China club

McIlroy hit by headache, but Poulter wins HSBC Champions

China club

Focused on the round ahead: Woods and McIlroy at the Jinsha Lake Golf Club in Zhengzhou

Golfers have come up with plenty of excuses for poor play over the years, but China can now be credited with helping them find another: air pollution.

This was the reason given by Rory McIlroy after a round in Shanghai late last month. “I started to get a bit of a headache on the back nine. Obviously from the factories and stuff around here, and not breathing the cleanest air,” the world number one complained.

McIlroy was playing at the Lake Malaren Golf Club, a course surrounded by “pollution spewing factories”, the South China Morning Post suggested. And his opening day headache may even have cost the 23 year-old the BMW Masters. He went on to take second place in the tournament, losing out to Sweden’s Peter Hanson by a single shot.

Pollution doesn’t seem to put McIlroy off from playing fairly frequently in China. In October last year we reported on his participation in the Shui On Land China Golf Challenge, which saw him tee off in seven Chinese cities in the space of a week (see WiC126). And immediately after the BMW Masters last month he flew to Zhengzhou to play in another event.

The air quality can’t have been a problem this time around, as McIlroy narrowly defeated world number two Tiger Woods in a head-to-head battle.

The exhibition event was dubbed the ‘Duel at Jinsha Lake’, with the two players receiving an estimated $2 million for playing 18 holes of golf.

It was Woods first visit to Zhengzhou, which has just three courses for a city population of 8 million (by comparison, Beijing now has around 60 courses). Both players tried to create some drama by staring each other down like boxers on the opening tee. And in spite of the match being played on a Monday, an enthusiastic crowd turned up to see the two golfing heavyweights. One member of the Jinsha Lake Club told the China Daily: “When I first heard of the event I thought they were kidding me. I felt like I was dreaming when I saw them strolling out at the opening ceremony this morning and it turned out to be reality.”

For many of those present, it was evidently their first time at a golf event. Royal and Ancient niceties were not high on the agenda, with the crowd in an excitable mood. The fun started pre-match, as Woods and McIlroy warmed up on the driving range. An almost incredulous sports reporter from the South China Post noted that “the scenes were off the scale” as “hysterical fans broke through security, invaded the driving range and helped themselves to balls”.

The organisers will have mixed feelings about such a show of what McIlroy later politely termed as “enthusiasm”. The event – which featured Rolls-Royces, helicopters and even a Russian model parading on the 12th tee – was designed to lure Zhengzhou’s big spenders, who associate golf with wealth and refinement. There is a luxury villa development next to the course, and organisers would have been hoping to flog a few of them to richer attendees (WiC reckons the golf ball stealers probably need not apply).

The fact that the world’s two top-ranked players were in Henan at all was an indication of how golf’s centre of gravity is being pulled towards China. In fact, taken as a whole, the past fortnight has offered Chinese fans a feast on the fairways. Aside from the Duel in Zhengzhou and the BMW Masters in Shanghai, a third major event was also being held on Chinese soil: the WGC-HSBC Champions. The tournament – now gaining status as the fifth ‘major’ –was held this year at the world’s biggest golfing complex, Mission Hills in Dongguan, about an hour from Hong Kong.

This year’s field included the likes of Phil Mickelson, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, and was won by Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter (a fitting reward perhaps for playing in every HSBC Champions tournament in its eight year history).

Next year the event is likely to prove more competitive still, with more of the top American players likely to play, after the announcement that it has joined the US PGA’s FedExCup schedule. And in a nod to the game’s growing influence in China, HSBC has extended its sponsorship till 2015, upping the tournament purse to $8.5 million.

“When we first came to China in 2005, our ambition was to create a world class international golf tournament in an emerging market,” commented Giles Morgan, HSBC’s head of sponsorship.

“Eight years on and the HSBC Champions, complete with full FedExCup points and an increased prize fund, is up there with the very best, and today’s announcement represents a major step forward for golf in China.”

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