Inside the ropes
with Tim Noonan
Now that was a gallery. Sprawling, eclectic, well behaved, knowledgeable, sexy and ever so grateful. And well they should be. When was the last time the reigning US Open champion, not to mention the reigning Ryder Cup hero, managed to show up for the Hong Kong Open? According to a person close to player negotiations, Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell was offered significantly more money to play in the Dunlop Phoenix Championship in the southern Japanese island of Miyazaki this week.
Of course, McDowell was certainly interested in garnering more points in Hong Kong for the Race to Dubai, next week's penultimate and lucrative finishing event on the European Tour where he currently stands second. But Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood and Francesco Molinari are also in the top four for Dubai and there was no sign of them this week. McDowell wanted to be here for more than financial reasons; a fact that warms even the most cynical soul.
He repeatedly, and unprovoked, articulated his love for Hong Kong at every turn this past week which is why I am fighting every urge here to gush too effusively.
But the simple truth is McDowell seems completely oblivious to the fact he is one of the biggest stars in golf right now and let's all hope he never figures that out. This man is an absolute credit to the game and accordingly had a swelling legion of admirers all set to root him on to victory.
Unfortunately, a bogey on the first hole put him on his heels from the get-go and he never seriously challenged, finishing at 19 under par, three strokes back of eventual champion Ian Poulter.
His spotty form also took the steam out of a colourful gallery that was looking for a reason, any reason, to explode, yet was effectively muted for most of the day.
'Yeah it was a cold start,' McDowell said. 'But 22 under is a fantastic return on any golf course. That's better than a 65 average. Ian's a great player and it's great to see him back in the winner's circle. Personally, I am very happy with my week. I was disappointed with my start today, but no disappointments in general this week.'
McDowell should hardly be disappointed because no one hit the ball as well as Poulter did and had his putter been even lukewarm yesterday, his margin of victory would easily have been more than one stroke. But one stroke is all you need to be crowned champion and regardless of the inherent advantage of playing preferred lies throughout the tournament, 22 under looks awful nice on the resume.
This was hardly a career-defining victory for Poulter and, at only 34 years of age, it would be safe to assume the best is in front of him. While Poulter is not nearly as genuinely engaging as either McDowell or Rory McIlroy, he is still a charismatic performer who is quickly becoming a fan favourite - witness the one million plus subscribers to his Twitter account. 'This is a big tournament to win,' he said. 'And any win, whether it be PGA or European Tour is a great one to win. It's hard to get 30,000 or 40,000 people around this course, but the fans that do come out and follow us make this a fantastic tournament.'
Poulter's golf game has finally caught up to his flashy attire and, at number 10 in the world, he will be on the short list of favourites next year at all four majors. But not only is his golf game maturing, it appears his attitude is as well. Poulter raised eyebrows globally when he said 2? years ago that the only peer he had in golf was then world number one Tiger Woods. 'Don't get me wrong,' he said at the time, 'I really respect every professional golfer, but I know I haven't played to my full potential and when that happens, it will be just me and Tiger.'
A little confidence goes a long way, but Poulter was savaged for what seemed like misplaced bravado. When asked after his victory in Hong Kong if he felt that number one in the world was within his reach next year, he paused for a moment before replying: 'I'm not playing the game saying I'm going to get to number one. Tried that once before and it didn't work. But I'll just try winning next week in Dubai and see how high I can go. Tiger has dropped a lot of points. Westwood is the world's number one and if I keep playing well who knows.'
Anybody who watched Poulter play this week saw an extremely confident player. A victory in one of the four majors next year would hardly be a surprise. Should that momentous victory come his way, he won't have far to look to for inspiration on how to carry himself as a major champion. Hopefully, he takes a page out of McDowell's classy book and handles himself accordingly.
And regardless of his career's ascendancy, a return to Hong Kong next year is an absolute must. After all, the reigning US Open champion has now set the precedent.