The Omega Mission Hills World Cup has switched from an annual to a biennial event and has changed venues from Shenzhen to Hainan island, yet there is a sense of deja vu when it comes to the main contenders.
Italy’s Molinari brothers, Edoardo and Francesco, will return to defend their title from 2009, and the team they narrowly beat two years ago -- Northern Irishmen Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell -- again shapes up as their chief rival when play tees off Thursday.
The Molinaris beat the pairs from Northern Ireland and Sweden by a stroke in a surprise result two years ago that provided a boost to the profile of golf in Italy.
“It was a huge moment for Italian golf,” Francesco Molinari said Wednesday. “Nobody expected it, but it was a huge victory and becoming world champions in any sport is big, not only for golfers, but for other non-golfers as well.
“We were really trying to get some huge results to make the sport grow in Italy. It was a bit of turning the corner and we got a lot of publicity and golf started to be more and more popular.”
McIlroy and McDowell might have narrowly missed out on the prize in 2009, but they have since acquired something the Italians don’t have: major titles. Yet team success brings a different type of glory, and both McIlroy and McDowell are eager for victory at the Mission Hills Blackstone Course.
“Two years ago, Rory and I gave it a pretty good run and came up one short,” said McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion. “We’re excited to come back and I guess, get our revenge.”
Reigning U.S. Open champion McIlroy finished in a share of fourth in the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai earlier this month to move up to a career-best ranking of No. 2, splitting the English pair of Luke Donald and Lee Westwood.
“It would be great to get ourselves into the position again with a chance to win,” McIlroy said. “Graeme and I won a few times as individuals on the golf course, but to win as part of the team is very, very special and it’s not something that we really get to experience that much. Hopefully we’ll be able to get that chance on Sunday afternoon.”
Like the pair from Northern Ireland, South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel are recent additions to the list of major winners, and they will have two things going for them this weekend: a strong familiarity with each other’s games, and mustaches.
The duo have grown the facial hair as a team-bonding exercise, but their understanding of each other’s games may be of more tangible value, particularly in the alternate-shot format.
“We play almost every single week and we often play a practice round together,” Schwartzel said. “So I know how far he hits the ball and I know what he likes, what he doesn’t like. That’s a big advantage.”
The English pair of Ian Poulter and Justin Rose are also among the key contenders for the tournament, as is the German team of No.4-ranked Martin Kaymer and Alex Cejzka, which has finished in the top 10 in each of the past three editions.
The United States, represented this year by Matt Kuchar and Gary Woodland, is by far the most successful nation in the event’s 58-year history, but has not won since 2000 when Tiger Woods and David Duval combined for victory in Argentina.
The Molinari brothers will be aiming to become the first team since that U.S. victory in 2000 to defend the World Cup title. They are among three sets of brothers in the 28-nation event, along with Colombia’s Camilo and Manuel Villegas and the Portugese pairing of Hugo and Ricardo Santos.
McIlroy and McDowell led by three with 11 holes to play in Shenzhen last time, but were beaten when Francesco Molinari recovered superbly from the sand on the last hole and Edoardo sank the putt.
"I guess you could say I've got myself a decent partner. He's in great form and the world No. 2," said McDowell. "You have to be able to motivate and inspire each other and enjoy the experience of being in contention and under pressure, and hopefully enjoy the experience of winning together.
"There's nothing quite like that team atmosphere in golf. It's a very individual sport and very few times do we get the opportunity to play as a team," he added. "Winning individually is nice, but winning as a team is something extra special. Hopefully we can use our experiences of the last couple of years to good effect."
McIlroy, playing in China for the fourth time in less than two months, gives McDowell some of the credit for his superstar status.
"Watching everything Graeme did last year definitely did something to me mentally," the 22-year-old said. "It gave me that little bit of extra belief, seeing someone that you're so close to produce that type of golf. It's been a great couple of years to get my first win in the States and then back that up with my first major. There have been very low lows and very high highs.
"We came very close a couple of years ago and it would be great to get ourselves into the position again with a chance to win," he added. "There are quite wide fairways, big bunkers and undulating greens. I think the key to this golf course is all about the second shots.
"Most of the teams are going to find it relatively simple to hit it into the fairway and from there the course gets a lot more challenging," he explained. "If you don't get the ball on the right level on the greens it's going to be very difficult. Maybe the scoring at this course might not be as low as it was in Shenzhen."