5. Brooks Koepka
Can the newest World No. 1 go back-to-back? Koepka’s victory at the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges was impressive; he went 21-under on an allegedly tough course, but he will be facing a tougher field this week, and a whole new kind of pressure.
The West course at Sheshan International was where Brooks opened his PGA Tour Player of the Year season in 2018, finishing T2 after a 64-68 Thursday-Friday stretch.
A World Golf Championship is one of the few things missing from his resume, so he will continue to be highly motivated and there should be no worry that this tournament is not big enough for the ultimate big game hunter.
World Rank: 1st
Field Rank: 1st
Last Six: 1, 7, 26, 19, 12, 8
4. Justin Rose
The defending WGC-HSBC Champions victor is Rose, who overcame an astonishing 8-stroke deficit after 54-holes at last year’s event, his third finish inside the top 7 at Shenshan in just five attempts.
Rose was far from a one-trick pony in 2018 either: just three of his 19 starts worldwide resulted in finishes outside the top 23, a big part of the reason why he won the 2018 season-long FedExCup Championship. Nine of his 11 starts in the past five months have concluded with a top-10 paycheck, and he is especially hot as of late, finishing the FedExCup Playoffs on a 2-2-T4 tear.
The man who finished second to Dustin Johnson in birdie average, scoring average, and strokes gained: total, posted a season that was second to none in 2018, and there is no reason to expect a drop-off in 2019. As we saw on Sunday at the Ryder Cup, Rose’s kryptonite appears to be Webb Simpson, but the 2018 PLAYERS Champion is spending this next week somewhere other than Shenshan International.
World Rank: 3rd
Field Rank: 3rd
Last Six: 8, 4, 2, 2, MC, 19
3. Rory McIlroy
Undeniably a superstar talent, Rory struggled to find consistency in his game for most of 2018, but looked much more composed late in the season, going T12-S5-T7 over the last three legs of the FedExCup Playoffs.
He is well-rested after an up-and-down performance at the Ryder Cup, and has an incredible history at the HSBC Champions with five top-6 finishes in seven attempts at Shenshan International.
Shockingly, only one of his past 42 starts anywhere have resulted in a victory (2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational), but the World No. 5 appears primed to return to the acme of the golf world. It would be surprising if Rory does not collect a mammoth paycheck in China this week.
World Rank: 5th
Field Rank: 4th
Last Six: 7, 5, 12, 50, 6, 2
2. Dustin Johnson
DJ has top-5 finishes in three of his past four attempts at Sheshan, including a victory in 2013, but all everyone will want to talk about this week is the six-stroke 54-hole lead he squandered in last year’s edition, when he hacked his way to a birdie-free Sunday 5-over 77.
When discussing most players, the painful memories associated with the way he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory would be a prime factor in considering his chances, but few, if any, players on Tour have more experience with this kind of thing. The 34-year-old has consistently proven himself to have a short memory, winning 19 times in the last 11 seasons, including 10 in the past three, and his five WGC victories is the second-most all-time.
This will be DJ’s 2019 debut, and while he failed to add a second major to his resume last season, he was a Stat God, finishing first on Tour in scoring average, birdie average, putting average, strokes gained: off-the-tee, strokes gained: tee-to-green, and strokes gained: total.
He will have some demon’s to exercise in China this year, but nobody in the field is a better bet to contend.
World Rank: 2nd
Field Rank: 2nd
Last Six: 3, 24, 7, 11, 27, 3
1. Tony Finau
This will be the 2019 season debut for the 29-year-old Finau, who did everything but win in 2018. His eleven top-10s in 2018 was fewer than only Dustin Johnson’s 12, and he was the runner-up three times.
He was especially strong late in the year, posting top-8 finishes in three of four FedExCup Playoff events. It is borderline-shocking that Finau has only played four career WGC events, given where his profile has reached, but the second-best of those was a T11 at last year’s HSBC Champions, where he opened with a 5-under 67.
His strengths are congruous with what the average champion in this event looks like; he was 4th on Tour last year in driving distance and 17th in greens in regulation. He got further up the mountain last season than he ever has, and will be looking to summit this season. Expect big things.
World Rank: 17th
Field Rank: 10th
Last Six: 10, 15, 8, 4, 2, 42
Next Five: Cameron Smith, Matt Wallace, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele