SHANGHAI (AP) — Tiger Woods looked out at a conference room above the Shanghai River that was filled with so many photographers and other media that it felt like he was at a major championship.
The HSBC Champions is not quite the same as when he first showed up in 2005.
In its fifth year, it has gone from a tournament sanctioned by four tours to a World Golf Championship that has attracted its strongest field ever, starting with the best two players in the world.
Woods and Phil Mickelson are competing for the first time together in Asia, part of a 78-man field that includes 15 of the top 20 players in the world ranking.
“How this event has grown to where it is now is truly remarkable,” Woods said Tuesday. “To see the excitement level here … and how much it means to everyone, it’s great to be part of it. This year with the field we have, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The world’s No. 1 player helped kick off the week by hitting golf balls into the Shanghai River from “The Bubble,” the nickname for the Shanghai Port International Cruise Terminal. He was joined by past winners of the HSBC Champions, all rivals in their own way – Mickelson, defending champion Sergio Garcia and Y.E. Yang, who rallied to beat Woods in the PGA Championship to give Asia its first major champion.
Yang first came to prominence at the HSBC Champions when he finished two shots ahead of Woods in 2006. The previous year, Woods finished second to David Howell.
Now that it’s a World Golf Championship, perhaps his fortunes will change.
Woods has owned the world since this series began in 1999, winning 16 of the 30 WGC individual events he’s played. His latest such victory came at the Bridgestone Invitational in August.
“I’ve come close here a couple of times,” Woods said. “I didn’t get it done. Hopefully, this week I can put it together and improve on that finish.”
Expectations are larger than ever, especially after the turnout for the opening press conference at The Bund, the famous riverfront with a state-of-the-art skyline.
Every step on the elevator rising two stories to the conference room was occupied by photographers, and most of the questions were directed at Woods, who was dressed in black. Some of the questions were planted, most of them covering the anticipated growth of golf in China, the market with the most potential.
Mickelson won the HSBC Champions two years ago, his first big win overseas, and is finishing a two-leg stop in Asia having played last week in the Singapore Open.
Lefty had not won much overseas because he rarely ventured outside the United States except for the British Open. That changed with the FedEx Cup, which ended the regular season in America in late September.
“That has given us two-and-a-half months at the end of the year to play elsewhere throughout the world,” Mickelson said.
And it’s a responsibility he takes seriously.
“I think that we would love to help grow the game throughout the world,” Mickelson said. “Our participation helps grow awareness, it can spark interest in youth to get them started. If we can get kids interested in the game, I think in 15 to 20 years is when we’ll see golf prosper in China.”
The $7 million tournament – the richest in Asia – begins Thursday at Sheshan International Golf Club.
The HSBC Champions received another boost as Cui Dalin, the deputy director of China’s General Administration of Sport and vice president of the Chinese Olympic Committee, took part in the press conference. He is the most senior politician to publicly support golf.
It already has been a banner year for golf in Asia.
Yang made the biggest impact. Not only did he become the first Asian-born major champion, he became the first player to win a major when Woods was atop the leaderboard going into the final round.
Beyong-Hun An, a 17-year-old South Korean, became the youngest champion of the U.S. Amateur in August. The HSBC Champions is held one week after the inaugural Asian Amateur Championship, which was inspired by the leaders of Augusta National and the Royal & Ancient.
“This event definitely has provided a platform for a lot of Asian golfers to showcase their skills,” Yang said.
It gives another chance for Woods to win at Sheshan International. And now that it’s a World Golf Championship, it is the only one that Woods has failed to win.