This week’s defending champion primed for breakout 2020
Forecasting breakout success in professional golf – or any sport, really – can be a risky limb to latch onto at times. But in some cases, the preponderance of evidence is just too big to ignore.
Such is the case with our WGC-HSBC defending champion this week, Xander Schauffele.
Schauffele, who turned 26 last week, already has four PGA Tour victories to his name, including this championship last year and the 2017 Tour Championship in Atlanta. In just eleven major championship starts, he has finished sixth or better five times, including twice last season.
Though his performances on the game’s biggest stages are impressive, they aren’t the primary reason why a massive step forward in his career is on the immediate horizon: across the board, Xander became a much more consistent player during the 2019 season.
Consider this: in all six primary strokes gained categories tracked by the PGA Tour, Schauffele improved his ranking by 20 spots or more from 2017-18 to 2018-19. That included a colossal jump in strokes gained total, from 46th to 8th.
In scoring average, he went from 55th to 11th. And in par 4 scoring, he had possibly his most impressive leap statistically – from 108th – or right around Tour average – to 8th-best on the circuit.
Phil Mickelson is the only player to win this tournament multiple times since it began back in 2005, and no player has ever won it in back-to-back years. But even if Xander doesn’t wind up a winner again this week in China, he’s positioned for a gigantic 2020 campaign.
KEY COURSE CHARACTERISTICS
Each of the previous three years, the par 3s at Sheshan International have played tougher than the year before. In 2015, they played under par (2.99) – but last year, they played two-tenths of a stroke more difficult than that per round (3.19). The greens were also incredibly difficult to hit in regulation at this course last year: at just 57.5%, the only non-major to play tougher in that statistic last season on the PGA Tour was the Valspar Championship.
NOTES ON PLAYERS IN THE FIELD
– In the first-ever PGA Tour event held in Japan last week, national favorite Hideki Matsuyama finished in second place, becoming the 83rd different player to finish 2nd or T-2 to Tiger Woods in a PGA Tour event. The week before that, Hideki finished T-3 at the CJ Cup – marking the first time he has finished top-three in consecutive starts worldwide since the end of 2016. That remarkable stretch? Fifth-Win-2nd-Win-Win-Win.
Matsuyama has recorded 12 consecutive rounds under par now on the PGA Tour – good for a scoring average of 67.1 in that span. He’s beating the field by an average of 2.63 strokes per round during that stretch.
– Rightfully lost in the Tiger hubbub last week, Rory McIlroy finished tied for third at the Zozo Championship. McIlroy now has a staggering 17 top-ten finishes worldwide this year, his most in any calendar year as a professional. Since missing the cut at The Open, Rory is exactly 100-under-par in eight worldwide starts. He has six top-ten finishes – including a win at the Tour Championship – during that span. With five top-ten finishes in seven career starts at the WGC-HSBC Champions, Rory wouldn’t be a bad pick to win this weekend.
– Over the last five years, no player has a better cumulative score to par in this tournament than Henrik Stenson (-43). Henrik finished tied for second in each of his last two starts here, in 2017 and 2018. Stenson and Tony Finau are tied for the highest birdie average on this course over the last five years, as well, at 5.13 apiece.
– Current Race to Dubai leader Bernd Wiesberger isn’t just the only player on the European Tour this season to win three times – he’s thrown himself into some prolific company when it comes to finding the winner’s circle in recent seasons. Since the beginning of 2012, only four players have more E.T. wins than Bernd does: McIlroy (10), Justin Rose (8), Dustin Johnson (8) and Branden Grace (8).
– Can you name the four players with 50 or more World Golf Championship starts to never win one? Two of them are among the best players to have never won a major in the modern era: Lee Westwood (60 WGCs, most all-time without a win) and Paul Casey (51). Casey carded four rounds in the 60s last week in Japan, good for a T-17 finish. Paul is in the field this week – his best career finish here is a tie for fourth back in 2011.
TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK
Tiger is a combined 283-under-par in his career in World Golf Championship events (stroke play). That is 94 shots better than any other player all-time (Rory McIlroy is second, at -189). Tiger’s 18 WGC wins alone would make him the second-highest winning PGA Tour player currently under age 45, behind only Dustin Johnson (20 PGA Tour wins).