SHANGHAI – The players and the props showed just how much the landscape of golf has changed at the HSBC Champions.
A year ago, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson sat across from each other in a mock game of Chinese checkers to kick off the festivities in this final World Golf Championship. They stood out as the top two players in the world. There was little argument about that.
Now it’s a lot more crowded.
This time, tournament organizers brought Woods, Mickelson, Lee Westwood and PGA champion Martin Kaymer to Shanghai’s riverfront in the famous Bund district. They were equipped with swords, and they struck a pose to celebrate the ancient Chinese martial art of tai chi.
It was a bit dramatic, but the point had been made.
Golf finally has a real battle for No. 1 in the world, and it figures to play out at Sheshan International over the next four days.
“It’s an interesting time for golf,” said Westwood, who ended Woods’ record reign at No. 1 in the world. “It’s a lot more interesting when it’s more volatile with who can become world No. 1. Martin has obviously played very consistently just recently. Tiger and Phil have been at the top of the world rankings for a while, as I have myself. I think for the neutral (fan) who doesn’t normally watch golf, it’s captured their imagination.”
This used to be the time of year when players chase appearance money in exotic locations, wanting to win for pride but without the kind of pressure found during the summer.
That might not be the case when the HSBC Champions starts Thursday.
“It’s exciting, I’m sure, for the public,” Woods said. “But as far as the players are concerned, I think everyone still has the same focus, and that’s to win tournaments. That’s how we got into the position we’re at, how we got our ranking as high as the top four players in the world. We were able to win golf tournaments. That’s why we’re here doing that.”
Woods is no longer No. 1, nor has he looked like it for most of the year. He has gone 51 weeks and 12 tournaments without a victory, the longest drought of his career. At stake this week is trying to avoid getting shut out on the PGA Tour for the first time in his career. This also is the only World Golf Championship he has not won.
“I’ve come close,” Woods said. “Unfortunately, I just haven’t done it yet.”
He wasn’t particularly close last year, despite playing in the final group with Mickelson. Woods’ game blew up on the front nine to fall from contention, and Mickelson held on for a one-shot win over Ernie Els.
Westwood hasn’t been playing much at all.
He put himself in position to be No. 1 by finishing second in the British Open at St. Andrews despite a calf injury that was affecting his ankle. Since then, Westwood has played only six rounds in stroke play and four matches in the Ryder Cup.
If he doesn’t finish ahead of Woods or Kaymer – and possibly Mickelson – he most likely won’t be No. 1 by the end of the week. That wouldn’t be such a disgrace. The first time Woods reached No. 1, he lasted only one week.
Kaymer had a chance last week if he had finished among the top two in Spain, but he tied for 21st. What makes the German stand out are his victories this year. He not only won the PGA Championship in a playoff at Whistling Straits but had three other titles on the European Tour, making him the most prolific winner this year.
He also leads the European Tour’s money list and has a chance to become the first German to win the Order of Merit since Bernhard Langer in 1984, a few months before Kaymer was born.
“I think Tiger, the last 10 years or last 12 years, he’s the No. 1 in the world,” Kaymer said. “I think in everybody’s head, he’s still the best player in the world. Of course, he’s playing not so good at the moment. When people say I’m playing like the No. 1 in the world at the moment, it’s nice to hear. But officially, Lee Westwood is the No. 1.”
It can be tough to keep track, although it ultimately comes down to great golf.
The rough is thick again at Sheshan International, and the greens are relatively firm from a recent cold spell in Shanghai. And while there is so much emphasis on the current version of the “Big Four,” the field is strong as ever, typical of a world championship.
It features 15 of the top 20 in the world, with most of the absentees being Americans who choose not to play or travel this time of the year – Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, Dustin Johnson and Zach Johnson. The other is British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, still recovering from an ankle injury.
Mickelson has won the HSBC Champions twice in the last three years. He finally is fully healthy for the first time since he was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. And despite failing to get to No. 1 over the last six months, he is still in the mix.
“I would love to accomplish that, but the only way to do that is play good golf,” Mickelson said. “And the only way to do that is to not worry about it and try to make some birdies. This is a tournament that has a lot of world ranking points, one of the strongest fields in golf, on a course that I’ve played well on in the past. I feel like I can put together a good week here and compete for the title.”