While the WGC-HSBC Champions is just the fourth event of the PGA Tour’s wraparound season it feels like more of an ending than a beginning.
Being a World Golf Championship event, the HSBC Champions awards an exceptionally large purse ($9.75 million) and a greater number of FedExCup points than standard events. As a result of this, along with its place on the schedule, this event is the last of the calendar year that draws an elite field from the two main tours.
Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama, Jon Rahm, Jason Day, Adam Scott, and Phil Mickelson highlight the PGA Tour additions, while the European Tour boasts Tommy Fleetwood, Henrik Stenson, Tyrrell Hatton, Ian Poulter, and Justin Rose, among others.
Played in Shanghai, China, and the final event of the Tour’s Asian swing, the WGC-HSBC Champions offers 2017’s last grade-A contribution to the golf world, at least in regards to global participation.
With no comparable field until next March, this tournament is really one to miss at your own risk.
HISTORY: WGC-HSBC CHAMPIONS
Known as the “crown jewel of Asian golf,” a term coined by Tiger Woods, Sheshan International is unquestionably the best course in China.
Established in 2004, the tournament that is now the WGC-HSBC Champions was first held there in 2005. The event drew strong fields from the start, fields that have gotten even better since the tournament became a World Golf Championship (WGC) event in 2009.
Improving its profile further, it became an official PGA Tour event in 2013. Now, it is an event on both the PGA and European Tours, with the latter using it as the final event of their regular season.
While there have been only 12 editions held so far, the WGC-HSBC Champions boasts an impressive list of winners, which includes Phil Mickelson (twice), Sergio Garcia, Martin Kaymer, Ian Poulter, Dustin Johnson, and Bubba Watson.
NAME: WGC-HSBC Champions
COURSE: Sheshan International Golf Club (West Course)
WHERE: Shanghai, China
DISTANCE: 7266 yards, Par 72
ARCHITECT: Nelson & Haworth
TOTAL PURSE: $9,750,000
WINNING SHARE: $1,700,000
PLAYOFF POINTS: 550 points
2016 WINNER: Hideki Matsuyama
The defending champion of the WGC-HSBC Champions is Hideki Matsuyama. Largely by playing his final 45 holes bogey-free, Matsuyama absolutely blitzed the Sheshan field, reaching 23 under and winning by seven strokes over Henrik Stenson and Daniel Berger.
It marked the first time an Asian-born player won a WGC event, and set up a three-win season for Matsuyama, a Japan native.
2016: FINAL TOP 5
1 Hideki Matsuyama -23
T2 Henrik Stenson -16
T2 Daniel Berger -16
T4 Rory McIlroy -15
T4 Bill Haas -15
2016: Hideki Matsuyama
2015: Russell Knox
2014: Bubba Watson
2013: Dustin Johnson
2012: Ian Poulter
2011: Martin Kaymer
TV & ONLINE
STORYLINE 1: MATSUYAMA’S LOFTY BAR
Hideki Matsuyama was more than a little good in last year’s HSBC Champions. His seven-shot landslide victory was the epitome a one-man show, as the Japanese wunderkind played his last two-and-a-half rounds bogey-free.
In that 45-hole span, Matsuyama was 15-under par, a score that only two other players in the field reached for the entire 72-hole tournament.
Matsuyama’s dominant outing was not his breakthrough performance, though, as the precocious 25-year-old had already asserted himself as one of the best young talents in the game several times, most notably when he won the 2014 Memorial Tournament. But such a thorough beatdown in China put him on a level where his first major felt (and continues to feel) imminent.
The win was part of a hot streak that saw Matsuyama win five times, while finishing runner-up two other times, in just nine international starts – ending with a successful defense at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February.
He cooled off considerably after that torrid stretch of play, but would find his A-game again in the summer, finishing T2 at the U.S Open, T5 at the PGA Championship, and absolutely demolishing the field at the last WGC event of the year, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Matsuyama was surprisingly a huge dud in the FedExCup Playoffs, but in his first performance since the Tour Championship, he finished T5 at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia – largely off the strength of a sizzling third-round 63, giving fans (and gamblers) hope that he might again be in the championship picture at his Sheshan defense.
STORYLINE 2: RED-HOT EUROPEANS
Matsuyama made this tournament look easy 12 months ago, but there are 77 other players in this year’s edition that are motivated to get between him and another trophy. Perhaps no other contingency is in better position to disrupt the Hideki two-peat than a group of red-hot European Tour Players.
