McIlroy among those chasing Donaldson at BMW Masters in Shanghai

October 25, 2012

SHANGHAI — The BMW Masters is a big-time golf tournament, with a few twists. The press room noodle dish is so spicy it can melt a fork. For a pre-tournament press conference with Rory McIlory, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, the players had to wait while seven local dignitaries made speeches, each introduced with raucous glam-rock music. And during the pro-am all the caddies were young women; good shots elicited high-pitched squeals.

But once the tournament proper began on Thursday, a familiar sameness set in on the leaderboard. While golf fans in the U.S. and Europe were sleeping, Jamie Donaldson enjoyed a dreamy first round, shooting a 10-under 62 to take a four-stroke lead, despite plaid trousers that looked like they were made from his grandmother’s curtains. Among those giving chase are Francesco Molinari and Peter Hanson (66), world No. 1 McIlroy and a resurgent Jose Maria Olazabal (67). In with 68s are Ryder Cup hero Kaymer, Justin Rose and Louis Oosthuizen. (Leaderboard)

Photos: McIlroy plays Ping Pong before start of BMW Masters

This strong leaderboard should be no surprise given that the tournament boasts four of the top five in the World Ranking, every member of the European Ryder Cup team save for Sergio Garcia and 28 of the top 30 in the Race to Dubai standings. Credit must go to the first-year title sponsor, which is offering a $7 million purse, one of the most bloated on tour, along with significant appearance fees. The fun thing about Euro tour appearance lucre is that the players are compelled to sing for their supper, which has meant an endless number of photo shoots, closest-to-the-pin contests with glow-in-the-dark balls and staged Ping Pong matches. At one point during the glitzy “opening ceremony” — which featured spotlights and a laser show and McIlroy teeing off with a ball dipped in gold — it was suggested to Westwood that whatever he was being paid wasn’t enough.

He flashed a wolfish smile and said, “Oh, it is.”

The BMW Masters has also been helped by a good spot on the calendar: next week brings the WGC-HSBC Champions, in Guangdong, roughly 1,000 miles southwest of Shanghai. These back-to-back big-money events will go a long way toward determining the Race to Dubai, which concludes Nov. 25. For a journeyman like Donaldson, who earned the first win of his career at this year’s Irish Open at Royal Portrush, getting hot this time of year can change the trajectory of a career.

“We are always looking to move to the next goal post and do better all the time,” says Donaldson, 37. “It’s a great stepping stone and just looking at each week to try to play as well as I can and try to fulfill the goals I set for myself each year.”

Donaldson’s 62 didn’t come cheap. Lake Malaren Golf Club is a legit track at 7,607 yards, with lots of water and some deep, Nicklausian bunkers. An irritating drizzle on Thursday made it play even longer. But decent galleries turned out and there was an energetic vibe among the players, who collectively seemed relieved to finally swing a club in anger after days of hanging out together at an on-site hotel that is an hour by car to downtown Shanghai. Because so few of the guys have been willing to make the trek into town, the hotel lobby bar and restaurant have provided an excellent opportunity to make an anthropological study of the displaced tour player.

The off-duty uniform of choice appears to be designer jeans with buttoned-down back pockets and a variety of flashy sneakers. (Darren Clarke’s black patent-leather kicks deserve special mention.) The hotel gym has walls of glass that look out onto a busy thoroughfare near the 18th hole, allowing the players to be observed like animals at the zoo. At any given moment you might glimpse Ian Poulter keeping a blazing pace on the treadmill (propelled by his Beats headphones) or Rory McIlory grunting through long sessions with free weights. Also getting heavy use are the snooker and Ping Pong tables. On the latter, Hanson has been a revelation, with a wicked topspin forehand and a penchant for talking junk.

Most of the players are traveling stag — Paul Casey’s stunning girlfriend Pollyanna Woodward is on hand and thus has been mentioned by more than one player as good for morale — giving the event a certain summer camp feel. Says Justin Rose: “We're talking about the Ryder Cup, and for years and years people ask, why does the European Team seem to have more camaraderie than the American team? Scenarios like this is why you see guys hang out together; thousands of miles from their family in an environment where maybe it's more difficult to go out and find restaurants and be on your own, and so you end up grouping together. I think that's why on the European tour guys have a lot of tight knit friendships.”

Photos: Irons used by the top-10 players in the world

Of course, 78 competitors can take only so much togetherness. Some have expressed the feeling of being a prisoner at the isolated hotel, which Casey likens to “a luxury prison.” During the first round, Donaldson’s get-out-of-jail-free card was a blazing hot putter. We’ll see if he can keep it going. Whether it’s Shanghai or Portrush or Ponte Vedra Beach, it takes 72 holes to identify the champion.