The Duel on the Bund vs The Duel in the Sun
by Tim Maitland
As the superstars head for Shanghai and the 2011 edition for the WGC-HSBC Champions, Tim Maitland looks at whether Francesco Molinari and Lee Westwood might have written Asia's first chapter in the pantheons of global golf. In last year's tournament they created one of those most-cherished moments in tournament golf - a good old-fashioned duel.
Sometime soon Asia will have its own Majors; whether it's in five, 10 or 20 years, the projections for its rising economies dictate it will make the step up at some point, despite the resistance of the traditionalists.
Given that Yang-Yong Eun became Asia's first male Major winner in 2009 way before even the most optimistic predictions and that Chinese Taipei's Yani Tseng, a host of young Koreans (Jiyai Shin, Na Yeon Choi, Sun Ju Ahn and I.K. Kim) and Japan's Ai Miyazato dominate the top 10 of the Rolex Women's World Golf Rankings it is likely to come sooner than expected.
Our sons and daughters will almost certainly reach our age as steeped in the legend of those Asian tournaments as we are in the myths of Augusta or St Andrews, Torrey Pines and Carnoustie or Shinnecock Hills and Royal Lytham & St Annes.
When Major status is conferred on the continent, the right of the winners and the Van De Velde-like losers to a place in the history books will de debated, but not disputed.
It could be argued that Sheshan International Golf Club and the 2010 WGC-HSBC Champions already have a little place in the ledgers of golf legend. It was there and then that Tiger Woods arrived having finally relinquished his grip on being number one in the Official World Golf Rankings that he had almost single-handedly monopolized since July 1997.
A sign of Asia's arrival on the world stage as a tournament host, Westwood rode into town as the newly-crowned top dog, but for the first time in 13 years a total of four players - The Englishman, Woods, Martin Kaymer and Phil Mickelson - had the chance to take that spot by the end of the week: Heady days and an historic first for Asian golf.
Instead two players ran away from a world-class field.
Indicative of another greater swing in the pendulum of power, it was two stars from Europe's Ryder Cup winning team, Francesco Molinari and Lee Westwood, who played on another planet; finishing 10 and nine shots ahead of the best of the rest.
"It was very, very good. It was probably the best golf I've played so far and it was really great experience for me to play pretty much head-to-head with Lee in the last two rounds, especially in the last round. When you're playing against the number one in the world it doesn't get any tougher than that, especially the way he was playing. He was playing great as well. It was just a great week for my confidence and my self-belief to see that I could compete against the best in the world," the 28-year-old Italian recalls.
"Last year's event was great! Myself and Francesco ran away from the field. It probably looked good on TV and that sort of thing gets people interested. We were way in front of everybody else. I finished 9 shots in front of everyone else. We played a different golf course that week. Shame I didn't win, but I finished one behind and had a chance on the last green," says Westwood, omitting to mention two things: firstly, what an impressive start it was to his 22 weeks as world number one and secondly just how infrequent such duels are in world-class golf.
"It's very rare: very unusual indeed. Often you get one person that streaks away, but two separating themselves that much is unusual," said former Ryder Cup player and winner of the inaugural tournament in Shanghai David Howell.
"It just goes to show how well both of them played, ultimately how much Francesco deserved to win and how unlucky Lee was."
A quick straw poll of the professionals on the driving range produces a lot of scratching of heads as to when they personally witnessed a similar moment of classic head-and-shoulders-above-the-rest hand-to-hand combat.
"It's sort of like they get on a crest of a wave and they're playing each other, feeding off each other and they just keep going. With a top-class field it's very rare," said Australian veteran Tony "TC" Carolan.
"You see these old classic tournaments where you get these fantastic duels because they're playing together. They go along together, they played together over the weekend because they were so far ahead and they just kept going away from the field. It's basically two different tournaments running at the same time! One and two are playing it out and the others are playing for third."
True to that patent, the Molinari-Westwood encounter began from the start. The teammates at that year's Celtic Manor Ryder Cup mud-fest were first and second just one shot apart after the first round at Sheshan and finished each day in the same positions with the same margin as they left golf's great and good trailing in their dust. There is one obvious comparison to make: The Duel on the Bund, named after Shanghai's historic riverfront area, and the great, the legendary Duel in the Sun.
