10 Players to Watch: WGC-HSBC Champions

  1. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland — Playing for the first time since he went 3-2 in Europe’s Ryder Cup loss to the United States early this month, McIlroy is trying join Henrik Stenson (2013) as the only players to win the FedExCup and the Race to Dubai in the same year. The Irishman, No. 3 in the Official World Golf Ranking, captured the Deutsche Bank Championship and the Tour Championship in September to claim the PGA Tour’s season-long race. Rory is third in the Race to Dubai with four events remaining, having won the Irish Open earlier this year, and this one is sanctioned by both major tours. He tied for 11th last year in the HSBC, the only time he has finished out of the top 10 in five appearances. McIlroy, who has two WGC titles, was fourth in 2009, fifth the next year, tied for fourth in 2011 and tied for sixth in 2013.
  1. Dustin Johnson, United States — Recently selected as Player of the Year on the PGA Tour by his peers and the PGA of America for the 2015-16 season, Johnson will make his debut in the new season this week. He led the circuit with three victories, claiming his first major in the U.S. Open at Oakmont before winning the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the BMW Championship, joining Tiger Woods (2007) as the only players to win a major, a WGC tournament and a FedEx Cup playoff event in the same year. Johnson, No. 2 in the world, led the PGA Tour with 15 results in the top 10 and finished second to McIlroy in the FedExCup standings. He claimed the first of his three WGC titles three years ago in the HSBC Champions, winning by three strokes over Ian Poulter of England, but didn’t make his title defense in 2014 because he was on a leave of absence for personal issues, and tied for fifth last year.
  1. Adam Scott, Australia — Although he is ranked No. 6 in the Official World Golf Rankings, Scott still is trying to find the game that took him to consecutive victories early last year in the Honda Classic and the WGC-Cadillac Championship. He was very close at times, finishing second in the CIMB Classic and the Northern Trust Open in 2015-16, and also placed in the top 10 in all four events of the FedExCup playoffs to end up fourth in the final point standings. Scott kept that run going last week in his first event of the new season, tying for 10th in the CIMB Classic, so his 14th victory on the PGA Tour might not be far off. He is making his seventh start in the HSBC Champions, with his best result a tie for sixth in 2009, and he never finished outside the top 25 until having an off-week a year ago while finishing 70th after opening with 75-76.
  1. Henrik Stenson, Sweden — Coming back from a 2-3 record in the Ryder Cup that included a 3-and-2 singles victory over Jordan Spieth, Stenson hopes three weeks of rest will help with the torn meniscus in his right knee he has been battling for much of the last year. He claimed his first major title this year, beating Phil Mickelson in the Open Championship at Royal Troon, and also captured the BMW International Open in Germany. That and five other top-10 results this year have placed the big Swede second behind Danny Willett of England in the Euro Tour’s Race to Dubai, which he won in 2013, when he also captured the FedExCup on the PGA Tour. Stenson, who is No. 5 in the Official World Golf Ranking and earned a silver medal in the Olympics, is making his seventh start in the HSBC Champions, with his only top-10 result solo fifth in 2009. His only WGC title came in the 2007 Accenture Match Play Championship.
  1. Patrick Reed, United States — His tie for 51st in the CIMB Championship last week was his first finish outside the top 25 in his last 11 starts, not counting a 3-1-1 record in the Ryder Cup. Perhaps Reed is wearing down a bit after playing more than 30 times this season. He won The Barclays to open the FedExCup playoffs in addition to finishing second in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and the Valero Texas Open en route to winding up third in the season-long FedExCup race, and would like to kick-start the new season this week in China. Reed, who is ranked No. 7 in the world, is playing in the WGC-HSBC Champions for the third time and tied for 22nd in 2014 before tying for seventh last year. His only victory in the World Golf Championships came in the 2014 Cadillac Championship and he has finished in the top 25 on nine occasions in 11 career starts in the WGC events.
