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WGC-HSBC Champions - A historical possibility?
November 2, 2011

November's WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai could mark the first time golf has ended a year with all the Majors and WGC titles in the hands of first-time winners. It could crown a champion marking his emergence from a crowded landscape as the game's next dominant player. On the other hand, any one of a host of up-and-coming talents could make their breakthrough victory on the global stage. Either way, as Tim Maitland reports, it's extremely likely to produce yet another landmark moment for golf in Asia.

On a Monday morning in Shanghai one of the men who had just spent four hectic days delivering the global TV coverage of the WGC-HSBC Champions wearily let his knife and fork fall onto his breakfast and breathed out an exhausted sigh.

"This tournament has packed 15 years of history into five years!" he said, his brain as scrambled as the eggs on his plate.

Last year, Tiger Woods arrived in China and relinquished the world number one spot he'd held in a vice-like grip for 281 consecutive weeks. For the first time since the Official World Golf Rankings were introduced in 1997, four players had the chance to take the top spot. It was the newly crowned Lee Westwood who retained that crown even as he lost out to Francesco Molinari in the so-called Duel on the Bund, arguably the greatest display of world-class tournament golf Asia has ever seen.

The year before, what few remaining doubts there were about bestowing WGC status on an event in China - "One of the most significant steps ever taken in the globalization of golf, and one of the most logical," according to PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem - were dispelled by the sight of the eventual winner Phil Mickelson and the then undisputed heavyweight champion of the golfing world Tiger Woods in the final group on the final day.

This year, you could argue, history has already been made: Tiger, winner of a stunning 16 of the 36 World Golf Championships events he's played, hasn't qualified for the event he has repeatedly referred to as "the crowning jewel of Asian golf".

More history can be made if this year's event follows the ever-increasing global trend of a newcomer winning at the highest level. So far in 2011 all of the Majors and all of the WGC events - Charl Schwartzel (Masters), Rory McIlroy (US Open), Darren Clarke (Open), Keegan Bradley (PGA Championship), Luke Donald (WGC-Accenture Match Play), Nick Watney (WGC- Cadillac Championship) and Adam Scott (WGC-Bridgestone Invitational) - have been claimed by players who had never won before in that stratosphere. Since the World Golf Championship events were introduced in 1999, there's never been a year that has ended with all the titles and all the Majors owned by first-timers.

"We're expecting the unexpected, simply because it's been such an unusually unpredictable season for golf," said Giles Morgan, HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship.

"Then again, we get 78 of the world's top golfers, who have all qualified either because they've won in the past 12 months or because they're in the top 25 in the world. As Yang Yong-Eun proved as a little-known player internationally back in 2006, almost every player in the field has the ability to win in Shanghai!"

No Shortage of Contenders

Contemplating who that might be is a tantalizing prospect, not least because it encompasses a number of players who, in different ways, are opening up new horizons for their sport.

A win for "KJ" Choi Kyung-Ju wouldn't come as a surprise; although the Korean's win at the Players Championship this year was the biggest of his career, it would also cause some debate among PGA Tour circles about whether he qualifies as a first-timer given how highly it rates the unofficial "fifth Major". What would be beyond debate is the fact that, with the HSBC Champions' WGC status, a win for Choi would represent the biggest victory in Asia by an Asian golfer. Curiously, considering his six top-ten finishes in Majors, KJ's WGC record isn't nearly as impressive.

One of the hottest players is arguably another of the younger generation of American golfers, Webb Simpson. The 26-year-old from North Carolina, in his third full year on the PGA Tour, was knocking on the door for much of the season, missing out by a stroke at the Transitions Championship to Gary Woodland and losing in a play-off to Bubba Watson at the Zurich Classic. He broke through at the Wyndham Championship in August and followed up with victory in the Deutsche Bank Championship in the second event of the FedEx Cup.

Bjorn Again

Given the way that the big tournament victories have been scattered amongst the geographies and the generations in the wake of Tiger's decline, why wouldn't someone like Thomas Bjorn throw his hat into the ring?

The 40-year-old Dane has arguably been the surprise of the season on the European Tour, having ended a four-year wait with a win in 2010. In the autumn of his career he's enjoyed an Indian summer, winning the Commercialbank Qatar Masters and adding the Johnnie Walker Championship and Omega European Masters in successive weeks.

His country's most successful golfer, Bjorn, a former Ryder Cup player and runner-up in the 2000 and 2003 Open Championships and the 2005 PGA Championship, hadn't qualified for any of the WGC tournaments since 2007, until this year. Needless to say, he is one of the most enthusiastic entries in the Shanghai field.

"I'm going! It's a great tournament! All these World Golf Championships are great. It's a short field. It's nice when you get out there that it's four rounds from the get-go and you just go. It maybe puts you into a different mindset at times; that you don't need to get off to a quick start. Of course I'll go and I'm looking forward to it," says the Dane.

"It's all down to the field. It's had great support from the beginning and that's what makes good events," he adds.

The Next Big Thing?

Almost as intoxicating is the thought of this year's WGC-HSBC Champions providing a sneak preview of who among the recent first-time Major and WGC winners might separate themselves from the pack.

