Political unrest over the past century in the densely-populated world superpower of China has resulted in a poor historical imprint on the world of golf, but Shenshan International Golf Club – widely recognized as the country’s best course, will enjoy four days in the spotlight as the last elite field of the 2018 calendar year congregates there this week for the WGC-HSBC Champions.
Last year’s event saw one of the most prodigious comebacks in PGA Tour history, as former Olympic Gold Medal winner Justin Rose overcame an eight-shot 54-hole deficit to take the 2018 title over a dejected Dustin Johnson.
This year’s event could be one of the best yet, as it represents the first tournament at the top of the world rankings for reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year Brooks Koepka.
In addition to Koepka, who won the U.S. Open and PGA Championship last season, tournament headliners include Rose, Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Open Championship Golfer of the Year Francesco Molinari, Jon Rahm, Masters Champion Patrick Reed, and Tommy Fleetwood.
This field comprises many A-list golfers, but here are the 15 we believe have the best chance of leaving Shanghai on top:
15. Thorbjorn Olesen
The world’s highest-ranked Dane at No. 45 in the OWGR, the 28-year-old Olesen is coming off a career season, with a victory at the Italian Open, a runner-up at the BMW PGA Championship, and a T3 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational among his five top-six finishes in 2018.
Even more impressive might have been his singles performance at last month’s Ryder Cup, where he obliterated Jordan Spieth 5&4 on Sunday for the victorious European squad.
The stage was not too big for him in Paris, and it is unlikely to be too big for him in Shanghai either. The diminutive bomber is likely to spend considerable time on the first page of the leaderboard this weekend, at an HSBC Champions event where he has already posted three finishes inside the top 20 in just four attempts.
World Rank: 45th
Field Rank: 30th
Last Six: MC, 20, 20, 4, 56, 3, 12
14. Ian Poulter
The outspoken Brit is hoping that last week’s T10 finish at the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges will kick-start a new winning streak for the man who beat up on then-World No. 1 Dustin Johnson for the winning European squad at last month’s Ryder Cup.
Coming off a PGA Tour season where a victory at the Houston Open was the highlight among nine top-25 finishes, Poulter looks like a good bet at a tournament where he has starred before, winning the 2012 edition (although at a different course) and finishing inside the top 13 in five of his last six attempts.
Poluter had just six bogeys through four rounds in South Korea last week, and similar avoidance would likely lead to a high finish in Shanghai.
World Rank: 35th
Field Rank: 22nd
Last Six: 10, 51, MC, 48, 31, 10
13. Haotong Li
The future of golf in China might lay in the extraordinarily capable hands of 23-year-old Chinese native Haotong Li, who in just five seasons has showcased a game well beyond his years.
Li captured the attention of the worldwide golf community when a final-round 63 at the 2017 Open Championship engendered a solo-third place finish, but he has continued to star on the European Tour, where he is coming off consecutive finishes inside the top 10.
His best performance in the calendar year as his victory at January’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic, a high-end event where he outdueled a motivated Rory McIlroy on Sunday. Despite his youth, Li will be making his sixth career start at the HSBC Champions this week, where he will have a crowd representing the world’s most populous country cheering on his every move.
World Rank: 54th
Field Rank: 37th
Last Six: 9, 5, 27, 24, MC, WD
12. Eddie Pepperell
If the European Tour followed the NBA’s lead and handed out a “Most Improved Player” award, the 2018 recipient could very well be Pepperell, as the affable Brit has vaulted from 133rd in the world rankings to 34th, posting two of his three career victories and two of his three career runner-ups inside the last 12 months.
The latest of those victories took place just two weeks ago, as Pepperell landed inside the winner’s circle at the Sky Sports British Masters, besting a strong field that included Justin Rose (8th), Tommy Fleetwood (T9), and Haotong Li (T9).
Now 7th in the Race to Dubai standings, Pepperell will be exceptionally motivated to keep his foot on the gas pedal. The man who saw his international profile explode with a stellar Sunday at the Open Championship will be making his WGC debut, but based on his recent form, that lack of experience is only a minor concern.
World Rank: 34th
Field Rank: 21st
Last Six: 1, 44, 2, 6, 56, 9
11. Tyrrell Hatton
Knowing how ridiculously hot-and-cold the ostentatious 27-year-old Brit runs, Hatton’s 68-66 weekend at last week’s CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges in South Korea, one event after a runner-up finish at the European Tour’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, should raise a bright green flag.
When he is hot, he is impossible to ignore, and he is hot coming into an event where he finished T11 a year ago. He has yet to win in 2018, after winning three times over the past two seasons. Nobody should be surprised if that changes before December 31st.
World Rank: 23rd
Field Rank: 15th
Last Six: 14, 2, 29, 12, 20, 10
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