Major Champions Headline HSBC Champions Field Of Stars

When Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Keegan Bradley tee up in next week’s WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, it will be the first time that this new set of major champions has appeared together in a World Golf Championships event. Sweeping changes may be the norm in modern China but, in a golfing context, it is still quite something.
Pete Cowen, coach to such as Clarke, Lee Westwood, Thomas Björn and Tom Lewis, summed up the four champions’ respective merits shortly after his return from the PGA of America’s Grand Slam of Golf in Bermuda. Though Bradley took the loot, Cowen started with Clarke, who finished in fourth and last place.
Wind had been sweeping across the island and Clarke, not unusually, had handled it way better than the rest. But, well though he had worked the ball round the course, his putting had been nothing short of disastrous. “He missed a bucket load of four-footers and made nothing longer than a six-footer,” said Cowen of his pupil.
Switching to McIlroy, who finished third, Cowen said that he marvelled anew at the player’s extraordinary talent: “Rory is truly exceptional. When he plays at his best, he is unbeatable but, like Darren, he doesn’t hole as many putts as he should.”
Of Schwartzel, the coach worked with the South African for six years and sees him as a first-class technician and a player with oodles of desire. Yet, even though he finished just one behind Bradley, he was no match for the American on the greens.
Which brings us to how Cowen found the whole experience of watching Bradley close-up for a first time as more than a little daunting. He describes him as “a good, solid player,” whilst insisting that his performance on the greens was hugely – and in his opinion unfairly – enhanced by that long putter of his.
“Bradley was disappointed when he missed a putt whereas our lot couldn’t believe their luck when a putt went in,” said the bemused teacher.
Though my colleague Mike Purkey recently submitted more than enough evidence to suggest that the long putter is no magic wand, Cowen could not be more adamant that the R&A should by now have banned the implement.
“That’s what should have happened but instead it’s being an adopted on an ever wider scale,” Cowen said. Indeed, he gave the impression that half of China could soon be wielding long putters if Bradley or another of the long-putter merchants were to win at Sheshan.
“There’s scientific evidence to prove that if you can anchor the putter you are going to have more control, not just over the ball but over your nerves,” said Cowen. “I will be interested to see how Bradley putts under the next level of pressure – when he is a major champion playing in the 2012 majors – but even as things are there’s no question in my mind that what’s happening is all wrong.
“With the players all hitting their shots closer and closer to the flag, it is more important than ever that the putting should be an equal contest.”
Cowen’s way of bringing that about would be to insist on the putter being the shortest club in the bag.
In keeping with all of the above, the Yorkshireman was happily prepared to mark our four major winners out of 10, firstly for their play from tee to green and, secondly, for their putting.
The results were more than a little interesting.
In judging their long games, he put McIlroy top with 9 out of 10; Schwartzel and Clarke joint second with 8½ and Bradley third with 7½.
Referencing the putting, the marks were very differently distributed. Here, Cowen put Bradley way in front of the rest with 9½ out of 10. Schwartzel was given 6, McIlroy 5, and Clarke “not even 4.”
Cowen, of course, has other students in action at Sheshan, these including Westwood, currently No. 2 in the world, Simon Dyson, Björn and the latest young star in Lewis.
In the case of Lewis, it will be intriguing for Cowen and everyone else to see if the Chinese crowds embrace the Englishman to the same extent as they have McIlroy.
McIlroy, who has so far finished fourth and fifth, has said that he experiences the same good vibes playing in front of a Chinese crowd as he does in his homeland. “The spectators can get a bit carried away but they bring out the best in me,” he maintains.
Hardly surprisingly, the fans at Sheshan are infinitely more knowledgeable than they were at the inaugural tournament in 2005.
That was the year when Tiger Woods, in a pre-tournament publicity stunt, was called upon to blast some of his massive tee shots across the Huang Po River. Woods enjoyed the exercise as much as anyone, at least until he learned that there were members of the public who were more disappointed than impressed. The story goes that some of them had waited in vain to pick up the balls on the far bank, some 580 yards away.


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