Searching for its identity going forward, the Hong Kong Open may have found it with a very unlikely champion
Australian journeyman Sam Brazel’s upset victory at Fanling was a soul affirming moment for an event in need of one
Maybe it would have been a nice story if Justin Rose had defended his title at the UBS Hong Kong Open, or if the reigning Masters champion Danny Willett had won his first event since Augusta in April.
Perhaps one of the young Ryder Cup stars in the field, like American Patrick Reed or Spaniard Rafa Cabrera Bello, as well. Any of them would have been an easier sell going forward for this once venerable event.
Begun in 1959, there is only one other professional golf tournament that has been held on the same course in consecutive years longer than the Hong Kong Open at Fanling and that is the Masters at Augusta and some of the best golfers to ever play the game are named on the trophy.
Yet despite all that history, the event was on the brink of extinction only a few short years ago.
Minus a title sponsor and lagging behind regional tournaments, it became even more toxic when a politician went on a crusade to reclaim the land at Fanling for public housing.
With no title sponsor, little public empathy and the government pulling support from the Mega Events Fund, Hong Kong Golf Club stepped up to save not only the tournament but their reputation as well.
Unknown journeyman Sam Brazel shows nerves of steel then breaks down in tears after stunning Hong Kong Open win
Bereft of marquee attractions, they put up their own money to sponsor the event in 2013 and 2014. It was a hard lesson for the club, whose membership features a number of titans of commerce and industry.
They watched golf evolve around the region, big-money events in places like China, Malaysia and Singapore with stellar fields and palatial monstrosities for clubhouses where it takes you half an hour to get to the first tee box.
Step off the storied verandah at our course, they said, you basically fall onto the first tee and all the players rave about the intimacy, great crowds and history and tradition of our event as well. But most players rave about money and rightly so.
It pays the bills and tradition does not. Still, diminished as it was, the event persevered until, in near miraculous fashion, UBS announced in 2015 that it was coming back on a multi-year deal while the government announced it was freeing up a significant amount of funds for the event.
Then former US Open champion and then world number seven Rose was suddenly in the field and dynamic American Dustin Johnson as well, and just like that, the marquee was relit.
But while the bright lights were on again, no one was sure where was the future of this slightly battered event, where was its soul?
Rose gamely came back from a long injury lay-off to defend his title, but was basically a non-factor this year.
Come Sunday, Willett was still lurking but it was the dashing Cabrera Bello, central casting’s idea of a Spanish golf star, who shared the top of the leaderboard with the 470th ranked player in the world, Australia’s Sam Brazel.
At 38 years of age, Brazel had zero career wins on the Asian Tour and even had to go to qualifying school a few times to requalify.
Unassuming and engaging, he had lost his partner to bacterial meningitis in 2009 and admittedly endured some rough years. But not for one second did this so-called journeyman look out of place on the final day and when he arrived at the last hole tied with Cabrera-Bello.
Of the 66 golfers who had played the 18th before them, only one had made a birdie, and it so it looked like extra holes were looming.
Brazel’s steely approach shot to the green was under 10 feet and he calmly smiled. When Cabrera Bello’s birdie putt narrowly missed, the stage was set.
A lifetime of work and struggle distilled into a single moment, by the time Brazel’s birdie putt dropped into the middle of the hole, he went from being ranked 470th in the world to 147th with a two-year exemption on the lucrative European Tour.
He teared up in front of the TV cameras and later at the press conference as he looked at the trophy and murmured, “They are some seriously good names on that.”
Yes, 11 of them major champions and now Brazel’s name would be there as well. He broke down and so did everyone in the room and this is why many of us care about sports.
As the tournament searches to reassert its significance, to find its soul, for a moment it was laid out for all to see.
The Hong Kong Open is still an event which can change a man’s life. It simply does not get any better than that.