"The classic one was, of course, Nicklaus and Watson; the Open Championship at Turnberry in 1977. Shanghai? It definitely belongs with it!" declared TV commentator Renton Laidlaw, himself something of a legend in the game and one of the few people qualified to make the comparison because he was at both Turnberry 30-odd years ago, working as both BBC Radio and London's Evening Standard reporter, and at Sheshan as a Golf Channel commentator.
"What was good about Shanghai was that they'd drawn away; the only one that was similar was 1977, because they were away from everybody else and there were just the two of them at it. It was absolutely fantastic. Watson had won the Masters that year. They lapped the field. The guy that was third, Hubert Green, was 10 shots behind them, it was rather similar to Shanghai."
There was one other person present in Shanghai, who was also at Turnberry in 77. Laidlaw's Golf Channel colleague Warren Humphreys, a former English Amateur champions and winner on the European Tour (the 1995 Portuguese Open), not only played the Open Championship that year but had a hole in one. He agrees that isn't a stretch to start comparing the two duels.
"It was a special week. If you look at Shanghai, in the end it was the first round score that won the tournament and after that they matched each other score for score. That's similar to the Duel in the Sun; they matched each other score for score apart from one shot in the final round," Humphreys said.
"The Duel in the Sun: Watson was at his peak and holing putts and Jack played OK... and it's one of the legendary performances. Jack with his B+ game and Tom had everything going - A plus-plus - and that's right because Nicklaus was so much better than everyone else. Like Tiger, Nicklaus's 15th club [his mind] was one shot a round - that's four shots a tournament - better than anyone else. He would win more just because of the way he could think and the way he could handle pressure."
Westwood too showed he could handle pressure too. Anyone replacing a legend like Tiger was going to feel the spotlight. Doing it as a non-American and more importantly a non-Major winner must have felt like being an ant under a magnifying glass on a hot summer's day. Looking back, Westwood says letting his golf game answer those most immediate question was one of the most satisfying aspects.
"That was the first week as world number one so it was nice to come out and play well and justify the fact that I was top of the world rankings. I wouldn't put it quite in that bracket of history... those legends," said Westwood earlier this year.
"Whenever you beat third place by nine: it doesn't happen very often and we were obviously playing a bit better golf than everybody else. It was something that I could build on. It was a World Golf Championship and obviously I would have liked to have won. I played great golf and a great golfer like Francesco played great golf too and obviously slightly better than me."
"Obviously, what Francesco and Lee did was world-class - I think, even in such a short history, the HSBC Champions has proved you don't win it unless you're playing at the highest level - but to hear it's being mentioned in the same breath as the Duel in the Sun is something else," said Giles Morgan, HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship.
"I don't think I would have dared make the comparison, but then when you hear people talking who were at Turnberry, and in Warren's case played in the '77 Open, and who were also at Shanghai, you have to respect their point of view."
There are, of course, ways in which the Duel on the Bund can't compare with the Duel in the Sun. When Nicklaus arrived in Turnberry he already had 14 of his record 18 major championship victories under his belt. By the end of that week Watson would have three of his career total of eight and would become only the fourth player in history (after Arnold Palmer in 1960, Gary Player in 1974 and Nicklaus himself in 1975) to win multiple majors in the same season.
"There were two players at the top of their game," explained Laidlaw, who is also the editor of the annual R&A Golfer's Handbook.
"And I think Jack always enjoyed the competition more than he enjoyed winning. I think he would have won more if he'd been more intent on winning. He liked to win, but what gave him the real thrill was the competition. If he lost, but it had been a great competition, that satisfied him. That battle with him and Watson was a classic. I always remember Watson saying that he knew, even at the last green, at which point he was one ahead, and even though Nicklaus had been in the bush and had played a recovery shot onto the green and was some 20 or 30 feet away, he said "I knew he would hole it". And of course he did. Watson said, because I knew he would hole that, "I'd already made up my mind that I would have to hole my putt" - it was only a short putt, 2 and a half or 2 feet - he said "I knew that I'd have to hole it to win". It meant so much to Watson to beat Nicklaus; beating Nicklaus was always the key. He was as happy to beat Nicklaus as [Isao] Aoki was unhappy to lose to Nicklaus when they battled very closely in the 1980 US Open at Baltusrol. They came to the wire as well and Nicklaus refused to let Aoki win that one. Aoki was trying to become the first far eastern or Asian winner of a Major. That was a great battle."
