Two top-10 players dueled down the stretch, requiring an overtime birdie to decide the champion. It’s a scene that could have played out at Torrey Pines in January, or Muirfield Village in June, or East Lake in August. Instead, it transpired halfway around the world, while many Americans slept through a time change and ardent golf fans were treated to another impressive performance.
Rory McIlroy’s playoff win over Xander Schauffele at the WGC-HSBC Champions in China may have been news that many woke up to Sunday morning, but it was nonetheless a performance worthy of any top-tier event on the PGA Tour’s schedule.
And it served as further proof that the Tour’s efforts to expand into Asia have been a success.
Consider the fact that when Ian Poulter won in Shanghai in 2012, it was still deemed an unofficial win in the eyes of the Tour. Now seven years later the circuit boasts a new three-event Asian Swing, each with a decorated field and top-ranked champion.
McIlroy joined Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods as winners from the 2019 Asian events, all three ranked inside the latest top 6 and inside the top 10 in the world at the time of their victories. Going back to 2016, the list of Tour winners in Asia, including the now-defunct CIMB Classic in Malaysia, is stellar: Thomas three times over, plus Woods, McIlroy, Schauffele, Brooks Koepka, Justin Rose, Marc Leishman and Hideki Matsuyama.
Among that stretch, only Pat Perez’s 2017 CIMB title can be viewed as much of a surprise, and he teed off that week ranked 31st in the world. Through the first three years of the CJ Cup, every winner has started the week ranked fifth or better.
Now entering the seventh edition of the wraparound schedule, the Tour has minimized any semblance of an offseason. But those changes have also led to some world-class fields visiting new locations in what was once a dead zone on the golf calendar and consistently producing star-studded leaderboards.
“I just wanted to play well until the end of the year to give myself a great platform going into 2020,” McIlroy told reporters. “Even though it’s the end of the year, there’s still a lot to play for. At least there is for me, anyway. You need to find things to motivate you, and those are the things that motivated me to travel all this way to Asia and play hard the last couple weeks.”
Granted, the Tour has supplied plenty of incentive for players to hop on a plane and head east. Each of the three Asian events (CJ Cup, Zozo Championship and WGC-HSBC Champions) boasted a limited field, no-cut format and a purse nearing or exceeding $10 million. For shooting a four-round total of 21 over this week and finishing last out of 77 players while losing to McIlroy by 40 shots, Australia’s Daniel Nisbet still left Shanghai with $45,250.
Then there are the standings that don’t incorporate dollar signs. With the fall portion of the schedule now starting in September instead of October, players face increased pressure to play (and play well) in the early months of the season or face a daunting task to move into FedExCup contention in the early part of the new year, a time that many veterans once used to kick off the proverbial rust.
“I always feel really too far behind once January comes around. You’ve got to trust your game and you’ve got to trust the fact that you’re going to play well in tournaments that are on your schedule,” said Rose, who skipped the first two Asian events and tied for 28th in China. “When you’re a couple thousand points behind someone, and it’s January, it always feels like a bit of an uphill battle.”
Regardless of individual motivation, the trend is clear: the Asian events continue to produce high-level competition, even during the weeks when the Tour’s all-time wins record isn’t on the line. The best players in the world have carved out time in their globetrotting schedule to make the trips, whether to Korea, Japan or China, and the nascent tournaments are building impressive histories from the very start.
Golf remains an international spectacle, and the Tour remains a 12-month spectator sport. And both trends don’t show signs of slowing down anytime soon.