Shenzhen International Preview, Picks & Analysis
Post by Sports Writer Derek Clements
HE MAY have endured a poor start to the year, but Bubba Watson remains a huge draw and will attract a great deal of attention when he plays in the Shenzhen International for the third successive year.
The left-hander has always been a streaky player, which is hardly surprising considering his unique golf swing. He claims never to have had a lesson - and who would want to own up to having taught anybody that swing?
This is only the third staging of the Shenzhen International and Watson has finished 29th and eighth. Kiradech Aphibarnrat won in 2015 and was followed last year by Soomin Lee, of South Korea.
Watson arrives at Genzon Golf Club looking for some confidence. The two-time Masters champion failed to make the cut at Augusta and is sliding down the world rankings at an alarming rate. But he has high hopes. “I love the golf course,” said Watson. “The course is a good challenge and the finish there is pretty nice. The 17th is a par-five where you can try to make an eagle or a good birdie and on 18th, the tee-shot is so tough, especially when it gets windy, crosswind, and you’re trying to hit over that water.”
The course measures just 7,145 yards, which is like a pitch and putt layout for Watson. It is closed for three weeks leading up to the event, so Watson and his fellow competitors can be certain that it will be in pristine condition. What they can't be quite so sure of is silence when they stand over the ball. The Chinese love their mobile phones, and will not go anywhere without them. And they are also somewhat reluctant to switch them off, which has led to some fun and games in the past. Hopefully, they are now starting to get the message.
Tommy Fleetwood, who is second in the Race to Dubai after Sergio Garcia's Augusta victory, leads the European challenge. With a victory in the Abu Dhabi Championship to his credit this year and a couple of decent performances in the United States, the man from Southport is finally living up to his enormous promise. He worked ferociously hard on his game during the winter and it is paying off - and how. He may be a fairly slight figure, but Fleetwood hits the ball a very long way. His putting remains an area of weakness, but he has now found a way to hole out. If he arrives in China with his eye in, Fleetwood will surely be looking for his second win of the season.
There will be massive pressure on 21-year-old Chinese golfer Li Haotong, who played with Watson in the opening rounds of this tournaments in each of the past couple of years. He lost in a playoff to Aphibarnrat in 2015 when he was still only 19. It was a sign that China might have unearthed a real star, and Li confirmed that when he won his first European Tour title at last year’s Volvo China Open and in February this year he tied for fifth with 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett at the Maybank Championship in Malaysia. In the same way that Japan is desperate to provide a major winner, the same can be said of China, where the game of golf is growing fast. It stands to reason that with such a vast population, if China can encourage mass participation then it is only a matter of time before their leading professionals begin to make a name for themselves on the PGA Tour.
Despite his tender years, Li has the game, and the temperament, to win on any course. He has a fabulous touch around the greens and is a wondrous putter. That is a formidable combination.
Aphibarnrat returns to attempt to win this tournament for the second time. He possesses an old-fashioned golf swing that features a lot of wrist action and has a refreshing approach to golf. He plays quickly and is fearless. The Thai golfer would be the first to admit that the word 'strategy' is anathema to him. He likes to hit the ball hard and then go and find it and hit it again. It is also refreshing to watch a golfer who is so comfortable in his own skin. At a time when almost every young tournament professional seems to be utterly obsessed with fitness and diet, Aphibarnrat makes no secret of the fact that he enjoys his food and wouldn't be seen dead in a gymnasium. He has played poorly lately, but is an utterly natural talent and revels in playing in this part of the world.
The seemingly ageless Thongchai Jaidee is also in the field in a part of the world he adores. The older he gets, the more Jaidee seems to improve and he would be a popular and not unexpected winner.
Thorbjorn Olesen has made it clear that he wants to be a member of Thomas Bjorn's 2018 Ryder Cup team and it would be a surprise if he does not contend for an automatic place. He continues to improve and has now added consistency to his many gifts. Olesen is a man you would want by your side if the going gets tough. He is a wonderful competitor, and he absolutely hates to lose.
Others worth keeping an eye out for this week include Bernd Wiesberger, the Austrian with the swing to die for, the enigmatic Frenchman Victor Dubuisson, and Englishman Andy Sullivan. Scott Hend, of Australia, always seems to play well in Asia and has been showing some great form of late.
And, whisper it, defending champion Soomin Lee could be a dark horse too.
Li Haotong. Class act
Tommy Fleetwood. Completely at ease
Each way: Soomin Lee. Returns with good feelings
Li Haotong. A future world top-10 player
Tommy Fleetwood. If he putts well he will contend
Soomin Lee. Deserved winner last year
Bernd Wiesberger. In need of a good run
Scott Hend. Big hitter, suspect temperament, but a winner
Bubba Watson. Indifferent form cannot continue
Thorbjorn Olesen. Terrific competitor
Andy Sullivan. Never gives less than 100%
Kiradech Aphibarnrat. In search of form
Brandon Stone. Brilliant ball striker
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