There was no need to strain for clichés on the opening day of the HSBC Champions Tournament at the Sheshan Club in Shanghai. Conditions deteriorated steadily throughout the afternoon, and the late finishers endured a miserable last few holes, but Class will out, and the cream always rises.
So it proved on day one of this opening joust in the ‘Race for Dubai’. The field for the European Tour season-starter is peppered with international names – the finest ever assembled for a tournament in the Chinese mainland – and by the end of the round it was mainly these names sparring at the top of the leaderboard.
A cluster of Ryder Cup stars from the European team are joined by two of their American nemesis - World No 2 Phil Mickelson, and his team-mate, the PGA’s latest Asian-American rising star Anthony Kim, but Henrik Stenson is the man who claimed the bragging rights at the end of day one. His 7-under was all the more creditable for coming after an opening bogey – a dropped stroke that he put right immediately with an eagle on the second. Six more birdies followed in his 65.
“I haven’t been playing so well lately and I’m still struggling a bit,” said the leader. “Especially with the longer clubs. But I hit a lot of 3-woods out there today and kept the ball in play and made some good stuff from there on. I hit some good approaches and made some great putts over these 18 holes.”
Behind Stenson on 6-under are a gang of four – the aforementioned Mickelson and Kim, along with Australia’s Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia. Garcia was the clubhouse leader until Stenson’s two birdies on 17 and 18, but the Spaniard seemed strangely out of sorts in his post-round interview, fidgety and ill-at-ease. He confessed himself ’tired’ from the change of time zone, but he was possibly distracted by a missed putt on the last, after a superb 5-wood to the green, that turned an eagle opportunity into a birdie. His mood may not have been helped by late arrivals in the interview room repeating questions he had already answered - or with regard to the battle with Mickelson for the World No-2 spot, declined to answer.
Mickelson is the defending champion, and has every intention of retaining the trophy, but he acknowledged that he has a tough fight on his hands. “The field here at HSBC Champions is one of the best fields we have in golf. So many of the top players are here that we expect the best players to be up on top of the leaderboard, and that’s obvious with Adam Scott playing well and Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson being up there too.”
Anthony Kim has the potential to become another great ambassador for American-Asian golf. One of the USA Ryder team’s top performers, he clearly takes pride in his Korean ancestry, and singled out his playing partner and countryman Seung-yul Noh for particular praise – “a seventeen-year old who played like a seasoned veteran…” were his words. Kim is also a big hitter. He described on of his tee-shots today as “oh… about 360 yards!”
Kim himself is scarcely more than a debutant at this level, but Noh deserved his praise. Qualifying for the tournament through his victory at the Midea China Classic in Shunde a fortnight ago, his 2-under showed that he has both the skill and the will to progress quickly.
Outside of the top group there are other men with points to prove. One of them is England’s Oliver Wilson, another of European Ryder Cup team. Wilson earned his place on the team through exceptional consistency of performance, and showed his mettle by claiming the scalps of Kim and Mickelson in his very first match. How he would love to repeat that performance here – he is long overdue a maiden victory after his seemingly endless series of second places, and what better occasion to choose that this massive tournament.