Snap happy

WiC reports from the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai


Dustin Johnson triumphed in Shanghai

For the African fisherman calling ashore to find out which market will pay most for his catch or the health worker looking for expert advice on how to treat an isolated patient, mobile phones have been a huge blessing.

But for the world’s golf stewards, the positives can be harder to find, as WiC discovered at the WGC-HSBC Champions tournament in Shanghai last weekend.

Dustin Johnson won the high profile event, which is establishing a reputation as the sport’s ‘fifth Major’. The American pocketed $1.4 million in prize money, finishing three shots clear of England’s Ian Poulter, the defending champion.

But part of the fun at the course in Sheshan was watching the local crowds, especially in light of various reports about unruly behaviour from Chinese spectators at other tournaments.

In fact, the behaviour seemed pretty good. One middle-aged man enjoyed himself by shouting “Lefty” whenever Phil Mickelson was nearby but there was no sign of the “You da man” or “In da hole” oafishness that features at courses in other countries.

Mobile phones were more of an issue, however, less because calls were being made on the course (although WiC saw a few) and more because of smartphone cameras clicking away or glinting in the sun as players crouched over putts or launched the ball off the tee.

The temptation to snap Bubba Watson in his bright pink shirt was so overwhelming for one woman on Friday morning that a marshal told her to stop filming at each of the first four greens (she then disappeared, presumably because her phone battery ran out).

The stewarding effort in Shanghai was substantial. Younger marshals served as sentries, holding up signs telling spectators to stand still at appropriate moments. Walking alongside the players as a praetorian guard was another group of older, sterner volunteers who did most of the admonishing of the photo-takers. And for the top players, there were usually two more members in the protective layer, professional looking and dressed in black.

This gave each hole the look of a medieval progress, as sentries, praetorians and the soup-tasters of the inner-circle protected their golfing royalty from affront.

With the tournament quickly into its stride, one problem soon became apparent. Professional golfers walk at quite a click, pacing purposefully after each shot. That left some of the older praetorians stumbling up the final holes like battlefield survivors. But most of the spectators moved at a much slower pace still, dawdling to discuss how best to get their surreptitious shot of Rory McIIroy at the next. Often the crowds would be catching up just as the golfers were preparing to play their shots, adding to the stewarding challenge.

Keen for context, WiC asked some of the more seasoned golf hacks at Sheshan how Chinese crowds compare. The response was that mobile phones are an annoyance universally but a little more so in China because many spectators are new to golf. After winning the trophy, Dustin Johnson also suggested in a friendly way that a few less camera clicks would have been appreciated.

Nevertheless the warm weather, relatively clear skies and occasional scent of neighbouring pine trees contributed to the sunny mood at Sheshan. The course is a good one for spectators with changes in elevation providing decent vantage points alongside fairways and next to greens. There are lots of opportunities to gawp at the luxury real estate that surrounds Sheshan – mostly stuccoed mansions and faux hunting lodges located at the fringe of fairways. But WiC’s favourite discovery was the yacht moored in an over-sized duck pond near one of the holes. Long distance voyages are out of the question but it must make a nice spot for a late-afternoon cigar.

The overall impression of the crowd at Sheshan was of a young, inquisitive but self-assured bunch, enjoying its surroundings. The tournament was exciting too, with the leading players fighting for the title right up to the final holes.

“It’s great to be back in Shanghai, the event’s ‘spiritual home’”, Giles Morgan, HSBC’s Global Head of Sponsorship and Events, told WiC (last year’s WGC-HSBC Champions was held in Guangdong). “People forget that this tournament is only eight years old. When it was first played here in 2005, parts of the course were a building site. But look at the quality today, the range of surrounding facilities, and the growing crowds.”

Another key difference is the depth of the field, says Morgan. In its early days the event had more of an ‘exhibition’ feel. But ranking points from the PGA and European Tours are now on offer and most of the world’s best came to play in Shanghai this year. That meant that there was no shortage of the competitive tension that characterises all great sporting events and Morgan believes that the Champions is now truly established in golf’s global top tier, trailing only a handful of tournaments in the United States, and The Open in Britain.

A triumphant Dustin Johnson confirmed the Champions’ rising status, calling it “the biggest win I’ve had in my career so far”.

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