74-75-76 to be 26 shots back and a 71 didn't help much (T63). T13 in the CIMB Classic then T4 after 18 holes in the CJ Cup before falling back.
HaoTong Li
The 23-year-old was just one shot back of the 54-hole lead in this tournament in 2015 after rounds of 66-69-66 before eventually ending the week T7. But in recent weeks he has looked ready to rediscover his winning form. He was inside the top five at halfway in the KLM Open and Portugal Masters, then completed top tens in both the Dunhill Links (T5) and British Masters (T9).
Eddie Pepperell
A course and tournament debut for the two-time winner in 2018. His record in China won't inspire too much faith however. He's made six starts, all European Tour co-sanctioned events, only once made the top 40 and has a best of T26. Against that he has six top tens in his last nine starts.
Russell Knox
Finished second in the Open de France, won the Irish Open and then hit the wall. In seven starts since then he has a best of T35. This would be a good place to bounce back however. He won on debut in 2015 by two shots and was second after 54 holes in 2016 before a 74, his only failure to shoot in the 60s in eight rounds, saw him finish T9.
Lucas Bjerregaard
A course and tournament debut for the Dane who has six top 20s on the trot, five of them T9 or better. He also has a sneaky fondness for golf in China. In 11 starts he has eight top 25s and five of those are top six. 
Branden Grace
The bookies have been swayed by his poor form (no top ten since May), but he won the China Open back in 2012, was T5 in this event in 2015 and T15 last year. He's also landed over 80% of Greens in Regulation the last two weeks in Asia, the first time he's done that since this time last year.
Matt Wallace
A three-time winner this season, has been T2 or better after 18 holes in his last three starts and is motivated to prove doubters wrong. The flipside is that this is his WGC debut and he's only 1-for-4 in the majors.
Kiradech Aphibarnrat
The big Thai has struggled to show his best on this course (five starts, best of T24 last year), but he has improved every time (74-66-55-30-24) and did open with a 65 12 months ago. A winner in China in 2015 (Shenzhen International).
Alexander Bjork
The Swede returns for a third visit to China of this European Tour season and he's fared nicely in the past. He was second in the Hong Kong Open and won the China Open. 
Alexander Levy
Has to enter the equation off the back of a stunning record in China. He's collected 11 top 30 finishes in 14 starts, eight of them top 20, six top ten and two of those wins. T14 on course debut in 2014.
Shubhankar Sharma
Top 15 in both the Hong Kong and China Opens this year, shared the 54-hole lead in the CIMB Classic two weeks ago and a return to the WGC will remind him of one of many seasonal highs: When he led the Mexico Championship by two after three rounds.
Erik van Rooyen
Exactly 53 weeks ago he won the Hainan Open on the Challenge Tour to confirm his graduation to the European Tour and tweeted: "China, I love you." Missed his last two cuts and did the same in both the Hong Kong and China Opens, but stranger things have happened.
Ashun Wu
Winner of the 2015 China Open, recent winner on the ET in the KLM Open and very experienced on the course. In his first four starts he struggled (best of T33), but his last four appearances have reaped three top 25s including T14 in 2014.
Who's On The Team?
The quality of Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy can't be denied whilst the long term form in China of Paul Casey and Ian Poulter is similarly persuasive.
Elsewhere I'm tempted by the potential of Lucas Bjerregaard, the reawakened form of Rafa Cabrera Bello and the verve of home favorite HaoTong Li.
The full team will be revealed in Tuesday's Expert Picks column.
One To Swerve
Patrick Reed's competitiveness might prompt a good week, but his past record suggests there will always be a big number in him on this track. Happy to leave him out on that basis.