While this WGC event marks the beginning, or part of the beginning, of the new season for PGA Tour members, those in the field who make their living chiefly on the European Tour will be playing this tournament with a much different mentality.
For the European players, this is the last event of their tour’s regular season, and signals one final chance to get into peak form and jockey for prime positions before the three-tournament Race to Dubai finale commences next week.
Among those players, these four have been especially tremendous as of late:
After finishing in the top 10 of the final two majors in 2016 and reaching as high as No. 14 in the Official World Golf Rankings, big things were predicted for Hatton in 2017. But those expectations didn’t pan out for the Englishman, as Hatton missed the cut in all four majors, and from the Masters through the PGA Championship, he was just plain horrible.
However, the light has come back on for Hatton, and he’s now suddenly back on a star trajectory. After a ghastly seven-tournament stretch where he had six missed cuts and a T36 (in a no-cut event), Hatton emerged with a T3, a T8, and then two wins in his last four European Tour events.
He has 10 sub-70 rounds in that 12 round stretch, and suddenly, he’s fifth in the Race to Dubai standings, and the hottest player in the field.
If it wasn’t for Hatton’s recent tear, the talk of the golf world would be a different Englishman, 36-year-old Ross Fisher. In both of Hatton’s recent victories, Fisher was the runner-up, and in both of those, he was on different level than everyone else in the final round.
At the Alfred Dunhill Links, his final round 61 set a new record at the historic St. Andrews. It was very nearly a 59. The following week it was a round-four 63 at the Italian Open.
In addition to great recent form, he has also brought his A-game to the last two HSBC Champions, finishing T6 last year and T3 the year prior.
The talented Irishman Dunne hit the international radar when he made the final group on Sunday of the 2015 Open Championship as an amateur. His professional results were a little slow to follow, but he broke through recently when he won the British Masters at the beginning of October – a tournament that was highlighted by his incredible final-round 61.
Dunne followed that win up with a T7 the following week, and is now entering a WGC event in great form.
Fleetwood might not be quite on the tear that Hatton, Fisher, and Dunne are lately, but he has played well enough to hold the No. 1 position in the Race to Dubai standings.
He has posted a round of 63 in his past two tournaments, with the latter leading to a T6 finish.
Fleetwood has also had success in big events before, winning the French Open, taking runner-up honors at the WGC-Mexico, and finishing solo-fourth at the U.S. Open.
STORYLINE 3: ALL EYES ON DJ
For the first time, Dustin Johnson is entering a PGA Tour season ranked No. 1 in the world. Johnson was unable to pull off a second consecutive PGA Tour Player of the Year campaign, but that was due more to the otherworldly 2017 seasons put together by Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth than any regression on DJ’s end.
Johnson won three straight tournaments early in the season, including two in WGC events (WGC-Mexico and WGC-Match Play).
He cooled off somewhat in the aftermath of a Masters injury, but managed to bounce back late in the year, besting Spieth at the Northern Trust Open – the first leg of the FedExCup Playoffs, which allowed him to tally a four-win 2017 season.
Johnson won the WGC-HSBC Champions in 2013, where he set the tournament record by finishing 24-under, which was three strokes better than runner-up Ian Poulter. He sat out his defense the following year, but was T5 in 2015. He was not as impressive last year – finishing with a T35, but coming into this year’s event, he is as feared as anyone in the field.
STORYLINE 4: NATIVE FLAVOR
Despite being the world’s most populous country, China has been slow to assimilate golf into its culture. Former Communist Party Leader Mao Zedong banned the sport entirely during his reign, as he believed it attracted a crowd that was contradictory to Communist ideals.
Future leaders were more friendly to the game of golf, but the sport again took a big hit in 2004, when 111 courses, a significant percentage of those that existed in the country were shut down, allegedly for “water conservation,” and the construction of new courses was halted.
Today, golf is still nowhere near as popular in China as it is in its less-populous, but more free market-driven, neighbors in Asia, such as South Korea and Japan. Despite the political and cultural hurdles, the nation has managed to breed some solid players.
Here are a few of the native Chinese players in the field, who are sure to be a big hit for the home crowd:
The future of Chinese golf might very well be in the hands of the talented 22-year-old Haotong Li.
Playing primarly on the European Tour, Li posted some impressive finishes early in the year, including a runner-up and a third place finish, before a solo-third at the Open Championship put him squarely on the international radar.
