Top Americans avoiding WGC-HSBC Champions, but Europeans will play

By Mark Garrod
Published on

The World Golf Championships were introduced in 1999 to bring the game's top players together more often.

By and large they have achieved that, because by and large they have been held in the United States. When they have gone global, though, it has been a different story.

To fill the field for the 64-man WGC-Accenture Match Play in Australia in 2001, for example, the organizers had to go beyond the world's top 100.

Ernie Els was the only member of the game's top seven to turn up, winner Steve Stricker was ranked 91st at the time and semifinalist Nick O'Hern 109th. The event has been staged in California or Arizona ever since.

Taking the WGC-American Express Championship to Spain, Ireland and England led to some notable no-shows. Under new sponsorship, the event has been held in Florida the last five years.

The WGC-Bridgestone Invitational has never had a problem attracting the biggest names. Only once has it left Akron, Ohio, and that was to go to Seattle.

Starting two years ago, the HSBC Champions in Shanghai was added to the World Golf Championships series -- and while it is still able to claim a stellar lineup next week, thanks in large part to the current domination of Europeans on the world rankings, it is far from what it might have been.

Tiger Woods, Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia have not qualified, although Garcia has another chance at Valderrama this week, but there are eight Americans who were eligible and have decided not to play.

Stricker, Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Webb Simpson and Phil Mickelson -- the winner in 2007 and 2009 -- are the top five U.S. players in the sport at the moment, but not one of them will be there. In Stricker's defense, he is currently battling a neck injury, but he didn’t play last year or in 2009.

Also missing are their countrymen Bubba Watson, Gary Woodland and Sean O'Hair, plus Scotland’s Martin Laird and Australians Jason Day and Peter Senior.

On top of that, world No. 1 Luke Donald is a possible absentee because his wife Diane is due to give birth to their second daughter at any time.

Mickelson's decision is perhaps the most surprising given his success on the Sheshan Course and the fact he will be in Asia a week later for the Barclays Singapore Open -- Barclays is one of his main sponsors -- before moving on to Australia for the Presidents Cup.

What might have helped the WGC-HSBC Champions tournament is if it had been given full status by the PGA Tour. Like this week's CIMB Asia Pacific Classic in Malaysia, it is listed on their schedule, but only as a "featured event" -- it does not count toward the official money list.

For the European Tour contingent, things are different. It could have a big say in the 'Race to Dubai' standings, depending on whether Donald plays or not.

Given its place late in the season, perhaps the players would have an added incentive to be there if the WGC tournaments didn’t just stand alone, but carried points that built to a climax in the way that the FedExCup playoffs now do in the States.

Stars like Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood are already in China for another event that isn’t affiliated with any tour.

This week's inaugural Shanghai Masters offers a first prize of $2 million -- the biggest in the sport -- and has a field that also includes Ian Poulter, Paul Casey, Harrington, Colin Montgomerie, Jim Furyk -- who is currently only a reserve for the HSBC Champions -- Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley.

The European Tour has been co-sanctioning tournaments in China for six years and in Asia for over a decade.

"In five years' time, the money in Asia is going to be bigger than the money in America," said Andrew 'Chubby' Chandler, head of International Sports Management, in a recent magazine interview. "I'll go a step further. In 15 years, 50 percent of the names on leaderboards in the biggest events -- I'm talking male leaderboards -- are going to be Asian.

"Many exceptional male players are going to come out of Korea. Then there's China," he added. "There are well over a billion people there and golf is growing fast."

The women's game has already changed dramatically. Taiwan's Yani Tseng is the runaway world No. 1, and there are 16 Koreans and 12 Japanese in the current top 50.

On the men's rankings, the leading Asian players at the moment are South Koreans K.J. Choi and K.T. Kim at 13th and 21st, respectively, with only three more -- their compatriots Y.E. Yang and Bae Sang-moon and Japanese teenager Ryo Ishikawa -- in the top 50. China's top player Liang Wen-chong stands 241st.

Exposure to the stars is part of the plan to grow the game there and these next two weeks are the latest stage in that.