SHANGHAI, China (AP) Sergio Garcia isn’t quite ready to replace golf’s top-ranked player.
That’s Tiger Woods.
The No. 3-ranked Garcia is, however, aiming at overtaking No. 2 Phil Mickelson beginning Thursday at the HSBC Champions.
With six of the world’s top 10 players in the field – and 10 of the top 20 – the Shanghai event offers lots of ranking points which is, perhaps, a bigger draw for golfers than even the $5 million purse.
Need proof? Check out the other top-10 players in the field at the Sheshan Golf Club on the outskirts of China’s financial capital: Mickelson, Padraig Harrington, Robert Karlsson, Camilo Villegas and Anthony Kim. Those in the second 10 aren’t too bad, either: Geoff Ogilvy, Adam Scott, K.J. Choi and Henrik Stenson.
Woods played this tournament twice in its first two years, finishing second to David Howell in 2005 and second to Yang Yong-eun in 2006.
With victories in The Players Championship and his home-course Castellon Masters, Garcia’s consistency has moved him up the rankings. He’s also finished second or tied for second in three events this season in the U.S. and Europe.
“If I play well I can really move fairly close to that second spot in the world (rankings),” Garcia said Wednesday. “So it’s something exciting, something that I’m driving toward and this is a good week to have a chance at it.”
The Spaniard must win on Sunday and hope Mickelson – the defending champion – finishes far off the pace.
Mickelson is far less confident about catching Woods, who had surgery on his left knee after winning the U.S. Open. It’s unclear when he’ll return, but some speculate it will be March at the earliest.
In golf’s rankings system, which primarily weighs strength of field, Garcia trails Mickelson by less than one point – 0.53 to be exact. Mickelson, on the other hand, trails Woods by 6.10 points. Woods leads with 14.41.
“It’s going to be difficult to get to the No. 1 spot,” Mickelson said. “I’d have to win a lot of tournaments. It’s not impossible.”
Mickelson has failed to win in Woods’ absence, but could make up ground with a few quick victories.
“I’ve improved this year,” said Mickelson, who won twice in the U.S. before Woods was sidelined. “I had a level of consistency I haven’t had. But I didn’t win the way I expected to. I didn’t compete in the majors the way I had hoped to.”
The strength of the field in Shanghai – promoters are calling it Asia’s major – reflects the global pull of golf and the rivalry between the dominant American tour and the surging European tour.
This event is the first of the 2009 European tour season, which will end next November in the Dubai World Championship. The European tour has also rebranded the Order of Merit – the season money title – and now calls it the Race to Dubai. That tournament will have a $10 million purse with $10 million more available in bonus money.
The money has caught the attention of U.S. tour players. Kim and Villegas have already joined the European tour, and Mickelson said Tuesday he’s considering it.
“It might be something I might do next year,” Mickelson said. “I wouldn’t rule it out.”
To be eligible, players must compete in 12 European Tour events. The four major championships and three World Golf Championships count toward the 12, meaning only five more are needed.
“It just happens my first year joining the European tour is the first year of the Race to Dubai,” said No. 7-ranked Villegas. “Obviously, it’s going to catch a lot of guys’ attention. … It would be nice to see more guys from the U.S. come and play since golf is a worldwide sport.”