That strong finish in England was largely aided by a remarkable final-round 63, the single lowest round in PGA Tour history by a Chinese native. It would have matched a major championship record had Branden Grace not shot a 62 the round prior.
At No. 66 in the world rankings, Li is the only Chinese player ranked inside the top 250.
Nicknamed “Marty”, Dou made waves earlier this year when he won the Web.com Tour’s Digital Ally Open, becoming the first Chinese-born player to win on the Web.com Tour.
Despite being just 20 years of age, Dou has seven career professional victories including four in a seven-event stretch on the PGA Tour China in 2016. Now armed with a PGA Tour card, American fans are likely to become much more familiar with him this season.
Ranked 300th in the world, the 30-year-old Zhang, like Dou, will be taking his talents to the PGA Tour in the upcoming season, as a result of finishing 20th on the Web.com Tour money list in 2017.
Zhang has come a long way since getting banned from the PGA Tour China for six months in 2014 due to twice signing incorrect scorecards.
Many American fans might be familiar with the 39-year-old Liang from when he was a surprise contender at the 2010 PGA Championship.
A third-round 64 at Whistling Straits led to a T8 finish, but he has made little news in the U.S. since. However, he’s been very successful internationally, winning 21 professional events in his career, with most of those coming either in China or on the Japan Tour, where he notched a win earlier this year.
Liang is currently No. 396 in the world.
OTHER NOTABLES IN CHINA
It is safe to say that Phil has broken out of the slump that marred the later months of his most recent season, a slump that coincided with his much-publicized breakup with his long-time caddy.
The ageless 47-year-old posted an impressive T6 finish at the recent Dell Technologies Championship, the second leg of the FedExCup Playoffs. He followed that up by going undefeated for the winning American side at the Presidents Cup, and then finishing T3 at the season-opening Safeway Open in Napa.
Mickelson is confident that his four-year winless drought will end soon, and as a two-time winner of the WGC-HSBC Champions (2007, 2009), it would not be surprising to see him in the mix on Sunday.
At this time last year, Day was the world’s No. 1 ranked golfer, but has looked like it few times since, dropping to his current position of No. 8.
As disappointing as Day’s 2017 season was, his results have been improving as of late, but he has still struggled to string together four good rounds.
That inconsistency was well-illustrated this past weekend at The CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges in South Korea, where Day finished T11. The 29-year old Aussie followed an opening-round 68 with a poor second-round 74.
This will be Day’s first attempt at Sheshan International Golf Club.
Another player making his HSBC Champions debut is 22-year-old Spanish star Jon Rahm.
Rahm was terrible at last week’s Andalucia Valderrama Masters, which was held in his native Spain, missing the cut after finishing the first two rounds at 7-over, but when contrasted with his other recent starts, it looks like an anomaly.
The young Spaniard was phenomenal in the four-tournament FedExCup Playoffs last month, posting results of T3, T4, T5, and T7. With one win on both the PGA and European Tours in 2017, Rahm has shown he can contend anytime, anywhere.
There is no question who the hottest Aussie golfer is at the moment.
After a dominant win at the recent BMW Championship, and runner-up at last week’s CJ Cup, where he reached a playoff against Justin Thomas, Marc Leishman has risen to No. 12 in the world rankings, his highest career rank.
Now 33 years of age, Leishman is in the best form of his career.
Henrik Stenson finished co-runner up at last year’s HSBC Champions, although at seven strokes behind Matsuyama, he was never really in contention, inflicting most of his damage with a Sunday 65.
The 41-year old Swede is coming off a sub-par year by his recent standards, but a win at the Wyndham Championship – the last event of the PGA Tour regular season, took a lot of the sting out. Stenson is hoping to do the same at the last event of the European Tour’s regular season.
After his tough playoff loss to Sergio Garcia at The Masters in April, Justin Rose was AWOL on tournament leaderboards for months. However, he appeared suddenly reinvigorated in September in the FedExCup Playoffs, posting three T10s and a runner-up in the four events.
The Olympic Gold medalist has looked comfortable at Sheshan before, twice posting top-10 finishes.
With Justin Thomas taking the week off, Pat Perez is the hottest American golfer in the HSBC Champions field.
After winning the CIMB Classic in Malaysia just two weeks ago, Perez finished T5 in South Korea, posting the lowest Sunday score in the field. The 41-year old is looking to make it three for three-in-high finishes in the three-week Asian swing.
Credit: Getty Images, PGA Tour Media, OWGR