It's debatable, as with so many of the other great battles, as to whether the Aoki-Nicklaus encounter of 1980 qualifies as a duel. Aoki only got on terms with Nicklaus in the third round and he and the Golden Bear only escaped the rest of the field - led by Watson, Lon Finkle and Keith Fergus - on the final day.
"It is really hard to come up with other tournaments, Majors anyway, where two people have fought it out. If you could really put your mind to it you could probably think of a few more, but there's not that many. Sometimes you find there's a duel over one round or over the last 27 holes, but you don't get it for four rounds," Humphreys said, having racked his brains along with Laidlaw to compile a list of possibilities.
"With the best will in the world, Faldo at the  Masters with Greg Norman, where he caught up on that big lead, wasn't the same; because Faldo played well but Norman collapsed. In Shanghai you had two people peaking, not one falling apart and one playing well. Every now and then you get special weeks. Normally it takes one player to be on their peak form to win a tournament. If you get two players who are peaking at the same time and who are not afraid to win and are confident in their own ability then you get a very special moment, but it happens rarely. I think it was an exceptional performance. I think the way that Molinari played stretched Westwood and then Westwood stretched Molinari and when you get two players that play like that, and they were both very confident in their game (and I think Molinari produced one of the best putting weeks of his career), then you get a special week."
What's interesting is how far we have to look back for comparisons and how few times during Tiger's domination that anything approaching a duel came to fruition. The main exception would be Tiger's 14th Major - the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines - when Rocco Mediate took him through an 18-hole play-off into sudden death. But then even that doesn't fit with our definition of the duel, as Westwood was only one shot behind after 72 holes.
"That's the Tiger influence, isn't it? For a lot of the Major championships he's decimated fields himself and he hasn't had anybody to play against when he's been on top form. I think that's the crying shame about the era of Tiger," said Humphreys.
"The Nicklaus era was tremendous because he had so many rich players, talented players exciting players, charismatic players alongside him; Palmer, Player, Trevino, Floyd, Watson... you can name a whole bunch of them; lots of talented players... Curtis Strange... and he beat them all over a 30-year period. Tiger, in a way, hasn't had that. I think in a way it's to the detriment of Tiger because I think he in a way would have liked to have been stretched and to find out what he would have done if he had had someone pushing him."
For the 2010 WGC-HSBC Champions to truly deserve to sit in proximity with the 1977 Open Championship, it may take time: time for history to ferment, time for Westwood and Francesco Molinari to cement their reputations, to win their Majors, so that their battle becomes a part of golf folklore.
At this point Laidlaw, a recipient of the PGA Tour's Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism, disagrees:
"The plain fact is you can take all these duels, just as the duels of that time. If they never do anything ever again - in both these cases I think they will [be successful again] - you can't take away from them the fact that their duel in the HSBC Champions was marvelous to watch. One holed a putt then the other holed a putt; it was just fantastic how they did that. Whether they do or don't go onto to win Majors doesn't take anything away from the excitement and drama they produced in Shanghai, which was riveting, riveting!" the 72-year-old Scot states.
The fact is though that, if Westwood can add another spell as world number one and his spell becomes a fully-fledged reign... if he can turn his 2000 European Tour Order of Merit and 2009 Race to Dubai wins and his consistency in Majors - two third places in 2009, two second places in 2010 another third at this year's US Open - into the Major victories that define greatness, then what both he and Francesco Molinari achieved in Shanghai will be looked on in a new light. Although what Westwood did last year was incredible enough as it is.
Troubled by an unusual calf injury that left his ankle swollen, the Nottinghamshire native limped to second place at the Open Championship, withdrew because of the injury from the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, came back only for the Ryder Cup and returned rusty for the WGC-HSBC Champions just in time to replace Tiger at the top of the rankings. He also faced a four-way struggle for his right to keep that title and faced questions, particularly from the States, as to whether a non-Major winner like him could be considered worthy of the top spot.
