The European and PGA Tour both head to Shanghai this week, which is good news for two reasons.
One: it means that the majority of the world’s best players will be in attendance.
And two: it means loads of weird promotional shots of Bubba Watson and co looking uncomfortable in kimonos while being accosted by dragons.
Photos like this:
And here’s one of Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson looking like the kind of wedding band you really regret booking. That's four of the world's best golfers, cumulatively worth hundreds of millions, being forced to perform a thoroughly unsuccessful version of the Y.M.C.A. Thank you, Shanghai.
Now, onto the serious business of predicting who is going to win.
The WGC HSBC Champions used to mean almost as many birdies as acronyms, with winning totals of 19-under in 2010, 20-under in 2011, 21-under in 2012 and 24-under in 2013, but they toughened the course last year, resulting in Bubba Watson and Tim Clark sharing the lead at 11-under (Bubba went on to win the playoff).
The rough will be penal again this year, which means you either need to be accurate off the tee to avoid it, or long enough to mean you’re only hitting short irons out of it and onto the greens. Last year’s playoff was between the field’s longest driver (Bubba Watson) and its straightest (Tim Clark), which proves there’s more than one way to skin Sheshan International.
The key to victory here appears to be the par 5s. Bubba Watson played them in 14-under last year, while second-placed Clark was ranked second, playing them in 11-under. The four par 3s are all between 200-220 yards and surrounded by sand, so they’re more about walking away with par than racking up a bunch of twos. Watson played them in level par last year. (Yes, maths fans, that means he played the par 4s in 3-over, again proving the importance of par 5 scoring.)
Rory McIlroy, £7.5m
It’s for that reason we plump for world number three Rory McIlroy as our first pick. He played the par 5s in 14-under at last week’s Turkish Airlines Open, despite having a putter so cold he needed mittens to avoid frostbite. In four starts at Sheshan, he’s never finished outside the top-six.
The Northern Irishman said: “It’s a golf course I’ve done well on, and it’s a golf course I really like. It’s one of my favourite venues of the year, quite honestly. It suits my game and I play well here.”
With Jason Day and Justin Rose absent, and Jordan Spieth teeing it up for the first time in a month, McIlroy, who drove the ball imperiously last week, has as good a chance as he’ll ever have to win this event. The bookies agree; McIlroy is 7/1 favourite to win, with Spieth at 10/1 and Watson at 20/1.
Justin Thomas, £1.2m
Second in par 5 scoring at last week’s CIMB Classic en route to a maiden victory, big-hitting Thomas will find this course even more to his liking than the Kuala Lumpar Golf and Country Club he tamed with a tournament record 26-under total. To go from no wins to two in a fortnight might be a big ask, but with a performance last week that featured a course record 61, we’re expecting big things from Thomas in his event debut.
Paul Casey, £1.4
Casey shot all four rounds in the 60s at the CIMB Classic, finishing just outside the top-20. He hit over three-quarters of fairways last week and nearly 85 per cent of greens. If he can combine his usual length with similar accuracy here, the course will be his for the taking. With two top-5s in his last five finishes, Casey has shown enough form to get us excited.
Branden Grace, £1.6m
The South African has shown signs of form lately, securing a top-20 finish at last week’s CIMB Classic, and winning five points from a possible five at the Presidents Cup, where he took on the likes of Matt Kuchar, Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth.
He finished 39th here in 2013, which wouldn’t normally be reason to get excited, but he recovered well from an opening 77 with rounds of 71, 67 and 69, showing he can score well on this course. He’s averaged 4.5 on par 5s so far this year, and with no midway cut at this even, he should be a banker for some points, even if he makes another slow start.
David Lingmerth, £0.8m
The Swede may be something of an outsider – he’s currently 150/1 – but having blown half of our budget on McIlroy, savings have to be made somewhere.
In fairness, after a career-best season that’s seen him climb to 44th in the world, you can expect Lingmerth to set you back a bit more when the Fantasy Golf prices are reassessed before next year’s game. He finished 14th at the CIMB Classic and boasts a sand save percentage of 75%, which could be crucial at a course featuring more sand than an Isle of Wight gift shop.
Shane Lowry, £1.7m
Lowry finished second at the British Masters in October and eighth at the Turkish Airlines Open last week. With a respectable driving accuracy around 66 per cent and average distance of 293 yards, the Irishman could continue that strong run of form in China this week.
Whoever you pick, good luck and enjoy the golf.