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Inside the Ropes: Shanghai event grows in stature

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Organizers started calling the WGC-HSBC Champions tournament "Asia's Major" almost from the outset, and they received a huge assist from Phil Mickelson in making that designation an informal reality.

Not only did Mickelson claim HSBC titles in 2007 and 2009, but he lobbied for the tournament be made an official event on the PGA Tour. Three years ago, tour commissioner Tim Finchem decreed that the tournament would count as an official victory if won by a PGA Tour member.

This week, for the first time, the HSBC Champions will be treated like the other World Golf Championships -- the Accenture Match Play Championship, the Cadillac Championship and the Bridgestone Invitational.

The tournament, which returns to Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai after one year at Mission Hills Country Club in Shenzhen, China, is the fourth event on the PGA Tour's 2013-14 wraparound schedule.

As a full-fledged PGA Tour and WGC event, the HSBC Champions will award 10 percent more FedEx Cup points than a regular tour event. The purse was increased from $7 million to $8.5 million, and the winner will earn a three-year exemption on the PGA Tour, with the opportunity to join the organization if he is a non-member.

Give much of the credit to Mickelson, who in addition to playing in the tournament for the sixth time in the last seven years is becoming a presence in China, designing courses and opening a golf academy.

"I sensed something special about the WGC-HSBC from the start," said Mickelson, who finished second last year, two strokes behind winner Ian Poulter of England. "I started playing the HSBC Champions in 2007, and won in 2007, 2009. It was a great opportunity for me to learn about China, to come over here and experience the culture and bring my family.

"It was an opportunity to see that golf ... is growing in China, that the young players are more talented, more and more talented each year and will hopefully have a stronger presence on the professional tour soon. ...

"I've had a wonderful year (highlighted by a victory in the Open Championship at Muirfield), and I would love to finish it off on a high note. The WGC-HSBC Champions is recognized around the world as one of golf's top events and I think the recent changes only underline that fact and it is certainly one of my favorite World Golf Championship events."

With the HSBC's rise in stature, Mickelson will have much more competition if he is to complete the hat trick at Sheshan.

The final WGC event of the season will feature the strongest field in its nine-year history, a cast that includes Mickelson, Poulter, Rory McIlroy, U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els, Lee Westwood, Keegan Bradley, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Luke Donald, PGA champion Jason Dufner, Graeme McDowell, Martin Kaymer, Bill Haas, Brandt Snedeker, Louis Oosthuizen and Rookie of the Year Jordan Spieth.

The only 2013 major winner missing is Masters champion Adam Scott.

Giving the field an Asian flavor are Ryo Ishikawa and Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, Gaganjeet Bhullar of Indonesia, Seuk-hyun Baek of South Korea and Kiradech Aphibarnrat of Thailand.

"This will be our strongest and most international field to date," said Giles Morgan, HSBC's global head of sponsorship and events. "Since we first came to China in 2005, we have seen Asian golf come of age, but the speed of progress at all levels of the game has been amazing.

"The return of WGC-HSBC Champions to Shanghai feels like a defining moment. One of the reasons why the tournament has been such a resounding success is the support from the players, and this year more than ever the strength and depth of the field makes it feel like 'Asia's Major' has finally arrived."

In addition to being a part of the PGA Tour's new season, the WGC-HSBC is the second event of the European Tour's Final Series in the Race to Dubai, which culminates in two weeks at the DP World Tour Championship-Dubai.

That's just another reason why many of the best golfers in the game this week are taking the high road to China.
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