"Perfect timing!" said Howell of Westwood's showing at Sheshan.
"It was daunting, it's a wonderful position to be number one in the world, but there are responsibilities and the expectations that come with that and, as always, Lee dealt with them brilliantly. Obviously winning would have been doing it in style, but he put on a world-class performance as well!"
The other half of the equation is what Francesco Molinari does from here. Apart from claiming the Omega Mission Hills World Cup for Italy with his brother Edoardo in 2009, Francesco hadn"t won since his maiden European Tour victory at the 2006 Telecom Italia Open. However, if his HSBC Champions win proves to be typical of how he is going to play for the rest of his career he will be looked upon in a very different light.
"Molinari is almost beginning the journey, although he's been a good player for four or five years. I think with Molinari, if he continues to putt with the sort of confidence he had that week [in Shanghai] then you could be looking at another very special player," Humphreys declares.
"The thing with Molinari is his stature. He's not a tall guy. He's got to be playing at his best and at his peak all the time to compete against some of the big boomers that are in the game. Francesco's got a wonderful game from tee to green and he hasn't changed that for a number of years. His swing is consistently sound year on year. The biggest killer for most people; they get to a certain point and they think I must change to get better and they actually change to get worse. If he stays that way and his short game stays good... I think the overriding thing about Molinari's performance is he doesn't get scared. That's a fantastic quality to have as a golfer. He talked about it afterwards as a pressure situation, but he never showed it. The fact that he went out against Tiger in the 2010 Ryder Cup and was two up after two and Tiger had to shoot nine under to beat him: Tiger would have beaten any other player on either side the way he played on that particular day. It shows strength of character and I think that strength of character is a big club in the bag for Molinari."
It was incredible that Molinari seemed to stay completely unflustered as the pressure in the tournament mounted. Bogey-free in his final round, he made perhaps one mistake on the Sunday: missing a short par for birdie on the par five 14th hole. Westwood was bogey-free the entire weekend, but at the pivotal moment - Sheshan's world-renowned driveable par four 16th - it was the Englishman who blinked first. It's hard to call his three wood off the tee a mistake though. He missed his target by a matter of a yard, got a hard bounce forward and found himself snookered behind the evil pot-bunker that guards the left side of the green. Like Tiger did in exactly the same position the year before, Westwood left the gossamer-fine chip in the long grass above the bunker and the pressure was off.
Still, on 18 he could have forced a play-off. His five-iron second seemed certain to take the slope down to the hole, but somehow it circled the ridge and stayed on the higher level and the duel was over. The difference was a matter of inches.
"I feel sorry for Westwood because he'd come second in two Majors earlier in the season and here he was coming second again to a guy who was playing, arguably, the best golf of his career. I don't think he's ever played as well as that. He may never again, but let's hope he does," Laidlaw declares.
"He's now shown he can do it. What an inspiration it might be to Molinari, who knows what he"ll do having hung on and proved himself that he can do it."
And if Molinari does go on from here?
"We will look back and say that's when it started. It started because suddenly he realized just what he was capable of. He was always sure he had that capability, but in Shanghai on the course, he did it for real against one of the strongest of opponents: Westwood had played well all season," said the doyen of British golf writers and broadcasters.
There is one final aspect that the Duel on the Bund does compare and deserves to stand alongside the Duel in the Sun: the level of sportsmanship showed. Refreshingly there was no sense that Molinari felt he had banished, triumphed over, conquered or even that he had defeated Westwood. Westwood himself afterwards said there were "no negatives" in a performance like his and, when his attempt at an eagle putt on 18 rolled past the hole, there was nothing in his behavior at that instant that suggested otherwise.
"Watson and Nicklaus both respected each other so much; they enjoyed battling with each other. It was one of the great adverts for the game. It was in the most sporting manner between two players who between them won eight Open Championships," Laidlaw recalls.
"When Watson and Nicklaus were finished, Nicklaus was right there to say "well done, many congratulations". When Molinari won, Westwood was right there saying "many congratulations". That's what it's all about! The competition! They love the competition! It's part of the game!"
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