WGC HSBC Champions Preview, Picks & Analysis
IT WAS 12 months ago that Justin Rose began an incredible run of form that almost saw him snatch the Race to Dubai title away from fellow Englishman Tommy Fleetwood. Rose went into the final round of the WGC-HSBC Champions at Sheshan Golf Club trailing Dustin Johnson - a previous winner and the world No 1 - by a country mile. But something extraordinary happened. Not for the first time in his career, Johnson suffered a final-round collapse, while Rose compelled a flawless round of 67. It was 10 shots better than the American and it gave him a memorable win.
Every since that week in China it seems that whenever Rose has teed up the ball he has been in contention. He even managed to briefly snatch away the world No 1 ranking from Johnson a few weeks ago and although he subsequently lost it, he will find himself top of the pile again if he wins this week. Not only that, but he will start to believe that he can make a charge for the Race to Dubai crown again. The man to catch this time around is Francesco Molinari, The Open champion and a man with his own designs on reaching the top of the rankings.
The Italian’s season has been the stuff of dreams, with his first major success, and victories on the PGA Tour and in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. He then went on to finish the Ryder Cup with a maximum five points while forming an unbeaten partnership in the foursomes and four balls with Fleetwood.
Rose, Fleetwood and Molinari will be looking to continue a stellar season for European golf and they will have the company of every member of the victorious Ryder Cup team, with the exception of Sergio Garcia. Paul Casey, Tyrrell Hatton, Rory McIlroy, Alex Noren, Thorbjorn Olesen, Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter and Jon Rahm will all be absolutely determined to continue the party.
Molinari said: “It has been an unbelievable season and to be part of such an amazing team at the Ryder Cup was extremely special. It’s nice to think we will be together again at Sheshan. I think it shows the strength in depth of our team that we all now qualify for World Golf Championships. Of course, this time, we will be on our own out on course trying to win this important title. What a lovely way that would be to finish my year.”
There will, of course, be a formidable American challenge, led by Johnson, PGA Tour Player of the Year and new World No. 1 Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed and Tony Finau. Lest we forget, Koepka won the US Open and US PGA Championship, while Reed is the Masters champion. But the encouraging thing is that the Americans don’t have a great record in this tournament. It was won in 2011 by Martin Kaymer, in 2012 by Poulter, in 2013 by Johnson, in 2014 by Watson, in 2015 by Russell Knox , in 2016 by Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and last year, of course, by Rose. And it was won in 2010 by Molinari, who said: “Playing in Shanghai is very important to me. It was such a huge moment in my career when I won there in 2010. It gave me the confidence to know that I can deliver on the big occasions against the world’s best fields when I get myself in contention. It is amazing to be returning to Sheshan, not only as a past champion which always feels good, but also as the reigning Open Champion.”
Rahm, who closed out a memorable Ryder Cup debut with a victory over Tiger Woods in the singles, is on the crest of a wave. He said: “The Ryder Cup experience was everything I dreamt it would be and more. It was such an honour to be part of the team and I can’t wait to be back out there playing with these guys again. I think we will all be feeling confident after the Ryder Cup and will look for a strong finish to 2018. It should be an exciting week.”
That success at Le Golf National has given the European Tour a huge boost. Just ask the likes of Eddie Pepperell and Matt Wallace, both of whom have multi victories to their credit this year and both of whom have already said that they will be doing everything they can to ensure they are a part of the European team in two years’ time. Pepperell now finds himself comfortable inside the top 50 in the world rankings for the first time in his career and his life has changed forever. If he can remain there until the end of the year - and he surely will - he will find himself in the field for all the WGC events and the four majors.
Johnson said: “I really enjoy playing in front of the Chinese crowds, as you can sense their enthusiasm for the tournament. Having won there a few years ago, it always feels special to return. I was very close to winning there again last year, so it would be great to head into the Christmas break after winning another World Golf Championship title against such an awesome field.”
Koepka said: “This will be my third time playing in the WGC-HSBC Champions and I am definitely hoping I can improve on last year’s second place finish. It has been an amazing couple of months but hopefully I am not done yet and can keep this momentum going to win my first World Golf Championships title in Shanghai.”
Reed may not be everybody’s cup of tea but the fact remains that he is a world-class golfer with a lot of game, and he is currently third in the Race to Dubai as he is a member of the European Tour. He would love nothing more than to overhaul Molinari. “I always feel so lucky that we are able to travel the world and compete at some of the most amazing courses and cities in the world. I look forward to competing against the best players in the world in Shanghai. The Sheshan International Golf Club always offers a good test and I hope to play solid and have a chance to win a second World Golf Championship of my career.”
Molinari leads the way with €4.65m from just 10 events, while Fleetwood, who is determined to keep hold of his crown is in second place on €3.29m and needs a huge finish to the season to catch the Italian, who is one of his best friends on tour.
The full top 10 ahead of the Andalucua Masters was:
1. Francesco Molinari €4.65m
2. Tommy Fleetwood €3.29m
3. Patrick Reed €3.05m
4. Rory McIlroy €2.76m
5. Alex Noren €2.73m
6. Thorbjorn Olesen €2.48m
7. Eddie Pepperell €2.47m
8. Tyrrell Hatton €2.30m
9. Jon Rahm €2.16m
10. Russell Knox €2.05m
Rose is in 15th place on €1.67m
Dustin Johnson. Determined to get his world No 1 spot back
Justin Rose. Its hard to bet against him
Tommy Fleetwood. Goes from strength to strength
Dustin Johnson. Will want to lay last year’s collapse to rest
Justin Rose. Needs to win if he wants to make a move for the Race to Dubai
Tommy Fleetwood. As consistent as anybody on the planet right now
Jon Rahm. On a huge high after the Ryder Cup
Justin Thomas. Too good to ignore
Rory McIlroy. Come on Rory, show us what you are made of. PLEASE!
Francesco Molinari. What a year he is having
Ian Poulter. In the form of his life
Brooks Koepka. Looking for back-to-back wins
Tyrrell Hatton. If he holes a few putts early on, watch him go
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