Just one week remains in the PGA Tour’s annual three-event Asian swing, and this is the week with the highest stakes.
An exclusive field featuring much of the world’s best are in Shanghai, China this week for the new season’s first World Golf Championships event – the WGC-HSBC Champions.
Shenshan International will again play host to the event, one which saw then-World No. 1 Dustin Johnson squander a six-stroke 54-hole lead, getting passed by Justin Rose, who began Sunday eight strokes behind.
Widely known as the best course in China, Shenshan has seen a great deal of drama in its history, and it will be a surprise if this year’s edition is not intense as well.
There are many juicy storylines at the last elite-field event of 2018, but here are four of the most intriguing:
1. Justin Rose Defends
The 2017-18 PGA Tour season was largely defined by comebacks, particularly that of Tiger Woods, but looking at each event separately, the biggest comeback of the season happened right here at Shenshan International, where a Sunday 67 from Justin Rose closed an eight-shot deficit after 54-holes.
After playing his front nine even-par, Rose exploded on the back-nine, and aided by an implosion from 54-hole leader Dustin Johnson, the Englishman finished the day – and the tournament, two strokes clear of DJ, Henrik Stenson, and Brooks Koepka.
The eight-stroke comeback was the third biggest in PGA Tour history.
Over the past 12 months, nobody has performed consistently better than Rose. After his triumph at the HSBC Champions, Rose would go on to win three more times worldwide, in addition to three runner-ups. Since teeing up in China one year ago, Rose has an astounding 18 top-10s in 25 events, and finished outside the top 25 just three times.
That plethora of quality results combined with a 2-2-T4 tear in the final three rounds of the FedExCup Playoffs, secured the season-long FedExCup Championship – and the accompanying $10 million check, for Rose.
Since winning the FedExCup, Rose has made two appearances. He was relied on heavily for the winning European squad at the Ryder Cup, validating captain Thomas Bjorn’s confidence in him with a 2-2-0 record. He then finished T8 at the British Masters just two weeks ago.
Currently ranked No. 3 in the OWGR, Rose should be adequately rested for his 2018-19 PGA Tour season debut. His stellar tee-to-green game – he finished fourth on Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green last season – makes him an especially big threat on shot-makers courses, a phrase that fits Shenshan to a tee.
2. How Will DJ Respond?
As tremendous as Rose’s HSBC Champions comeback was last year, there was a far less glamorous side: the side of the man who squandered the lead, then World No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
DJ dominated Shenshan through three rounds, posting 68-63-68 and holding a seemingly insurmountable six-stroke lead going into Sunday. The man who finished first on Tour last season in birdie average was unable to notch a single gain in his final round, carding five bogeys to 13 pars, and stumbling to a 5-over 77 that dropped him into a tie for second-place.
The Sunday implosion was especially surprising because DJ had been successful in that position so many times throughout his career.
Five of the 16 career victories he had at the time were in WGC events, the second-most in WGC history, but Johnson was just unable to get anything going in round 4. Suddenly, he had reverted back to his younger self that was notoriously poor at closing on the biggest stages.
DJ was able to rebound and post another quality season. In 20 events, he tallied three victories, two runner-ups, and three third-place finishes. His 12 top-10s for the season was the most of anyone on Tour.
Statistically, he was a monster, also 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.
On the downside, a solo third-place finish at the U.S. Open was his only taste of 2018 major championship contention. He keeps racking up victories, 19 of them in fact, but there is a sense that someone with so many trophies should have more than just one major championship (2016 U.S. Open).
Johnson may be coming off a strong season, but he is not coming to his 2018-19 PGA season debut in the best form. His last action was at the Ryder Cup, where he was a disaster for the losing American side, going a dismal 1-4-0 in five matches, and dropping his Sunday singles match to Ian Poulter.
It is also questionable where DJ is at mentally, as he has made recent off-course news for rumored animosity between himself and both close friend Brooks Koepka, and long-time fiancee Paulina Gretzky. He may have too much on his plate to give 100% in an event where he suffered a high-profile collapse just one year ago.
3. New No. 1 Brooks Koepka
2018 has seen four players claim the coveted No. 1 position in the Official World Golf Rankings. Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, and after his dominant victory at last week’s CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges, Brooks Koepka elevated to that position for the first time in his career.
This week represents Koepka’s first tournament as the No. 1.
Leading the OWGR might be unfamiliar territory for the Florida State bomber, but he certainly has experience being on top. Just last week, he was named the PGA Tour Player of the Year, an easy choice coming off a season where he won two majors (U.S. Open, PGA Championship). He won the award despite missing three months of the season, including The Masters, with a wrist injury that he worried could end his career.
He has a well-earned reputation as a big-game hunter, having won three of the last six major championships he has entered, including going back-to-back at the U.S. Open on diametrically opposite courses (Erin Hills, Shinnecock Hills). Surprisingly, his win in South Korea was just his second career PGA Tour victory in a non-major.
As a bomber, who can also putt, there is little reason to think that Koepka will not continue to thrive on the world’s biggest golf tour. He is among the favorites in Shanghai this week, both due to his strong recent form, and his co-runner-up finish in this event last year, where a 64-68 start got him into the final Sunday pairing. His 1-under 71 in the final round was impressive when considering that his playing partner, Dustin Johnson, absolutely imploded.
4. European Flavor
Among the European contingency teeing up in Shanghai this week, Justin Rose will likely get the most attention as the defending champion, but he is not the only A-lister from that region of the world.
Here are a few more European stalwarts who figure to get in the mix at Shenshan:
The four-time major champion has surprisingly won just once over the past two years (2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational), but that could change this week, as he has a phenomenal history at this event. In six starts, he has finished 4, 5, T4, T6, T11, and T4 respectively. McIlroy played well in the final three legs of the FedExCup playoffs, and in his last action, he went 2-2-0 at the Ryder Cup.
The European Tour’s Race to Dubai season is winding down, and 2017 Champion Fleetwood is hoping to go back-to-back. He currently sits at No. 2, trailing only Italy’s Francesco Molinari. Fleetwood is a tremendous talent, but he has a proclivity for combining great rounds with poor ones, which was well-illustrated in his most recent event, the British Masters, where he chased a round one 67 with a round 2 77. He finished T9 in what was his first event since scoring four points for the winning European team at the Ryder Cup, mostly while paired with Molinari.
The 23-year-old from Spain has played Shenshan just once, placing T36 last year, but he has proven himself to be a threat at any type of event. His 2018 PGA Tour season was a minor disappointment, but he did win the CareerBuilder Challenge in January and placed T4 in two of the four majors (Masters, PGA Championship). He finished the season third in strokes gained: off-the-tee, and 11th in greens in regulation, a formula that has proven success here.
Pepperell will be playing his first career WGC event this week, but he is coming to Shanghai in hot form, having won his last start, which was two weeks ago at the British Masters. For the year, he has two victories and two runner-ups, and he made a lot of fans at the Open Championship, where he rocketed into early Sunday contention.
The star of this year’s Ryder Cup, Molinari went a perfect 5-0-0 for the winning European squad. Now ranked 6th in the world, Molinari won three times in 2018, including his breakthrough major at the Open Championship, in addition to two runner-ups. He won this event in 2010, but has not done a lot in five attempts since. A pristine tee-to-green game gives him a great chance to tie Phil Mickelson as the only players to win the WGC-HSBC Champions twice.