It took just one staging of the WGC-HSBC Champions to dispel all doubts as to whether a World Golf Championships event could succeed in Asia. Tim Maitland reports on how the Shanghai tournament has spearheaded another step up the ladder for tournament golf in Asia.
At some stage between the inception of the HSBC Champions in 2005 and Tiger Woods last year calling it “the crowning jewel of all of Asian golf", golf in Asia made a transition. Not that the autumn swing to the East was ever just a bit of fun - the big names that did travel certainly lived up to their billing – but now there is little question that Asia has taken its place at the top table of top-class tournament play.
The who, what, why, when, where of Asia’s coming of age? The “where?” is a no-brainer. The venue: the Nelson & Haworth design Sheshan International Golf Club. The “who?” or “what?” is just as easy: the HSBC Champions - whether through its winners-only fields, the champions it produces or the prize money it offers – has clearly spearheaded the transition. Quite when that moment occurred is slightly more difficult to pin down.
It would be simplistic to say that point came with the announcement in April 2009 that the World Golf Championships, the elite-level tournaments introduced in 1999 to create a clearer structure of top tournaments beneath the Majors, was including Shanghai in its schedule.
By then Padraig Harrington had already declared, as the holder of both the Open and PGA Championship titles, that it was his opinion that creating the HSBC Champions was “a turning point for Asian golf” and few would dispute that the actual tipping point was the inaugural year. Tiger Woods, arguably the greatest golfer ever seen to cross the Pacific, graced the new tournament whose US $5 million purse instantly placed it at the top of the Asian tree, and the fervor which his appearances in the first two years generated did much to fuel the growing appetite for golf in China.
The 2006 edition wouldn’t get too many votes even though the eventual winner Yang Yong-Eun, then relatively unknown outside his native Korea and Japan (where he had won four times in just over two years), had to fend off the challenges of Woods, that year’s Open Championship and PGA Championship winner, and 2004 US Open Champion Retief Goosen and his successor in 2005, Michael Campbell.
The 2007 HSBC Champions was a watershed, not just because it tempted Phil Mickelson – then one of world golf’s least-travelled superstars – to cross oceans, but because it resulted in the world number two’s first overseas victory worthy of the name (the other, at EuroDisney near Paris in 1993 was a European satellite tour event).
Those who would argue that world-class status comes when winning a tournament get on Tiger’s radar, might suggest that Phil pointing out the pleasure he got from having his name etched in the silverware before the letters W-o-o-d-s were scratched on it, instantly confirmed the HSBC Champions place in the world order: always looking for the slightest slight to put right, Tiger would never let such a self-motivating opportunity pass unnoticed.
By 2008 it was beyond all doubt. The winner, Sergio Garcia, overtook Mickelson as the world number two. Never before had an Asian event had that sort of impact on the Official World Golf Ranking. There was no doubt that world-class golf had finally arrived.
“You can write it into the history books!” declared 2008 Masters Champion Trevor Immelman at the time.
Once the event became the only WGC tournament, and thus by definition the most important tournament in the world, not to have been claimed by Woods. The blip on the radar screen grew even larger.
To the world’s local bank, arguing the semantics of exactly when they spearheaded the arrival of truly world-class golf is deemed irrelevant, as long as everyone is agreeing that it has.
“The goal was to refocus our global tournaments in Asia and create Asia’s first truly-world class golf tournament, and I don’t think anyone would argue that we have achieved that,” explains Giles Morgan, HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship.
“What’s even more pleasing is that in achieving our goal we’ve been able to showcase the strengths of our business and there aren’t many companies who are able to achieve that through their sports sponsorships. We didn’t gamble to bring the HSBC Champions to Shanghai. We assessed the appetite in the relevant markets very carefully. We asked and answered key questions: Is Asia ready for world-class golf? Are our customers and potential clients among those yearning for an event of that stature? Are the world’s top golfers ready to travel that far on a consistent basis? Are the other key elements in place or achievable to guarantee a successful engagement? The answers back then were ‘Yes’ and here we are, six years later, proved right.”
Just how quickly the American media embraced that sentiment is further proof. Until last year, the WGC events had only once before ventured outside the sport’s traditional American and European heartlands (the 2001 Accenture Match Play Championship in Australia). One golf writer described the initial response to the announcement of WGC status for the Shanghai event – debating an asterisk based around the fact that the HSBC Champions prize money won’t count to the PGA Tour order of merit, while failing to notice that its slot in November after the FedEx Cup makes the money list virtually irrelevant to any player successful enough to qualify for the event – as “myopic”. It took just one edition of the HSBC Champions as a WGC event for the same writers to start campaigning for some of the so-called asterisks to be removed. The PGA Tour reacted quickly, making victory in Shanghai count as an official win for its members.
Naturally tournament organisers expected it to take a little time before all of the American golfers – famously described by Australia’s Stuart Appleby as “like a bag of prawns on a hot Sunday” because “they don’t travel well” – to fully embrace the travel involved for the fourth WGC event of the year. The reality is that the quality of the field – including Tiger’s commitment to play his fourth HSBC Champions this year – will mean that so many ranking points are available that any golfer who cares about his place in the world order has quickly recognised that he needs to be in Shanghai.
