April 18, 2017: A slimmed-down Bubba Watson is hoping a heavier putter can help his quest to win the US$2.8 million Shenzhen International as the two-time Masters Tournament champion bids to secure his second European Tour title in China.
The popular American, who won the 2014 WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, tied for 29th in the inaugural Shenzhen International at Genzon Golf Club in 2015 and followed up with a share of eighth last year.
Watson, ranked as high as World Number Two in early 2015, shot closing rounds of 65 and 66 for the past two years at Genzon and the nine-time PGA TOUR winner wants to match that form in his early rounds this week.
“For sure, I’m hoping to start as well as I usually finish. I’ve just got to get better and make a few more putts early on,” said the 38-year-old Watson, currently World Number 22 and the field’s top-ranked player.
“Maybe the past couple of years I’ve wanted it so bad and there’s nervous energy because of wanting to win a trophy. Then, when you’re a little behind at the weekend, maybe it frees up my game.”
Watson, 38, changed to a lighter putter for last year’s Shenzhen International, but this year is using a heavier one as he tries to master Genzon’s tricky greens.
“Last year I went lighter thinking I might swing it a bit faster, but the Ping engineers said it’s better to go heavier when the greens are a little bit slower,” said Watson, who is notably slimmer after being on a healthy diet for the past few months.
“Golfers have their stroke and there’s no way to change it, so the heavier putter’s just going to give it a bigger mass, a bigger hit. This time it’s 20 grams heavier.”
For the third successive year, Watson will play with China Number One Li Haotong for the first two rounds, and the high-profile pair will be joined on Thursday and Friday by English star Tommy Fleetwood, the field’s second-ranked player.
Like Watson, Fleetwood is also full of motivation after twice coming close to winning at Genzon. The Englishman was second at the 2014 Volvo China Open at Genzon then just missed out on the playoff at the 2015 Shenzhen International when he finished a stroke behind eventual champion Kiradech Aphibarnrat of Thailand and China’s Li Haotong.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing at Genzon and played well around here. I’ve had a second and a third here, so it either suited my eye or I’ve turned up swinging it well,” said Fleetwood, the World Number 33.
“In 2015, I played really well but left a lot of shots out there, so I really did feel like I’d let one slip by as I just didn’t putt well enough.”
The 26-year-old is now enjoying his best-ever season, having held off current World Number One Dustin Johnson to win January’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for his second European Tour title and finished runner-up to Johnson at last month’s WGC-Mexico Championship.
“I was playing really well towards the end of last year, started getting top 10s and finished third in Hong Kong. I was close to winning, but that was where I felt I was making good progress,” Fleetwood said.
“The next step was to actually win and that just happened to be in Abu Dhabi. I then played great in Mexico and if you’re going to get good results, those are the type of tournaments to do it in. Dustin and I are now 1-1, so it’s a good rivalry!”
Wu is making his Shenzhen International debut, although he played the 2014 Volvo China Open at Genzon. The 31-year-old won the Volvo China Open when it was held in Shanghai in 2015 and last year triumphed at the Lyoness Open in Austria to become the first Chinese to win a European Tour title in Europe.
The first player from his country to win two European Tour titles, Wu is now bidding to become the first Chinese to win the Shenzhen International, but admits he would be delighted if any of his compatriots emerged victorious.
“I hope a Chinese player can win the Shenzhen International. Every European Tour event in China is very, very important for Chinese players, so I would be happy if any Chinese player could win. I played a round on Monday and it was amazing – the conditions are perfect,” Wu said.
“Obviously winning my first European Tour title was a great experience as I was the first Chinese to win my country’s national Open. When I won in Austria, my coach (Joe Thiel) was there for a couple of days, as my swing had been a little bit off, so he improved my swing and my confidence. I will just try my best this week.”
Last year, Wu represented China at the Olympics with Li – who’s also in this week’s field – then teamed up with his good friend at the World Cup of Golf in Australia, where they tied for second to secure China’s best-ever result in the prestigious team tournament.
“The World Cup was an amazing week. I like playing the team format and playing with Li Haotong, my friend. We’ve played a lot of tournaments together, I know him well and he knows me very well, too, so it’s a great partnership.”
Other top contenders at Genzon include Austria Number One Bernd Wiesberger, Denmark’s Thorbjørn Olesen and France Number One Victor Dubuisson, a member of the victorious 2014 Ryder Cup team.