Championship of questions

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Ian Poulter will have his work cut out defending his WGC-HSBC Champions title at the Sheshan International this week at the Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai.

With a handful of exceptions. the notables being Tiger Woods, and Adam Scott, the reigning Masters champion, almost everybody who is anyone in pro golf – both from the West and the East – will be there including Phil Mickelson, the world number three and current Open Champion, Henrik Stenson, the world number 4 and recent winner of the FedEx Cup, Justin Rose, the world number five and reigning US Open champion, and Rory McIlroy, the world number six and already a two-time major winner at 24.

And that’s just for starters.

The no-cut, 78-man field made up of the winners of the seasons majors, World Golf Championship events, and leading title holders from all of the world’s most important tours, also includes USPGA champion Jason Dufner, Francesco Molinari, and Martin Kaymer who, along with Poulter and Mickelson, are former winners of the WGC-HSBC Champions.

Poulter, who has been having a relatively quite season this year and is not ranked among most of the bookies’s top five favourites, also won his WGC-HSBC Champions title in China, but this was at Mission Hills in Dongguan.

Kaymer, the 2010 winner, may, on the other hand, be looking his lips at the chance of getting another crack at the course where he shares the tournament record of 20-under 268 with David Howell, the event’s inaugural winner in 2005.

So might the 2009 champion, Mickelson, one of the USA’s best overseas crusaders as he so aptly proved in Scotland earlier this year when he won the Open and the Scottish Open in the course of a week, and Molinari, the wire-to-wire winner here in 2010, who tied for second in last week’s BMW Masters which, incidentally, was played down the road at Lake Malaren Golf Club.

Molinari’s current form and apparent affinity to Eastern courses are clearly some of the key reasons PGATOUR.com columnist Rob Bolton ranked him as his second favourite at Sheshan behind Keegan Bradley.

But if Bolton ‘s selection of Bradley’s as his favourite is something of a surprise, then so too is the bookies choice.

At 12/1 odds, they had posted McIlroy as their favourite on Tuesday morning with Rose, Stenson and Mickelson sharing second place at odds of between 14 and 16/1

Bradley and Molinari are some way further down their lists, Bradley at odds that vary between 22 and 25/1 and Molinari at odds that vary by as much as 28 and 40/1.

Compared with the heights McIlroy reached last year when he charged to the top of the world rankings list with a flourish of late-season title grabs, including the US PGA championship, 2013 has been a big comedown for him.

Apart from Monday’s victory in ‘The Match at Mission Hills’ over a rusty Tiger Woods in what was little more than a two-man exhibition match that paid them each the tidy sum of $1.5m, McIlroy has yet to win this year.

He has sparked on occasions, as he did on Monday, when he shot a six-under-par 67, but he has still to produce the consistency that makes for a winner and a question mark continues to hang over him as to whether or not he is ready to make his big comeback breakthrough.

A question mark also hangs over the form of Stenson because, while he was clearly the hottest golfer on the Planet when he won the FedEx Cup last month, a recent wrist injury and his see-saw form at last week’s BMW Masters might affect the awesome momentum that saw him power from a world ranking in the 200s a year or so ago to the number four spot he occupies today.

In truth, seeking out a likely winner in a world class field of this quality in the prevailing circumstances in which the European Tour is in the midst of – a four-tournament “Final Series’ countdown that will end with its 2013 Race to Dubai champion being crowned at the DP World Tour Championship next month – while the US PGA Tour is only at the easier-going earlier stages of their new-look, 2013-14 schedule, is going to prove hugely difficult.

There can be no certainty that any of the favourites already discussed are going to triumph.

The winner might just as easily be one of the many other well-established Western stars including Brandt Snedker, Ryan Moore, and Dustin Johnson, of America, Lee Westwood, Paul Casey and Luke Donald of Britain and the Sergio Garcia and Peter Hanson of mainland Europe.

It might also be foolish to ignore the likes of the season’s standout and merit order leader of the Japan Golf Tour, Hideki Matsuyama, or his Asian Tour equivalent, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, who has been making waves on the European Tour in recent months.

And what about some of the exciting young guns who have blazed their way into the limelight this season, two of the most notable of them being the 20-year-old US PGA Tour sensation, Jordan Spieth, who in his rookie year, has already established himself as the world number 20, and fellow American Peter Uihlein, who like Spieth has graduated from an acclaimed amateur career, to quickly establish himself in the upper echelons of top-level professional golf, in Uihlein’s case on the European Tour.

In fact, the Sheshan possibilities are so great, finding the potential winner could be almost as frightening as some of the gruesome images that come out to haunt the world on Halloween, which just happens to fall on Thursday, when the WGC-HSBC Champions tees off.

Quite frankly this week’s elite field of champions has the potential to make it just about anybody’s race, though I have a faint inkling that at 40/1 Molinari and the Johnny-come-lately Canadian Graham DeLaet might just be good bets.

THE BOOKMAKERS’ TOP 20

Here were the top 20 favourites being quoted by Sky Bet on Tuesday morning. For all the bookmakers odds you should go to Oddschecker.com.

Rory McIlroy 12/1
Justin Rose 16/1
Henrik Stenson 16/1
Phil Mickelson 14/1
Martin Kaymer 18/1
Sergio Garcia 25/1
Keegan Bradley 25/1
Ian Poulter 22/1
Jason Dufner 28/1
Paul Casey 28/1
Lee Westwood 28/1
Luke Donald 28/1
Brandt Snedeker33/1
Jordan Spieth 25/1
Ryan Moore 33/1
Francesco Molinari 28/1
Dustin Johnson 35/1
Peter Uihlein 33/1
Hideki Matsuyama 40/1
Graham Delaet 50/1
Peter Hanson 40/1.

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