Ben Coley takes a look at the Hong Kong Open, where a strong star trio help make for an enticing each-way market.
Protests in the region late last year forced the rescheduling of the Hong Kong Open, which has temporarily lost its European Tour status as a result. Instead of taking up its now traditional late-year, early-season slot, this likeable tournament has been shunted back to January and taken off our television screens, and but for the appearance of two world-class players and a couple more overseas guests, it would not be discernible from any other Asian Tour event.
But with Open champion Shane Lowry in town, Presidents Cup hero Tony Finau joining him, and Asian Tour king Jazz Janewattananond challenging both for favouritism, this event still carries plenty of intrigue with the trio set to battle not just each other, but a fiddly, tight Fanling course which can make anyone look foolish.
Rory McIlroy won here as a reigning US Open champion in 2011, but more recently the tournament has been notable for some bigger-priced winners whose obvious suitability to the layout helped overcome bigger and better names. That was the case when Aaron Rai fended off Matt Fitzpatrick, when Sam Brazel beat Rafael Cabrera Bello, and when Wade Ormsby did the very same thing a year later.
Justin Rose's 2015 triumph confirms once again that when a world-class player turns up anywhere, they have to be respected, but these market leaders aren't without their flaws. Finau's strike-rate alone is enough to temper enthusiasm, and while Lowry won his first start back in 2019, this has the look of a tune-up for the Middle East. He's not played in Hong Kong for a long time and will have been handsomely rewarded for agreeing to make the trip so early in the year.
The formula for success is to hit the ball straight. Rai and Ormsby are two of the most reliably accurate drivers on the European Tour, as was Miguel Angel Jimenez in the years of his first, second, third and fourth triumphs here. Big-hitting Scott Hend took this title because he relished clubbing down, not because he got away with being aggressive, because for the most part it simply is not an option. There's just no space to the sides of the fairways, and with the course running firm again it's precise golf which will be rewarded.
Ormsby and talented US youngster Brandon Wu will both be well suited by that and the former is tempting enough at 22/1, but at almost twice the price preference is for ANDREW DODT.
Thanks to Ormsby, Brazel and Hend, it's clear that Australians have a good record here and so they should - Fanling is built in the mould of an Australian course, its fast-running fairways and tricky greens keeping everyone honest.
Dodt, who has won titles in India, Thailand and Malaysia, was third when last playing here, beaten by Brazel, tied with Tommy Fleetwood and with Masters champion Danny Willett just behind in what was a strong renewal.
Also 18th in 2015, sixth at halfway in 2013 and second after the first round in 2012, he's dropped many a hint that he could win here under the right circumstances, and teeing up on the back of a pre-Christmas boost back home makes this an excellent opportunity.
Dodt ranked third in driving accuracy and fifth in greens when last seen, finishing just a shot behind Ormsby and four off Adam Scott in the Australian PGA, and if he turns up here in similar form really ought to be making life difficult for the favourites.
John Catlin, Shiv Kapur, SSP Chawrasia, Paul Peterson and Marcus Fraser are others who will relish the almost unique nature of this week's test and it wouldn't surprise me to see any or all of them in contention in an event where it should pay to side with those who've been here before.
But it's SOOMIN LEE, available at 100/1 in a place, 75/1 elsewhere and a general 66/1, who is my idea of the best bet in the tournament.
This young Korean looked set for a very bright future when winning in China in 2015, holding off Brandon Stone, Joost Luiten and a clutch of other quality European Tour players to earn a breakthrough soon after spurning a big chance in Malaysia.
Despite one or two flashes of brilliance, Lee then suffered a severe dip in form, losing his European Tour status and missing the cut more often than he made it throughout 2017 and 2018 combined.
Last year, however, he started to play well again from a very early stage and eventually earned significant reward, first winning the KJ Choi Invitational back home before taking ninth behind the world-class Sungjae Im in the Genesis Championship, where Min Woo Lee and Seung Yul Noh were both inside the top 10.
Significantly, he finished 39th in the CJ Cup, just behind Collin Morikawa and just ahead of Marc Leishman, and it's that which offers real encouragement that he is ready to compete outside of his homeland.
Three top-30s in four subsequent starts further underline that suspicion and Fanling is an excellent course for this sweet swinger who, at his best, hits plenty of fairways.
Back in 2015, before he held full European Tour status, Lee finished third here, and a year later he was 29th, shooting rounds of 64 on both occasions. The latter ended badly, but the fact that Lee sat eighth through 54 holes means he could well have placed on his first two visits to the course, thanks to some quality iron play which saw him rank fifth and third in greens hit.
We can ignore 2017's missed cut - his form coming in read MC-MC-MC-MC-58-51-MC-64-60-WD-MC-MC-MC-50 - and expect a return to something like his best, which would make him a big each-way player.
Yikeun Chang is interesting at a best of 90/1, but the final selection is YAN-WEI LIU at three-figure prices.
This 22-year-old first played here in 2014, when just 17 years old, and unsurprisingly missed the cut. But in 2018, now well-established as a professional, he started brightly to sit on the fringes of contention at halfway, picking up valuable experience despite fading over the weekend.
In ranking sixth for driving accuracy that week, Liu hinted at the right approach to Fanling, and we saw his accuracy on display again just before Christmas when only one player hit more fairways as he finished 26th in Mauritius.
Jyoti Randhawa was the only Asian Tour regular ahead of Liu that week, the leaderboard packed with European Tour talent, and if he can reproduce a similar level of golf on this more suitable course he could go really well.
Posted at 1305 GMT on 07/01/20
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