SHANGHAI (AP) – The HSBC Champions is one World Golf Championship where it's hard to keep track of the season.
Rickie Fowler hasn't hit a meaningful shot since the final day of the Ryder Cup the last week of September. The HSBC Champions is his first start in the 2014-15 PGA Tour season, though barring a victory at Sheshan International, he won't play another PGA Tour event for nearly three months.
''It's the first event of the year for me, which sounds weird since we're at the end of 2014,'' Fowler said, referring to the PGA Tour's wraparound season.
U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer is coming off a one-month break, and now he faces three straight tournaments to wrap up his European Tour season. The HSBC is the second of four straight events in the ''Final Series'' that wrap up the Race to Dubai.
So which is it? The start or the finish?
''For sure, the end of the year,'' Kaymer said Wednesday. ''When you play on both tours, you have two ends. You have two finishing lines to cross, and it's unfortunately quite a big gap between the first one and the second. So it's a little bit difficult to still motivate yourself, especially if you have done well this year. But once you stand on the golf course and play Thursday, it's fine. It's back to normal. But the preparation is a lot more tiring than in May or June.''
And then there is Graeme McDowell, who was asked what month it was without looking.
He smiled and took a deep breath before he answered.
''We're in November. But I had to think about it,'' McDowell said. ''The golf season is bizarre. Once the PGA Championship is over [in August], all of a sudden it's November. It's very weird. The PGA Tour going wraparound, and we [Europe] have gone to 12 months … it's all very confusing.''
On one point they all seem to agree.
This World Golf Championship, which is played deep into the calendar year, is gaining traction with a strong field and a course at Sheshan International that is maturing into among the most interesting tests of the other WGCs.
The 10th edition of the HSBC Champions gets underway on Thursday without its defending champion (Dustin Johnson) and three of golf's biggest names. Tiger Woods is working his way back from injury, Phil Mickelson is taking an extended break and Rory McIlroy decided to sit out the two China events.
Left behind is still a strong field with 40 of the top 50 players in the world ranking, and 18 players from the Ryder Cup, in what's becoming known as "Asia's Major."
''I guess it's strange that this is the start of the new season, as it's still in the same year, but that's the way it is now,'' Adam Scott said. ''Obviously, it's a very important tournament this week, and a good chance for me to get off to a good start and give myself some comfort early in the FedEx Cup season. But important to finish off well. I have three events after this in Australia, and certainly I want to find some good form for the next month or so.''
Johnson is still on his ''voluntary leave,'' which Golf.com later revealed followed a third failed drug test, and won't return until his first child is born, sometime early next year. He was part of a great show last year when he held off McDowell and Ian Poulter by chipping in for birdie on the 16th hole, a reachable par 4 and part of a dynamic finish at Sheshan International.
McDowell is No. 16 in the Race to Dubai — only the top 15 are eligible for the bonus money — and needs a big week at the HSBC Champions. Poulter needs a good week even more. This is the two-year anniversary of his last win, and the Englishman has slipped to No. 44 in the world.
Kaymer decided to skip the BMW Masters last week across town at Lake Malaren, knowing that he had three big weeks ahead of him. He might be tempted to look behind, for it has been one of his best years — the Players Championship in May, a wire-to-wire in at Pinehurst No. 2 in the U.S. Open for his second career major.
He already played four straight weeks in the FedEx Cup on the PGA Tour. He wasn't about to take on that type of a schedule again. And he certainly wasn't going to miss the HSBC Champions, which he won three years ago with nine birdies on the last 12 holes for a closing 63.
''I've always done very well here,'' Kaymer said. ''I really enjoy the golf course. It suits my eye a lot. I have scored fairly low here in the past, so I know that I can play very low rounds. I have very positive memories of this golf course.''