The players and the props showed just how much the landscape of golf has changed at the HSBC Champions.
A year ago, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson sat across from each other in a mock game of Chinese checkers to kick off the festivities in this final World Golf Championship. They stood out as the top two players in the world. There was little argument about that.
Now itâs a lot more crowded.
This time, tournament organizers brought Woods, Mickelson, Lee Westwood and PGA Champion Martin Kaymer to Shanghaiâs riverfront in the famous Bund District. They were equipped with swords, and they struck a pose to celebrate the ancient Chinese martial art of taichi.
It was a bit dramatic, but the point had been made.
Golf finally has a real battle for No. 1 in the world, and it figures to play out at Sheshan International over the next four days.
âItâs an interesting time for golf,â said Westwood, who ended Woodsâ record reign at No. 1 in the world. âItâs a lot more interesting when itâs more volatile with who can become world No. 1. Martin has obviously played very consistently just recently. Tiger and Phil have been at the top of the world rankings for awhile, as I have myself.
âI think for the neutral (fan) who doesnât normally watch golf, itâs captured their imagination.â
This used to be a time of the year when players chase appearance money in exotic locations, wanting to win for their pride but not under the kind of pressure typically found during the summer months.
That might not be the case when the HSBC Champions gets under way Thursday.
âItâs exciting, Iâm sure, for the public,â Woods said. âBut as far as the players are concerned, I think everyone still has the same focus, and thatâs to win tournaments. Thatâs how we got into the position weâre at, how we got our ranking as high as the top four players in the world. We were able to win golf tournaments.
âThatâs why weâre here doing that.â
Woods is no longer No. 1 in the world ranking, nor has he looked like it for most of the year. He has gone 51 weeks and 12 tournaments without a victory, the longest drought of his career. At stake this week is trying to avoid getting shut out on the PGA Tour for the first time in his career. This also is the only World Golf Championship he has not won.
âIâve come close,â Woods said. âUnfortunately, I just havenât done it yet.â
He wasnât particularly close last year, despite playing in the final group with Mickelson. Woods blew up on the front nine to fall out of contention, and Mickelson wound up holding on for a one-shot win over Ernie Els.
Westwood hasnât been playing much at all.
He put himself in position to be No. 1 by finishing second in the British Open at St. Andrews, despite a calf injury that was affecting his ankle. Since then, Westwood has played only six rounds in stroke play, and four matches in the Ryder Cup.
If he doesnât finish ahead of Woods or Kaymer -- and possibly Mickelson -- he most likely wonât be No. 1 by the end of the week. That wouldnât be such a disgrace. The first time Woods reached No. 1 in the world, he only lasted one week.
Kaymer had a chance last week if he had finished among the top two in Spain, but he wound up in a tie for 21st. What makes the German stand out are his wins this year -- not only the PGA Championship in a playoff at Whistling Straits, but for three other titles on the European Tour that makes him the most prolific winner this year.
He also leads the European Tourâs money list, and has a chance to become the first German to win the Order of Merit since Bernhard Langer in 1984, a few months before Kaymer was born.
âI think Tiger, the last 10 years or last 12 years, heâs the No. 1 in the world,â Kaymer said. âI think in everybodyâs head, heâs still the best player in the world. Of course, heâs playing not so good at the moment. When people say Iâm playing like the No. 1 in the world at the moment, itâs nice to hear. But officially, Lee Westwood is the No. 1.â
It can be tough to keep track, although it ultimately comes down to great golf.
The rough is thick again at Sheshan International, and the greens are relatively firm from a recent cold spell in Shanghai. And while there is so much emphasis on the current version of the âBig Four,â the field is strong as ever, typical of a world championship.
It features 15 of the top 20 in the world, with most of the absentees being Americans who choose not to play or travel this time of the year -- Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, Dustin Johnson and Zach Johnson. The other is British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, still recovering from an ankle injury.
Mickelson has won the HSBC Champions twice in the last three years. He finally is fully healthy for the first time since he was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. And despite failing to get to No. 1 in the world over the last six months, he is still in the mix.
âI would love to accomplish that, but the only way to do that is play good golf,â Mickelson said. âAnd the only way to do that is to not worry about it and try to make some birdies. This is a tournament that has a lot of world ranking points, one of the strongest fields in golf, on a course that Iâve played well on in the past.
âI feel like I can put together a good week here and compete for the title.â