High stakes in Shanghai

World No. 2 Tiger Woods and No. 1 Lee Westwood appear in Shanghai prior to the 2010 HSBC Champions.

WGC-HSBC Champions

Nov. 4-7

Course: Sheshan International Golf Club (7,143 yards, par 72), Shanghai.

Purse: $7 million. Winner's share: $1.2 million.

Last year: Phil Mickelson won the event for the second time in three years, beating Ernie Els by a stroke. Tiger Woods tied for sixth, five strokes back.

Shanghai?

Are you serious? Wouldn’t the setting be easier on the senses if it were Augusta or Pebble Beach, St. Andrews or . . . well even Akron or Doral. You know, one of those places where the pro golf jet set has been anchored for years on a stage well known to fans and players alike.

OK, so China may throw you for loop, but here’s a suggestion: Welcome to the world of global golf. Maybe you’re one of the enlightened who knows it’s not only been on the rise, it’s here, front and center.

And guess what. It’s a wonderful thing. That is why there’s nothing disconcerting at all about the drama that will play out this week at Sheshan International GC in Shanghai. In just its sixth edition, the HSBC Champions presents a star-packed field with great promise, much of it tied to a storyline that any tournament host wishes he or she had.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Martin Kaymer: He was riding a wave of momentum, given back-to-back individual wins in Europe plus his PGA Championship triumph, but when he was poised to take over the No. 1 spot, the quiet man from Germany played poorly. That came on top of a less-than-stellar performance at the Ryder Cup, so it will be intriguing to see how he handles the pressure of the No. 1 spotlight alongside Woods, Westwood, and Mickelson in China.

Phil Mickelson: That third green jacket back in April? It seems a few lifetimes ago given that the rest of 2010 has been rather forgettable. Mickelson hasn’t posted another victory and has actually been an afterthought at many of the tournaments, most disappointingly at the U.S. Open and the Ryder Cup. But he used a victory in Shanghai last year to catapult him into 2010, and with marquee names all around, he figures to be equally prepared this time around.

Anthony Kim: Bad boy or loveable kid? Who knows? But let’s just say that a lot of people are running out of patience with the 25-year-old American with immense talent but lacking a maturity level to match. He won in Houston back in early April, played well at the Masters and Quail Hollow, then sat out most of the summer to recuperate from thumb surgery. Since returning in mid-August, he has played poorly and made news only when he’s caused off-field disturbances in casinos and in golf course parking lots. That’s OK if you’re a rock hero or TV sit-com star, but when you’re whole identity is tied to your golf score, it’s not a good thing. Time to shape up, AK, and why not start in China?

The battle for No. 1 between not one, not two, not even three players, but rather four marquee names.

Tiger Woods, of course, you know, except if he looks a little different it’s because the swagger has been terribly damaged. A self-inflicted crisis in his personal life rendered Woods borderline defenseless in 2010, and thus did he record his first-ever winless season and crash to an unthinkable 66th on the money list. (He could fall even further, with just one tournament left to play.)

But the biggest indictment of Woods’ lethargic season is this: When the latest world rankings were revealed Nov. 1, Woods was not No. 1 for the first time since June 11, 2005.

Instead, Woods has been replaced by Englishman Lee Westwood, just the fifth European to ascend to that spot and the first since Nick Faldo was unseated in February 1994.

If it’s a tribute to Westwood’s remarkable consistency since he rejuvenated his career several years ago, it’s one that needs to be guarded. After all, it’s not like Westwood has dominated the biggest events, as did Woods for nearly all of his career. On the contrary, Westwood becomes just the fourth player to move to No. 1 without benefit of a major championship. (Ian Woosnam in 1991 and Fred Couples in 1992 got to No. 1 in late March, then promptly won the Masters, while David Duval got there in 1999 and won the British Open in 2001.)

Mind you, Westwood being No. 1 should never be compared with Woods being No. 1. The former’s grip was with cement, the latter’s with greased palms. So precarious is Westwood’s position that it could change by the time players leave Shanghai. That may be uncomfortable for Westwood, but it’s a delicious thought for those running the HSBC Champions.

That’s because not only is Westwood in attendance, so, too, is Woods, and Martin Kaymer and Phil Mickelson. They maintain the top four spots in the world order, and it’s quite possible that any one of them will be wearing the No. 1 title when the HSBC is completed Nov. 7.

With Westwood and Kaymer both leaving China to continue their pursuit of the European Tour’s Race for Dubai, and Woods headed Down Under to play in the Australian Masters – a tournament he won in 2009 for what remains his most recent victory – the penthouse of the world rankings might require moving vans week-to-week.

That’s something we haven’t been able to say since the 2005 season.

But who would have thought that we’d really see this scenario played out in China?

Ah, the glory of global golf.

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