There have been 13 different Major champions in the last 13 Majors, and the last nine WGC tournaments have also been claimed by different players. The only similar period in golf history was from 1957 to 1959. That was when Sam Snead and Byron Nelson had begun their decline and eight of the nine Majors were won by first-timers. Among those newcomers were a couple of fresh faces that are now household names. Logic suggests that somewhere in the HSBC Champions field is a player who can win the way that Gary Player and Arnold Palmer went on to do.

Top of that list would have to be 22-year-old Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy, who massively impressed his fellow professionals with the way he rebounded from his final round meltdown when leading this year's Masters Tournament to claim the next Major 10 weeks later. That was a disaster, at least in golfing terms, that most men would have taken months, if not years, to recover from, and suggests a mental strength that, together with his prodigious talent, promises greatness.

Could it be Martin Kaymer? He might be feeling the need to put an exclamation mark to the end of what has been, by his standards, a disappointing year. The 26-year old German not only won his first Major at the 2010 PGA Championship, but also claimed trophies in his next two starts (The KLM Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship). He started 2011 just as hot, winning the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship in the UAE in imperious fashion in January and moving up to number one in the world when he finished second at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February. Since the Masters, his play hasn't been quite as formidable nor as consistent; not that he's the first player to suffer a drop in form after preparing to contend at Augusta, which could be incentive enough as the season nears it's close.

Another possibility is Keegan Bradley, who, while not as precocious as McIlroy, has rocketed into the spotlight in his rookie season on the PGA Tour. Having graduated through the Hooters and Nationwide Tours, the 25-year-old nephew of LPGA legend Pat Bradley claimed the Byron Nelson Championship in May and in August became only the third player in history to win his first Major - the PGA Championship. Interestingly, considering some wondered how willing the American players would be to travel to China when the HSBC Champions was granted WGC status, Bradley claims to be a fan of the event, even though this is the first time he'll play in it.

"I've watched that tournament on TV for as long as it's been there. I can remember a lot of the holes. It's exciting to think I've qualified to play in that tournament. I always think of that 18 th hole and the water on the right with the huge red HSBC pyramid floating in the water. That's what comes to my mind... and the 16 th : I remember when (in the final round in 2009) Phil slid his wedge right under and then chipped it and made par. I remember that. It's a great tournament. It's going to be an honour to go there. It's an exciting thing. For a rookie like me, it's a no-brainer; that's one of the highlights of the schedule," says Bradley, adding that all the feedback he got from the other pros when his Byron Nelson win guaranteed his ticked to China was positive.

"Everyone's got nothing but great things to say. I would be honoured to play. Every single person I've talked to says it's a great experience. They just said China's a really cool place and that the tournament treats you great and cater to whatever the player needs, which is really, really cool. I've played on a lot of mini Tours and they do just about the opposite of that. When you get out here and get to be treated like this, it is a pleasure."

Significance Everywhere

Of course it's presumptuous to just assume that a seven-year-old event is destined to be more than just another event in the almost year-long hustle and bustle of tournament golf, but the HSBC Champions really has packed far more history into its brief existence than most events get in their lifetime.

Almost every win has had some sort of greater significance. "YE" Yang Yong-Eun's win in 2006, at the time arguably Asia's greatest triumph given that he saw off Tiger and a host of other in-form contending Major champions, was, with hindsight, a portent that this relatively little-known four-time winner on the Japan Tour would in 2009 become Asia's first male Major champion. In 2007 Phil Mickelson's win was symbolic of the golf world opening its eyes to the rest of the world. Until that time, "Leftie's" only other overseas win was very early in his career on Europe's development tour.

Sergio Garcia's victory in 2008 was at the time a major milestone for golf in Asia. He leapt to number two in the world, the first time an event in the region had impacted such lofty heights in the Official World Golf Rankings.

Then there's the fact that Yang and 2010 winner Francesco Molinari both had to produce near immaculate performances to get their wins. The week, before he made history by lifting the PGA Championship, the Korean was still describing the HSBC Champions as "my perfect tournament" and one he tried to replicate every week. Molinari, who was finishing a fantastic 12 months that included winning the Omega Mission Hills World Cup with his older brother Edoardo and representing Europe at the Celtic Manor Ryder Cup, feels the same way.

"Definitely! It's probably the best golf I've played so far. You try to remember what you did and how you did it and try to repeat it as many times as possible throughout the year. What is left for me from that week are the feelings that I had on the golf course; being competitive, being really in the moment and just the attitude I had on the golf course, rather than the game itself," Francesco reveals.

"It's a great week. The golf course is just phenomenal. If you play well you can make a few birdies. The greens are always perfect so you can hole putts, but if you start struggling a bit it can be really hard and it becomes really easy to make bogies and lose shots. It's just a great test of golf. There are some great holes. I think as a test of golf it's one of the greatest courses we play all year, because it's really fair and conditions are always perfect," adds the younger Molinari, who after trying to retain his HSBC Champions title will also defend the World Cup in Guangdong.

"I defended in Italy a few years ago and it's a different feeling when you're playing to defend the title; you want to do well even more than in a normal week. I just have to be patient and play my game and not worry about what's happening around me; just try to play the best golf I can. It's going to be different! We won the World Cup in China and now I've won in Shanghai; obviously I really like playing in China. It's going to be fun to be back there another year."

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