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PGA Tour Course Preview: World Golf Championships – HSBC Champions

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World Golf Championships – HSBC Champions: Course Insight

View of the 288-yard driveable 16th hole at Sheshan International Golf Club 

The PGA Tour shifts into high gear this week with 18 of the Top 25 players in the OWGR gunning for Shanghai glory at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions. Sheshan International Golf Club hosts the HSBC Champions for the 12th time in its 13 year history, and this opulently conditioned course is considered by many to be “The Augusta National of China.” Dustin Johnson (ninth longest run as a World No. 1), Hideki Matsuyama (defending champion and largest margin of victory in HSBC Champions history), Jon Rahm (making his season debut), and Phil Mickelson (the only two-time winner of HSBC Champions) headline the elite 78-man field coming to China from all corners of the globe for this final WGC event of the year.

At the bottom of Sheehan Mountain and in the middle of a forest with more than 60,000 trees named “Cuckoo,” “Yulan,” and “Sweet-scented Osmanthus,” Sheshan International is a visually intimidating course spanning over 7,266 yards and playing to a par 72. Bogeys can sneak up in a hurry with 82 bunkers scattered around the track and water coming into play on 11 holes. Raised greens make many of the small, undulating putting surfaces look even tinier on approach. And elevation changes of more than 110 feet can make accurate yardages and club selections a real challenge. However, scoring at Sheshan suggests it’s decidedly more playable than it first appears. In fact, it’s been a downright pushover the last six years with five champions finishing 20-under par or lower.

Tree lined, seashore Paspalum fairways are considerably wide by Tour standards, but because the rough is extremely penal, keeping it between the pipes is crucial. Historically there’s a 30-percent differential in hitting Sheshan’s receptive greens from the fairway versus the rough. And when you factor in that Sheshan ranks inside the top-half of easiest courses on Tour in Birdie or Better Percentage on attempted putts, that means even the worst putters won’t be able to screw up scoring opportunities. The crème definitely rises to the top in this event, as a look at the roll call of past champions shows that all but two of the previous HSBC Champions winners were ranked no worse than 30th in the world rankings.

Sheshan’s design inspiration is Oak Hill Country Club, and it succeeds in delivering an imposing assortment of holes. Four shorter par-4s under 410 yards are fraught with danger, while five longer par-4s over 450 yards put an obvious premium on long-iron precision. All four of the par-3s check in at 200 yards or more, which again gives a big advantage to players dialed in with the long-irons. Bombers should feast on the par-5s, although two of the par-5s are reachable in two by most players in the field. Menacing quarry holes at Nos. 16 and 17 are known as the “terrifying valley,” and bring to mind Merion Golf Club. The 16th is a drivable par-4 with a treacherous green, while the 17th is a demanding par-3 requiring a fearless carry across the quarry.

Noteworthy Holes

View from the Tee of Hole No. 2 at Sheshan International Golf Club

Big hitters who carry the water off the tee on the 550-yard, par-5, 2nd hole will have the best angle into the green and a real opportunity for eagle. Aggressive players who decide to take on this dogleg-left hole still need to be careful of a creek that runs along the entire left side, as it can create tee shot havoc. Other players who choose the safer right side off the tee have to avoid a row of six perilous bunkers on that side, and bailing out too far right will get them lost in the trees, effectively forcing a lay-up. A treacherous peninsula green serves up one of the scariest approaches on the course, and even slightly errant shots will suffer an inglorious splash.

It’s tempting for players to go for the green in one on the 288-yard, par-4, 16th hole, but cutting the corner over a quarry and several man-made ponds makes that decision a bold, and sometimes disastrous strategy. In 2014 Hideki Matsuyama used driver off the tee on this death-or-glory, dogleg-right hole, wound up losing his ball, and ultimately stumbled to a devastating triple-bogey. The best bet for birdie is probably to lay up short of the fairway bunkers that pinch the landing area at about 250 yards out, and then pitch up to the green. Even that won’t be easy, however, as the alarmingly small putting surface slopes from left to right, and is protected by a large bunker in the front and two gaping bunkers in the back. Finding any of these traps will require the softest touch to escape.

The 212-yard, par-3 17th hole is a potential scorecard wrecker requiring a forced carry over a ravine to a narrow green that slopes left to right. Three monstrously deep bunkers protect the putting surface on the left, right, and back, and will test even the best short games. Slight pushes that miss to the right of the green will leave players with either a daunting up and down, or pucker-inducing downhill putt. The minuscule bailout area on the left isn’t free from danger either, as a steep slope in the middle of the green will make long putts frustrating and futile unless the golf gods intervene.

GPS View of Hole No.18 from the 18Birdies App

At only 538-yards long, the par-5, finishing 18th hole won’t bully anyone with its length. It will, however, claim its share of victims as a stifling lake hugs the entire right side from tee to green. For long hitters, second shots that don’t bite on the putting surface can easily bounce over and into water behind the peninsula green. For everyone else, a lay-up to about 75 yards will leave a manageable wedge into this daunting target. Still, all approaches still need to carry water, and bailing out or missing left brings a greenside bunker into play that will leave players with a testy recovery shot onto the green that slopes right and back towards the lake.

Players to Watch

In two of his three visits to Sheshan, Dustin Johnson has ripped this place to shreds. D.J. racked up 28 birdies and set the HSBC Champions scoring record in his 2013 victory here, and then in 2015 picked up another 23 birdies en-route to an impressive T-5 finish. Johnson’s freakish length off the tee makes Sheshan a bomb-and-gouge playground that seems to guarantee good numbers for him whenever he’s here. The concern for D.J., however, is that last year he wobbled to a T-35 finish and struggled out of the gates with two opening rounds of 74. You can arguably trace that to potential rust and exhaustion from the hoopla of being named 2016 Player of the Year. The same thing happened to Justin Thomas this year, but then look what J.T. did last week at The CJ Cup. I have to think 2016 was a hangover for Johnson, and he’ll be licking his chops when he stands on the opening tee. Expect D.J. to bombard Sheshan this week and hit the ground running with a top-5 finish.

Defending champion Hideki Matsuyama soared back into form with a T-5 finish two weeks ago at the CIMB Classic, and his seven-stroke romp in Shanghai last year was the largest margin of victory since HSBC Champions became a WGC event. Still, Matsuyama’s win here was due in large part to an atypically hot putter, and Sheshan hasn’t exactly been ripe picking for Hideki in the past. Matsuyama’s finished with a pair of WDs and a T-41 finish in his other three appearances. It’s a risky proposition to pump the breaks on Hideki this week because he can rack up birdies quickly on this course, but his course history weighs too much to ignore. Matsuyama to finish outside the top-25.

Winner Prediction

Patrick Reed doesn’t exactly fit the bill as a favorite this week. Reed posted three rounds in the 70s at Sheshan last year en-route to a T-60 finish, and in his maiden voyage three years ago he finished T-22 while looking completely flabbergasted on the greens. Despite a respectable T-11 finish last week at the CJ Cup, Patrick struggled to keep drives on the planet, looked mediocre firing at pins, and wasn’t exactly assaulting the greens with his flat-stick. What makes me believe Reed’s primed to show off his best golf this week, however, is that in this small, no-cut field with no Jordan Spieth and no Justin Thomas, Patrick has an undeniable opportunity to show everyone he belongs in any conversation about young American elite players. When Reed’s at his absolute best it’s largely on the strength of a fantastic short game, which coincidentally is the recipe for success at Sheshan. It’s full speed ahead for Captain America as Patrick reminds the golfing world again just how great he can be, and jumps back on the winning train picking up his first victory in nearly 14 months.

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