Ironically, the global downturn has helped accelerate cementing the WGC-HSBC Champions status. With economies of the US and Europe slowing or in recession, the global golf brands, whether they’re the golfers themselves or the sponsors who leverage their products off them, all need the newer markets to keep improving their bottom line.
PGA commissioner Tim Finchem certainly had few doubts when he declared that elevating the HSBC Champions into the WGC stable was: “One of the most significant steps ever taken in the globalization of golf, and one of the most logical.”
“World-class golf has arrived on this continent and the map of the golf world may never look the same,” he added… and, with the 2010 WGC-HSBC Champions on course to match the 2009 event’s status in having the second best field of the year outside the United States (beaten only, and naturally, by the (British) Open Championship) he’s almost certainly right.
2009 Champion: Phil Mickelson (USA)
All eyes, including record crowds that created the feel of a Major as queues snaked for hundreds of yards outside the course, were on Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods who were paired together in the final group for the final round.
However a near-immaculate round from “The Big Easy” Ernie Els led to a very different finish. The whole tournament hinged on just a few moments of utter drama as the big South African, who would sign for a course record nine-under-par 63, dumped his approach to 18 in the water just as Mickelson holed “the best putt I made all week” to save par at the spectacular 16th hole.
The American held on to win by a single shot. The next day the producer of the live TV coverage shook his tired head saying “this event has packed 15 years of history into five”.
“I thought that this was a very successful first run as a World Golf Championships event. I think it has momentum to continue to move up in status and importance over the next four or five years, and I'm curious to see where it ends up,” Phil Mickelson.
2008 Champion: Sergio Garcia (ESP)
The 2008 HSBC Champions produced another historical moment for golf in Asia when Sergio Garcia won at Sheshan to become the new world number two. Never before had an Asian tournament had such a significant impact on the world ranking.
Garcia’s win came from yet another dramatic play-off on the 18th hole, which he’d birdied in regulation to force extra holes with fellow European Ryder Cup member Oliver Wilson of England. Wilson, searching for the win that would back-up his reputation as one of the more rapidly improving players in world golf, shaved the hole with a birdie putt on the second play-off hole leaving the door open for Garcia who holed out from around 12 feet to clinch victory.
“You have to come and show yourself here. You can’t just play in the US and Continental Europe. Asia is definitely a global player. The HSBC Champions is a great tournament. They’ve been raising the bar every year. It’s been getting a stronger and stronger field and the course has been improving every year.” Sergio Garcia.
2007 Champion: Phil Mickelson (USA)
The nail-biting drama of the 2007 HSBC Champions proved beyond doubt that the Sheshan International Golf Club had matured into a worthy test for the world’s top golfers and the eventual victory by world number two Phil Mickelson rubber-stamped the credentials of the HSBC Champions as a truly world-class tournament.
With 11 holes left, Mickelson led by five shots and looked invincible. By the time he reached the par-five 18th green, Mickelson had picked up the sixth of his penalty shots in his wayward final round as he risked going for the green in two, found water. He was only let into a three-way play-off when Englishman Ross Fisher chipped into the water too and made double bogey.
Playing the 18th twice in the play-off with Fisher and Lee Westwood, Mickelson finally clinched the first significant win of his career outside the United States sticking one of his trademark “flop shots” to within six feet and holing out as daylight faded to make birdie.
“It is nice to win a tournament that Tiger has tried to win the last couple of years unsuccessfully. It's very exciting to me to be able to win this tournament.” Phil Mickelson.
2006: Yang Yong-Eun (KOR) 274 (-14)
At the time Yang Yong-Eun’s two-shot victory over Tiger Woods, denying the American his quest for a seventh-successive stroke-play victory, was viewed as a huge surprise, even though the Korean had four Japan Tour victories under his belt. With the benefit of hindsight the late-blooming Yang’s win, which halved his world-ranking to take him to 38th position, was more an indication of a talent that would also take him into the winner’s circle on the PGA Tour.
The pattern was similar to David Howell’s win before, with Yang engineering himself a winning position on the front nine on the final day ahead of recent Major champions Woods, Retief Goosen and Michael Campbell. As in 2005, Tiger made a late charge, but again left himself too much to do.
“This is such a big thing that's happening to me right now, such a big moment in my life right now, that it's really hard for me to explain in words how I feel right now.” Yang Yong-Eun.
2005 Champion: David Howell (ENG) 268 (-20)
Tiger-mania struck Shanghai for the richest tournament to be staged in the Asia-Pacific region in 2005, but it was the softly-spoken Englishman David Howell, a member of Europe’s 2004 Ryder Cup winning team, who lifted the trophy in the inaugural tournament.
Holding a one-shot overnight lead, Howell quickly distanced himself from the world number one with four birdies in the opening seven holes. Woods, who would give Howell his “Cool Dude” nickname that day, made one last desperate bid for the win by going for the green at the short par-four 16th. Tiger Woods instead found the water hazard, saying afterwards "I had to go for it and try to go for birdie or best part, eagle," and Howell held on to record the biggest victory of his career by three shots.
"We're all honored as golfers to have the chance to try and beat him. So I guess any time anyone plays against Tiger in the last day, it's almost like the FA Cup Final for the underdogs and I was able to come on top.” David Howell.