World Cup Countdown
by Michael Church
The countdown clock has clicked down to less than a week to go before the Omega Mission Hills World Cup and next Thursday the quest for a new world champion will begin.
With the European Tour in the midst of its climax at the Dubai World Championship, the Olazabal Course could well be welcoming the new Order of Merit champion to China's shores.
After his impressive showing at the UBS Hong Kong Open last weekend, Rory McIlroy stands in pole position to win that race just days before boarding an aircraft back to southern China to pair up with Graeme McDowell to spearhead Ireland's challenge for glory.
Yet the young Ulsterman will not be the only Race to Dubai contender heading to Shenzhen.
Germany's Martin Kaymer and Ross Fisher from England - who, along with McIlroy and Lee Westwood are battling it out for the European money title - will both journey from Dubai to Shenzhen to play for their countries.
Fisher, in particular, will no doubt fancy his chances of World Cup glory. Playing alongside the in-form Ian Poulter - who just missed out on a top-three placing at Fanling last weekend - the English go into the tournament as favourites, with odds of 4-1 being quoted for the two-time winning nation.
England last won the title in 2004, when Paul Casey and Luke Donald teamed up to claim victory in Spain, but in Poulter and Fisher they have a team more than capable of taking the trophy back home.
The McIlroy-led Irish pairing will no doubt have something to say about that, and the duo from the Emerald Isle are being offered as second favourites at 5-1 as they look to end a 12-year drought for Ireland.
McDowell showed in Hong Kong with his tie for 18th place that he can take the fight to the opposition just as much as McIlroy and their pairing is sure to be capable of launching a concerted challenge.
However, defending champions Sweden cannot be overlooked as both Robert Karlsson and Henrik Stenson team up once again at Mission Hills with their minds set on becoming the first team to retain the title since the United States in 2000.
Back then, Tiger Woods and David Duval combined in Argentina to retain the title won the previous year by Woods and Mark O'Meara around the Mines Resort layout in Kuala Lumpur.
Since then, no team has made a successful defence, although England went close in 2005, when they finished joint runners-up behind Wales.
Stenson will certainly be looking to hit his stride in Dubai this weekend, whereas Karlsson has fallen short of the form that he showed last season.
In 2008, he became the first Swede to be crowned European Tour Order of Merit winner, but this year, during a season in which he missed the British Open owing to an eye problem, Karlsson has struggled to hit those heights. He goes into the tournament after a year that saw him finish 98th on the money list - meaning he missed out on a place at the lucrative end-of-season bash in Dubai - and only last weekend he failed to make the cut at the Hong Kong Open.
Despite Karlsson's woes, Sweden are still third favourites for the title - no doubt in part because of the nature of their win last year, their knowledge of the Olazabal Course and Stenson's fine form this year.
The 33-year-old has had a great season, winning The Players Championship as well as finishing well up the leaderboard in both the US PGA Championship, where he was sixth, and at the US Open, where he finished ninth.
However, in such a strong field, odds and favourites - as well as recent form - could count for very little.
Yet few will be dismissing the challenge from Spain. And with Sergio Garcia pairing up with Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, the Spanish are not being discounted in their aim to win their country's fifth World Cup - and first since 1984.
By his own lofty standards, Garcia has had an indifferent season, finishing 38th in the FedEx Cup standings on the PGA Tour, but Fernandez-Castano - a four-time winner on the European Tour - should act as the perfect foil for his teammate.
Kaymer, meanwhile, will lead Germany's charge alongside a veteran of this competition, Alex Cejka. Cejka knows his way around the Mission Hills course as well as anyone, having played in the three most recent editions of the World Cup at the Shenzhen course.
There will be similar familiarity in the South African team as Rory Sabbatini and Richard Sterne combine for the third time and the knowledge of each other's game may make them good value at 20-1.
And then, of course, there are the United States and Australia - two of the most successful nations in the history of the competition.
Four-time champions Australia will be represented by Robert Allenby and Stuart Appleby, while Californian duo Nick Watney and John Merrick will be hoping they can add to America's record 23 titles.
Both nations are being quoted at 12-1, slightly weaker odds than those being offered on the Sorens of Denmark - Kjeldsen and Hansen - who are at 10-1.
The Danes have played well together already this year, in particular at the Vivendi Trophy as part of the Continental Europe team, who lost to Great Britain and Ireland in France.
Beyond the usual suspects, there are a number of nations that will be harbouring realistic hopes of claiming the title.
South Korea will be one of those as they look to become the first Asian nation to win the World Cup since Japan took the crown in 2002.
Led by Asia's first-ever major winner Yang Yong-eun - who memorably held off the challenge of Tiger Woods to emerge victorious at the US PGA Championship in August - the Koreans, who have never won the World Cup, will also be represented by Charlie Wi.
Wi has had another solid year on the PGA Tour, finishing in joint second at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans and fourth in the Transitions Championship as he finished 56th in the FedEx Cup standings.
Indian duo Jeev Milkha Singh and Jyoti Randhawa will also have their eye on an upset, as will Japan's Ryuji Imada and Hiroyuki Fujita and Prayad Marksaeng and Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand.
Success at the World Cup would be especially significant for Thongchai as he wrapped up his third Asian Order of Merit victory in Hong Kong last week, underlining his status as the Asian Tour's undoubted number one.
Liang Wenchong and Zhang Lianwei will be aiming to fly the home flag high around Mission Hills but, despite knowing both the course and the playing strengths and weaknesses of one another's games intimately, they are ranked as a long-shot to win the title for the first for China.