A week after the PGA Tour got it’s dream finish to the inaugural event in Japan, the Asian Swing closes in China with the WGC-HSBC Champions at Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai.
This event comes off the heels of a tremendously successful debut of the ZOZO Championship, as despite the weather the golf-crazed Japanese fans took the golf course by storm and showed tremendous support for the event. And their fervent enthusiasm paid off for them, as they saw Tiger Woods take home the trophy and Hideki Matsuyama, the favorite son of Japanese golf, close on his heels. Fans will be treated once again to another strong field that hopefully will deliver another good finish.
But for reasons I’ll cover below, this tournament is the poster child for why the World Golf Championship’s are a total failure.
Here’s everything there is to know about the WGC-HSBC Champions before placing a single wager on it.
The WGC Format is an easy way for top players to secure a guaranteed pay day and free FedEx Cup and World Golf Rankings points, so naturally these events have very strong fields. However due to it’s location and it’s proximity on the schedule, this tournament annually boasts the weakest field of the WGC events. While top heavy, the overall field is about as strong as that of the Memorial or Arnold Palmer Invitational and lags far behind the strength of the WGC events in Mexico, Austin and Memphis.
This year’s WGC-HSBC Champions event will once again boast the weakest field of any WGC in 2019. Only three of the world’s top 10 golfers are set to play, as Rory McIlroy, 2017 champion Justin Rose and last year’s champion Xander Schauffele will vie for the trophy. Two other members of the OWGR Top 10, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson, are typical mainstays to play in Shanghai, however each are battling knee injuries and will not compete.
Other notables in the field are Tony Finau, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Francesco Molinari, Adam Scott, Tommy Fleetwood, Hideki Matsuyama and Phil Mickelson.
Don’t get me wrong – this event is very strong and has a lot of big names in it. They just carry a lot more weight for hardcore fans than casual fans for what you’d expect out of a WGC.
For the full field, click here.
The Golf Course
There’s a lot of issues about this tournament that go far past the design of the golf course. As such, let’s get the golf course discussion out of the way because, frankly, it doesn’t really deserve much praise.
Sheshan International Golf Club has hosted the WGC-HSBC Champions event in every year but 2012, which was played at nearby Mission Hills – Shenzhen. Sheshan first opened in 2004 during the height of the golf course boom in China (more on this later). This tournament was first founded as a European Tour-only event, but beginning in 2009 it earned full blown WGC status. Though it only was partially recognized by the PGA Tour at that time, by 2013 with the new wrap-around schedule it became an official PGA Tour sanctioned event.
Most of the golf course design in China is from foreigners, with this one designed by Nelson & Haworth Golf Course Architects. This company started out by designing tracks in Hawaii before branching out and utilizing their services internationally. Outside the United States, they have designed golf courses in Australia, Canada, France, Korea and even Pakistan! China, however, is the country they have the most presence in, laying claim to about three dozen new golf courses.
While most of their American golf courses are located in Hawaii, there’s a Nelson and Haworth golf course in my neck of the woods. I recently played the golf course for the first time and while overall my experiences were positive, I thought the golf course was overrated for all the hype it has in my city and how expensive the round was. It was well conditioned (especially for a damp, windy, and cool October day) and Nelson and Haworth did a great job utilizing the rolling landscape for a challenging 18 holes. But there wasn’t a lot of strategy tee-to-green. Hole after hole had numerous fairway bunkers and high heather rough just off each fairway (though the fairways were generously wide). And each green was heavily guarded by deep bunkers, especially in the front of the green (which is where most amateurs tend to miss).
While everything was right out in front of you, playing it felt more like sitting down for the S.A.T. where I lost the ability to take a step back and enjoy the round of golf I was playing. There was not much room for fun or creative shot making out there, and the golf course is nearly unplayable for anyone with a handicap more than 18 (which, unfortunately, one of my playing partner’s found out by picking up every other hole).
Sheshan International takes this dentist appointment style of golf and injects a dozen doses of HGH into it. It’s an ugly golf course that is way too reliant on sand and water hazards and offers up almost no strategy or creativity tee-to-green. Every hole is the same – hit it long and straight and birdies are plentiful. Anything off-line, however, and the strokes will pile up. For the professional golfer, they can navigate around this track with no problem at all. But I can’t imagine any run of the mill amateur who’d actually enjoy playing this monstrosity. While I don’t necessarily agree with Andy Johnson of the Fried Egg when he calls this golf course “the worse one they play on the PGA Tour”, it’s close. Just looking at it from the satellite view makes me queasy and uneasy.
But the golf course itself isn’t the only ugly thing about this tournament. To understand that side of it, it’s important to learn about the history of golf in China, which actually has very old roots. Members of the Song Dynasty played a game called Chuiwan in the 11th century, where players could use up to 10 clubs (versus our modern limit of 14) to hit balls into goals marked with flags on various terrains. It was a very popular game in this dynasty.
With the ascension of the Communist Party in China, the government began to look for ways to stamp out forms of individuality and anything that could be seen as a threat to the collective (AKA anything that was fun). Golf was a target of their ire, as party leader Mao Zedong labeled the game as “bourgeois” and banned it in China.
