The regular European Tour season ends this week in Hong Kong, where a stellar line-up heads to the classic tree-lined Fanling course. Read Steve's in-depth event preview here...
“Last year’s renewal was especially weak but there are some really good players in the line-up this year and I’d be surprised if one of those towards the front of the market didn’t win. The cream tends to rise to the top at Fanling and I expect normal service to resume this time around.”
The Hong Kong Open has been in existence since 1959. It became a European Tour event, co-sanctioned with the Asian Tour, in 2001. This year, it's the last event of the season before the Final Series so it's the last chance for those in an around the 110 mark in the Race to Dubai standings to get inside the top-110 to keep their cards for next season.
Hong Kong Golf Club, Fanling, Hong Kong
Par 70, 6,699 yards
Stroke index in 2014 - 70.33
There are three courses at the Hong Kong Golf Club, the Old, the New and the Eden and a selection of holes from the New and the Eden courses are used for the championship. It's a short, tree-lined composite with Bermuda greens and six dog-legs (four left and two right). Water is in play on the tricky 18th hole, which last year ranked the second hardest on the course) and drainage ditches are in evidence on several holes for the seriously inaccurate.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting on Thursday
Last Five Winners
2014 - Scott Hend -13 (playoff)
2013 - Miguel Angel Jimenez -12 (playoff)
2012 - Miguel Angel Jimenez -15
2011 - Rory McIlroy -12
2010 - Ian Poulter -22
What Will it Take to Win The Hong Kong Open?
It's very rare that I look back at the result of a tournament and I'm still scratching my head at the outcome. The vast majority of the time, even if the winner went off at huge odds, I can see some rhyme or reason for the outcome and that was even the case here 12 months ago.
Scott Hend, an often hot-headed, big hitting, inaccurate Asian Tour player, is the exact opposite of what I'd be looking for so to a large extent, I'm tempted to ignore the result completely but ranking fifth for Greens in regulation and third for Scrambling, statistically, post-result, he ticked the boxes.
Fanling is a tight and fiddly track that rewards accuracy and the last 11 winners have ranked inside the top-12 for greens in regulation and five of the last six winners have now ranked inside the top-six for scrambling.
Unsurprisingly for a par 70, with just two par fives, Par 4 Scoring has been the key stat. Nobody played the par fours better than Hend last year and ten of the last 11 winners have ranked no worse than 4th. The odd man out is Colin Montgomerie but he still only ranked 10th so the stats to ponder are Greens In Regulation, Scrambling and Par 4 Scoring.
Is There an Angle In?
Two courses that correlate really well with Fanling are Wentworth and Crans-sur-Sierre. Course-specialist Miguel Angel Jimenez has a superb record at both venues and he's won both the Volvo PGA Championship at Wentworth and the European Masters at Crans-sur-Sierre so form at those two venues is definitely worth close inspection but we have some recent form that merits examination this time around.
Tree-lined Woburn, the venue for the British Masters just two weeks ago, provided a very similar test to Fanling so anyone in the line-up here that contended there could be worthy of serious consideration.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Prior to last year, when Hend beat fellow Asian Tour player, Angelo Que, in a playoff, Asian Tour players have struggled to compete since the event was co-sanctioned in 2001. Prom Meesawat finished runner-up two years ago and Lin Wen-Tang won in 2008 but the European players tend to dominate and some really top-class players have taken the title...
Jimenez (four times!), Monty, Ian Poulter and major winners Rory McIlroy, Jose Maria Olazabal and Padraig Harrington have all won this title this century and some in-form big names have been runner-up too. K.J Choi (twice), Robert Karlsson, Thongchai Jaidee, Simon Dyson, Matteo Manassero and Francesco Molinari have all finished second in the last ten years.
Last year's renewal was especially weak but there are some really good players in the line-up this year and I'd be surprised if one of those towards the front of the market didn't win. The cream tends to rise to the top at Fanling and I expect normal service to resume this time around.
Jimenez (in 2013) is the only Hong Kong Open winner this century to shoot an opening round in the 70s (shot 70) and he was the first to trail by more than five strokes after day one. Hend trailed by three last year, after opening up with a three-under par 67, and that was typical. The vast majority of winners here are up with the pace all the way and six of the seven winners before Jimenez two years ago were within three strokes of the lead and inside the top-five after round one. The only exception was Ian Poulter but he was in front by halfway. This isn't a catch-up course and you really do need a good start.
