First-timers ready to claim star roles at WGC-HSBC Champions
Since 2009, when it first became a World Golf Championships event, the WGC-HSBC Champions tournament in Shanghai has provided a roll call of winners that is second to none.
There isn’t a tournament director in the game who wouldn’t be proud of a list of champions that included Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Hideki Matsuyama, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Francesco Molinari, Martin Kaymer and Ian Poulter.
This year the competition to lift the trophy for what has justifiably become known as Asia’s Major is going to be just as fierce. Into a heady mix that includes Rose, the defending champion, and Molinari, the Open champion, comes Brooks Koepka, twice a major winner this year and the newly-crowned world No.1, and Rory McIlroy, a four-time major winner.
It would be a mistake, however, to think the game’s most high-profile players are going to be playing among themselves for the $1.7 million first prize when play gets under way on Thursday. Among those snapping at their heels is a group of players making their debut in the competition, any one of whom could go on to claim the trophy come Sunday afternoon.
In 2015, Scotland’s Russell Knox became the first player to win the WGC-HSBC Champions in his first appearance at Sheshan International Golf Club. Seeking to emulate him this week are four twentysomethings: Eddie Pepperell, Alexander Bjork, Matt Wallace and Lucas Bjerregaard. All are in fine form and all are looking to take their game to the next level.
It would be fair to say that Pepperell will probably be walking the tallest following his win two weeks ago at the British Masters at Walton Heath. It was the 27-year-old Englishman’s second win of the season, following his maiden victory on the European Tour in Qatar earlier this year.
Ranked 513th in the world in May 2017, Pepperell is now on the fringes of the top 30 after a wonderful run of form. In nine events since the Scottish Open in July, his win at the British Masters sat alongside two runners-up and two other top-six finishes, including the Open at Carnoustie.
“I think after he got into contention at the Open we all expected Eddie to kick on,” said Rose. “He’s doing all the right things and is only going to continue to get better. He’s got all the tools.”
In the final round Pepperell was chased all the way to the line by Bjork but held on to beat the highly rated Swede by two strokes. Bjork will take heart, however, from the fact that he is returning to China six months after he claimed his maiden victory on the European Tour at the Volvo China Open in just his second season on the main tour.
In his rookie season he came close to victory in a Rolex Series event at the HNA Open de France and went on to finish 43rd in the Race to Dubai. A promising tennis player in his youth, Bjork was one of Sweden’s top ten players as a junior before choosing to focus on golf. Tennis’s loss is golf’s undoubted gain.
Denmark’s Lucas Bjerregaard is another player with a recent victory under his belt. His win came at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship when Tyrrell Hatton surrendered a five-stroke lead with nine holes to play of the Old Course at St Andrews.
“This turns what was already a very good year for me into one that is a whole lot better” Bjerregaard said. The 27-year-old Dane also finished runner-up to Matt Fitzpatrick at the European Masters in Switzerland, part of a run of three top ten finishes in four starts.
Wallace, at 28, is a player who has truly come of age. The Englishman has won three times this year – in Denmark, Germany and India – and is someone who takes some stopping when he gets a sniff of victory. When he turned professional in 2012, he won five times in five consecutive starts on the Alps Tour. A born winner, he too could take some stopping if he gets on a roll.
The field may include five of the world’s top six players, but one thing is for certain – they will not get it all their own way.
As they say: “Game on! And may the best man win.”