WGC HSBC Champions Preview, Picks & Analysis
THIS time last year it seemed that Hideki Matsuyama and Dustin Johnson were going at it hammer and tongs just about every week, and both men have confirmed their entry for the WGC-HSBC Champions at Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai, where Matsuyama will be defending his title.
Since Matsuyama’s triumph at ‘Asia’s Major’ last October, when he became the first Japanese player to win a World Golf Championship event, he has gone from strength to strength, winning four times, including the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open and the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. He reached a career high ranking of number two in June and is currently lying in third place on the Official World Golf Rankings.
Matsuyama won last year by seven shots from Henrik Stenson and Daniel Berger. His rounds of 66, 65, 68 and 66 featured a staggering birdies, and he cannot wait to return to Sheshan.
The tournament was first staged in 2009, when it was won by Phil Mickelson. It was won in 2010 by Francesco Molinari, in 2011 by Martin Kaymer, in 2012 by Ian Poulter, in 2013 by Johnson, in 2014 by Bubba Watson and in 2015 by Russell Knox.
Unsurprisingly, Matsuyama is relishing his return to China. He said: “Sheshan has some very special memories for me. It was a great honour to become the first Japanese winner of a World Golf Championships and to do it against such a world-class field was very special. I believe the confidence I gained with such a big victory there has really helped me with my performances this year.”
World No 1 Johnson had a quiet time since returning from the back injury he suffered on the eve of The Masters, but he is the only golfer to have won all the WGC tournaments, a feat he completed when he won the WGC-Mexico Championship and the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play earlier this year. But he bounced back to form when he claimed the PGA Tour's Northern Trust Open recently.
“It is great that Hideki and I hold all the 2017 WGC titles between us, so we will both be gunning to win the final WGC of the year," said Johnson. "I really look forward to returning to Shanghai and it always helps to be returning to a course where you have won before. The Chinese fans are awesome and bring a real energy and enthusiasm that always makes it really fun to play there.”
It is a massive week for a number of European Tour golfers in the field. The likes of Tommy Fleetwood, Jon Rahm and Sergio Garcia are battling it out to finish the season as the Race to Dubai winner, and this tournament counts towards that. Fleetwood leads second-placed Garcia and is in the driving seat, but there are some big-money tournaments coming up and Fleetwood is only too well aware that he can still be caught. The man from Southport took some time out as his wife gave birth to their first child - in his first week back on tour he shot a course record 63 at Carnoustie during the Alfred Dunhill Links championship and then repeated that score at the Italian Open - so his game has clearly not suffered.
He extended his Race to Dubai lead in Italy by finishing ahead of both Garcia and Rahm and is full of confidence as he heads to China - and why wouldn't he be?
World Number Five Rahm will make his debut in the HSBC Champions and, just as he is every week, he will be one of the favourites. Rahm has enjoyed a meteoric rise up the world rankings during the past 18 months. Still only 22 years old, he has already won the Farmers Insurance Open and Irish Open in 2017, as well as racking up a pile of top-10 finishes.
Like Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton is full of confidence after winning the Dunhill Links and Italian Open in successive weeks. His double came after a miserable run during the summer, but the thing with Hatton is that when he finds his best form he tends to keep it for several weeks. He insists that neither victory took a huge amount out of him and now that he is back into the top 15 in the world rankings and fifth in the Race to Dubai he has changed his priorities. Hatton believes he can win the Race to Dubai and if he can finish on top of the pile in China then he will be in a very strong position to do precisely that.
While Hatton was winning back-to-back, Ross Fisher was finishing second in both events. The Englishman is a golfer who goes about his business in a quiet and efficient manner and, as a result, is seldom mentioned as a potential tournament winner. But this is a world-class golfer who, on his day, can win on any golf course against any player. Alex Noren, Henrik Stenson, Francesco Molinari and Rafa Cabrera Bello will also be flying flag for Europe.
In truth, the winner is more likely to be a member of the PGA Tour, and one of those who really needs a big win is Patrick Reed. One of the toughest and best of the new young breed of American pros, Reed has had a decent year but by his own very high standards it has been disappointing - he failed to contend in any of the four majors, missing the cut at The Masters and The Open. He was 13th at the US Open and although he finished joint second at the US PGA championship he never really challenged Justin Thomas for the title.
Reed will also be concerned that he hasn't won for over a year. In recent weeks he has started swinging the club better and, crucially, holing big putts. He played well at the Presidents Cup and he is ready to win again.
There will be a huge amount of support for Chinese golfer Li Haotong, who has qualified for the tournament in his own right (the Chinese Golf Association have nominated a further six players who will make up the numbers but are unlikely to contend). Make no mistake - Li is not in the field to make up the numbers. He won the Volvo China Masters last year and has also won three times on the PGA Tour China - all of this and he has only just turned 22. Li plays the game with a smile on his face, has a fabulous temperament and could well contend for the biggest title of his career to date.
Patrick Reed. Raring to win again
Li Haotong. Could be a surprise winner
Ross Fisher. Hugely underrated
Patrick Reed. Terrific competitor
Li Haotong. Will have massive support
Ross Fisher. As consistent as they come
Hideki Matsuyama. Looking to make successful defence
Dustin Johnson. If he drives well, he will win
Xander Shauffelle. Growing in stature with every passing week
Tommy Fleetwood. Back with a back
Tyrrell Hatton. On fire right now
Francesco Molinari. Brilliant iron player, straight driver - dodgy putter
Jason Day. Still looking to rediscover his best
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