  1. Justin Thomas, United States — Fresh off his repeat victory in the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, having risen to No. 21 in the world, Thomas will try to keep his recent hot streak going when he plays this week in the WGC-HSBC Champions for the second time. The 23-year-old finished of the 2015-16 season with a tie for sixth in the Tour Championship to wind up 12th in the FedExCup standings and then tied for eighth in the Safeway Open to start the new campaign before last week becoming the PGA Tour’s first repeat champion since Matt Every won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2014 and 2015. Thomas recorded bookend 8-under-par 64s to win by three strokes over Hideki Matsuyama of Japan. After winning in Malaysia last year, he flew to China for his first appearance in the WGC-HSBC Champions and wound up in a tie for 27th, his best result in four starts in the WGC tournaments.
    Hideki Matsuyama, Japan — The 24-year-old rising star comes into the WGC-HSBC Champions with three consecutive top-10 results, having finished fifth in the Tour Championship to wind up 13th in the final FedExCup standings, before winning the Japan Open two weeks ago and finishing second behind Thomas in the CIMB Classic in Malaysia last week. Matsuyama, who has risen to No. 10 in the world, finished in the top 10 eight times on the PGA Tour last year, including a playoff victory over Rickie Fowler in the Waste Management Phoenix Open. That victory on Super Bowl Sunday made him a two-time winner on the circuit, as he also won the 2014 Memorial Tournament in a playoff over Kevin Na. Matsuyama is playing in the HSBC Champions four the fourth time, and the only time he made it all the way through, he tied for 41st in 2014. In 2013 and last year he withdrew because of back injuries.
  1. Russell Knox, Scotland — The defending champion enters the WGC-HSBC Champions off a disappointing finish in the CIMB Classic, where he was in the hunt heading to the final round last week before closing with a 2-over-par 74 that left him in a tie for 10th. Knox, who got into the HSBC field a year ago when J.B. Holmes withdrew, played the weekend at Sheshan Golf Club in 68-68 to beat Kevin Kisner by two strokes for his first PGA Tour victory. He almost won again two weeks later before Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland beat him with a birdie on the first playoff hole in the OHL Classic at Mayakoba, but those two performances kick-started a breakthrough season. Knox proved his victory in China was no fluke when he captured the Travelers Championship in August, and he also tied for second in the RBC Heritage, which helped him finish 10th in the FedExCup standings.
  1. Bubba Watson, United States — After winning the Northern Trust Open last February and following that up with a tie for second in the WGC-Cadillac Championship in his next start, Bubba slumped for several months and that led to him being left off the U.S. Ryder Cup team, even though he started playing well again near the end of the season. After tying for eighth in the Olympic Games in Rio, he tied for 13th in The Barclays to start the FedExCup playoffs, tied for 20th in the BMW Championship and tied for 10th in the Tour Championship to wind up 21st in the final point standings. Watson makes his 2016-17 debut this week in the WGC-HSBC Champions, which he won in 2014 over Tim Clark of South Africa with a birdie on the first playoff hole for his only WGC title. He tied for 35th in his title defense last year and also tied for eighth in 2013.
  1. Martin Kaymer, Germany — Trying to bounce back from a 1-3 record in the Ryder Cup, although he did win his singles match over Matt Kuchar, Kaymer is looking to move up from 10th in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, which he won in 2010. He is playing in the WGC-HSBC Champions for the ninth consecutive year and won the title in 2011, closing with a 9-under-par 63 to beat Freddie Jacobson of Sweden by three strokes. The German star has four other top-10 finishes in the tournament, the best ties for sixth in both 2009 and 2014, and had four top 10s in a row before he tied for 30th last year. Kaymer has 22 victories as a pro, including the 2010 PGA Championship, the 2014 Players Championship and the 2014 U.S. Open, but his last victory came in the 2014 Grand Slam of Golf. However, he has been close at times this year with eight top-10 finishes on both major tours.

–Courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre


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