Shanghai event shows dragon's might

It wasn't long ago that the PGA Tour season had its putative ending at the PGA Championship, which crowned the last major winner of the year. The fuss over who would be player of the year would be settled there and players would have their last chance to qualify for one of the biennial match play events. You could always count on the PGA to provide some closure. But now the PGA only marks a transition to the FedEx Cup playoffs, which are becoming a preamble to an Asian swing, where the world's best players regularly compete for $7 million purses.

If the PGA Tour golf season had ended after the PGA Championship, Keegan Bradley probably would have easily won player of the year honors and earned the nod from Fred Couples for the last captain's pick on the Presidents Cup team. But since Atlanta, Webb Simpson, Luke Donald and Bill Haas have seemingly dominated the game in the States.
Sergio Garcia has won in back-to-back weeks in Spain and Rory McIlroy, mostly absent from the top of leaderboards since he won the U.S. Open in June, took home a record $2 million last week for winning the Shanghai Masters.

While Simpson and Donald are not in the field this week at the WGC-HSBC Champions, McIlroy and Haas are slated to start the tournament on Thursday at the Sheshan International Golf Club, a 7,143-yard, par-72 Nelson & Haworth design that is set near the scenic Sheshan Mountain in Shanghai, China.

In years past, gigantic purses at Asian events have been purely money grabs for most of the non-Asian players, but this year signifies the PGA Tour's ongoing concern with placing its body into a world perspective. The Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.-based tour said last week that it wouldn't send out player of the year ballots until after the HSBC, which counts as a victory for a member although it doesn't count toward the money list.

"It's important because it's an official win for a member, and that should hold the ballot open," said Andy Pazder, chief operating officer of the PGA Tour. "When we send out the ballot, we have a brief summary of the player's year on the PGA Tour. It would be a glaring omission if someone won the tournament and that wasn't on there."

This move gives 2011 two-time winners Bradley and Nick Watney, who are both in the field in Shanghai, each an opportunity to become the only three-time winner on tour this season. The event also gives Bill Haas, who hasn't competed since winning the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup playoffs in September in Atlanta, a chance to show POY voters why he's a good pick.

Last year Francesco Molinari beat Lee Westwood by a shot to win the tournament. A few weeks ago, Westwood, who is also in the field, pointed to the HSBC and golf in Asia as the game's new frontier that should no longer be seen as a sideshow to the historic landmarks of the sport in the U.S. and Western Europe.

"I like the tradition of the majors. I think the men's game has got it pretty much right, although I'd like to see another major somewhere else in the world. Somewhere like Asia or Australia," Westwood said.
"I see the way that the Asian economy and markets have supported golf over the last few years, and they deserve to have big tournaments there."

With a $7 million purse and $1.2 million to the winner, the HSBC Champions already has a major-quality purse with inflections of the self-conscious gravitas that marks major championships.

On Tuesday, Francesco Molinari, Westwood, Adam Scott, McIlroy and Bradley performed a traditional Chinese dragon dance on a rooftop overlooking the Bund, a mile-long stretch of waterfront in Shanghai that sits along the banks of the Huangpu River. The dance is associated with good fortune and supernatural powers.

This week one of these five players could be the primary beneficiary of the grace of the dragon. With Donald absent due to the pending birth of his second child, Westwood and McIlroy could bite into the Englishman's hold on the Race to Dubai title and the No. 1 world ranking. With a win, Bradley could make PGA Tour player of the year voters take a harder look at him. He would have something that no one else has in the world in 2011: three wins including a major championship.

Recent winners --- McIlroy and Bo Van Pelt -- could make that a treacherous journey for the 25-year-old rookie. But in a season with so many starts and stops, Bradley is very happy to have another chance to revitalize his season and make a new beginning. Because he knows that a win at Shanghai is just a preamble to the next big tournament in this new global, never-ending golf season.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.