Although being up with the pace is essential, it's not always easy to convert a third round lead. Jimenez was tied at the top when he won in 2012 but the last three clear leaders through 54 holes have all been beaten - Markus Fraser last year, Stuart Manley in 2013, and Alvaro Quiros in 2011.
After a couple of weak renewals, a number of quality players will line-up at Fanling this year and they understandably dominate the market.
World number seven, Justin Rose, has finished inside the top-six in six of his last nine starts - including at the Open Championship, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the USPGA Championship and the Tour Championship but he'll be disappointed with his sixth at the Frys.com Open on Sunday.
With a bit more steel in the heat of battle, Rose would have won umpteen more titles and Sunday's effort was the latest example of how he can fail to make the best of a great chance to win. He's a US Open champion so it would be ridiculous to say he lacks bottle but he can get in his own way at times and that, coupled with the fact that he's only played here once and he missed the cut, means he's a bit too short for my liking.
In-form Dustin Johnson is just one place below Rose in the official world rankings and only two points bigger in the market but he's not for me at all at a single-figure price. He hits lots of greens (largely as a result of his powerful long game) but given he's not very accurate off the tee and that he isn't a truly magnificent scrambler, I really wouldn't think he'll take to the venue.
All of a sudden, following victory last time out at Woburn, 21-year-old Sheffield lad, Matthew Fitzpatrick, finds himself between Johnson and top-class American, Patrick Reed, in the market and I can see why. Like Johnson and Reed, Fitzpatrick is playing the course for the very first time but given he finished runner-up at Crans-sur-Sierre in July and that he won at Woburn a fortnight ago, it's very hard to see him not competing. This looks right up his street and he wouldn't be the first player to win back-to-back of late.
Jason Day took two on the trot during his red-hot spell at the end of the PGA Tour season, Emiliano Grillo won his first PGA Tour event on Sunday in his first start since winning the Web.com Tour Championship, Thomas Pieters followed up his first European Tour title (the Czech Masters) with victory at the KLM Open last month and the man that finished runner-up to him in the Netherlands, Lee Slattery, was himself attempting to win his second event in-a-row having won the Russian Open two weeks earlier.
Graeme McDowell has Fanling form figures between 2007 and 2010 reading 6-11-18-5 but he hasn't been here recently and although he's shown signs of life of late, his current form is most certainly a worry.
The same can be said about the current form of late about last minute entrant, Ian Poulter, but he does have better course form. The 2011 winner has made a madcap dash to replace tournament invite, Rich Beem, in order to make sure he's eligible for next year's Ryder Cup. It's a very unusual situation, covered nicely here by James Corrigan.
I've had what amounts to little more than a saver on Fitzpatrick, as although his price is short enough, I can see this venue being perfect for him and he'll be very confident after getting off the mark at the British Masters. I've also had a small each-way bet on course-specialist, Miguel Angel Jimenez, but the one I like above anyone else is Thongchai Jaidee.
The Thai veteran put in a lacklustre performance at the Macau Open last week but I'm prepared to forgive that after Presidents Cup disappointment the week before in Korea. Prior to the biannual team bash, Jaidee won the European Masters in Germany - his seventh European Tour win - and I can see him bouncing back nicely here.
Jaidee was runner-up at Wentworth in May, advertising his liking for a tree-lined venue, and he has a very solid bank of form here too. It took him a while to get to grips with Fanling but he's not been outside the top-20 in his last eight visits and his form figures between 2005 and 2012 read 7-3-2-19-11-15-15-10 and after a break of two years, I can see him returning with a victory.
Jaidee is playing the best golf of his career and as he showed in Germany last month, he knows how to get the job done should the chance arise.
Last and by some distance least, I've had a tiny each-way bet on SSP Chawrasia. The ever-smiling Indian was fifth here last year and he needs another good week to keep his card, a problem he'll feel he shouldn't have. He really should have won the Indian Masters back in February but nerves got the better of him right at the end and he lost in a playoff to Anirban Lahiri.
Matthew Fitzpatrick @ 16/1 (Sportsbook)
Miguel Angel Jimenez @ 28/1 (Sportsbook)
Thongchai Jaidee @ 27.026/1
SSP Chawrasia @ 200/1 (Sportsbook)
I'll be back on Thursday or Friday with the In-Play blog but if you missed it yesterday, here's my Shriners Hospitals for Children Open preview.
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