This ban continued as Mao’s protectionist and isolationist practices ruined the country financially, but the first seeds of golf in the modern Chinese era were planted in 1979. Seeking economic consultation, Chinese Premier Deng Xiaopong met with President Jimmy Carter and was introduced to the game of golf. As an indirect consequence to their conversations, Carter floated the idea that American businessmen would enjoy playing golf on their visits to China, and he even arranged a meeting between Xiopong and famed golf architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr. This eventually led to the construction of the Shanghai Country Club in 1983, the first golf course built under the Communist regime.
By 2004, regressive politics swung back the other way on golf and the Communist Party once again began to crack down on the game. With an exploding population and finite resources, the government concluded that the golf courses would better be served as farms and were a waste of perfectly good land to grow crops. They also consumed a tremendous amount of water and were mostly private clubs. Under the guise of “anti-corruption practices”, the Chinese government has imposed numerous moratoriums of the construction of golf courses, and in 2017 it actually shuttered 111 of them. It also banned their political members from playing golf (though later it was clarified that they could not accept a free round of golf from anyone).
But golf courses continued to be built in China at a rapid pace, and the country now operates approximately 600 golf courses, many of which were built since 2004. It soon became apparent that the Communist Party’s “anti-corruption” stance on golf was merely a code word for “bribe us and we’ll sell you land to build one”. The government controls all land purchases in China, particularly at the local level. Approximately 20-50% of their revenues annually come from these large land sales. These municipalities are almost always strapped for cash, so they will sell large plots of land as “golf-based real estate developments” and disguise it as a private resort. In return, the golf course operators are heavily taxed at rates as high as 23.5%.
The golf courses manage to stay in business due to a surge in popularity in the game of golf, as an estimated 1.1 million people actively play golf in China. Despite the high number, golf is largely inaccessible to the general masses. While greens fees are reasonable for tourists from Western Countries, they are very expensive for the average joe in China. Almost all golf being played in China are on private golf courses or in golf academies, where well off families have the means to send their children to develop their game.
Even though only 0.08% of the population plays golf, 1.1 million active participants is nothing to sneeze at, and a projected 7.5% annual growth rate in new participation is even more alluring. And like all other sports, all the governing golf bodies are desperate to secure a foothold in China. That is why they’ve devoted so much time and effort to try and cultivate groundswell and mainstream appeal of this event by bringing it under the WGC umbrella. It’s hoped that the massive paydays to lure top players to China will cause a huge golf boom both for the PGA Tour and equipment manufacturers.
I won’t rehash my indifference for the World Golf Championships in general, but if you’d like a refresher click here for my takedown of it during the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Classic. But the genesis of my disdain for the WGC’s largely stems from the existence of this event. The only thing “#GrowTheGame” about the WGC-HSBC Champions is to grow the zero’s in the bank accounts. The WGC’s should be played in non-hostile locations where golf is accessible to the general public, and will be attended by enthusiastic fans hoping to be inspired to pick up the game (see – Japan).
- A garbage golf course in a corrupt country that’s hostile to the game of golf and inaccessible to the masses
- Low historical or legacy stakes other than financial incentives for top players
- A terrible time slot for American fans to enjoy the play (a selfish nitpick)
…this event sucks and neither the Chinese Government or the International Federation of Professional Tours deserve any of the profits. And for golfers and golf fans here on the other side of the world, it’s a reminder that America fucking rules.
Most of you reading this column did not come here for a history lesson about the trials and tribulations of golf in China – you came here to see how you can win some money off the WGC – HSBC Champions.
As mentioned previously, this golf course is a very demanding one tee-to-green. The golf course is long and there’s trouble awaiting players on nearly every hole, whether it’s large fairway bunkers or water hazards. The rough is bermuda, which makes hitting out of the fairway at a premium, especially for shorter hitters as they won’t have the luxury of hitting wedges out of there on approach shots. The bentgrass greens are a little on the small side, which will test everyone’s irons this week. Finally, the greens are bentgrass and run between 12-12.5 on the stimpmeter.
There’s once again the challenge that there is no strokes gained data available for the tournament, and there hasn’t been any available for anyone for the last two weeks. That means bettors and DFS contestants are once again flying a little blind and need to take a more philosophical approach to picking players based on, theoretically, what attributes will be elevated on the golf course.
Generally speaking, elite long ball strikers have the advantage at Sheshan International. While shorter, scrappier hitters populated the top of the leaderboard when the event was solely a European Tour event, the WGC label has brought longer bomb and gougers more prevalent on the PGA Tour and they’ve been the ones to have more recent success. That doesn’t mean a shorter hitter can’t have a great week, as we’ve seen the likes of more precision-based golfers Henrik Stenson and Rafa Cabrera Bello have success there as well. Overall, though, players who annually rank above average in driving distance and Strokes Gained – Off-the-Tee fare have the advantage on the golf course, so I will be breaking any ties on players based on these stats.
Lastly, this tournament has a much shallower talent pool than the typical WGC. Usually in these limited field tournaments there is tremendous value to be had for cheap in DFS, but that will not be the case this week. There is a lot of fluff down towards the bottom of the list, as the tournament gave several exemptions to Asian Tour players who have almost no shot at success this week. DFS contestants might be better off not rostering higher ticket players (i.e. Rory, Hideki, etc). in favor of building a deeper lineup with a high ceiling for success.