Doug Ferguson / Associated Press
SHANGHAI – Russell Knox raised both arms in the air, closed his eyes and tilted his head toward the heavens as if he couldn’t believe what he had just done.
Dating to when the World Golf Championship began in 1999, no one had ever won in his debut. Knox wasn’t even eligible for the HSBC Champions until he got in 10 days ago as an alternate, and then it was a mad scramble in Malaysia to get a Chinese visa in time to play.
Walking out of the Sheshan International clubhouse on Sunday with a share of the 54-hole lead, Knox noticed a billboard with names and images of past winners at the HSBC Champions – Phil Mickelson and Martin Kaymer, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson.
“Everyone who wins this tournament is a superstar,” Knox said. “I knew this would be the hardest day in my life.”
For a 30-year-old from Scotland who had never won in 92 previous tries on the PGA Tour, Knox made it look like a breeze. He broke out of a five-way tie for the lead with two quick birdies to start the back nine and was flawless the rest of the way for a 4-under 68 and a two-shot victory over Kevin Kisner.
“I always thought I was going to win a big one for my first one,” he said. “But this is going to take a long time to sink in.”
He played alongside Johnson, whose power can be so intimidating that Knox didn’t watch him hit a shot for 12 holes. In the group ahead was Jordan Spieth, on his way back to No. 1 in the world. The cheers were for Li Haotong, the 20-year-old from Shanghai who received rock-star treatment during a wild final round that ended with the best finish ever by a Chinese player on the PGA Tour.
“Incredible for me this week,” Li said. “This for me is very, very big.”
Imagine how it felt for Knox, whose unexpected trip to China ended with a most surprising victory.
Knox finished at 20-under 268 and earned $1.4 million, along with perks that include his first trip to the Masters in April.
“I got married on Saturday of the Masters,” he said. “What a great wedding anniversary we’re going to have.”
It was the fourth runner-up this year for Kisner – the other three were in playoffs. He closed with a 70, though his birdie putt on the 18th hole was worth an additional $285,000, a small consolation.
“That’s all right,” Kisner said. “I’ll keep finishing second and I’ll keep giving myself a shot, and I know I’ll win one of them.”
His birdie was expensive for Danny Willett, who closed with a 62 and tied for third with Ross Fisher (68). If Kisner had not made birdie on the final hole, Willett would have overtaken Rory McIlroy in the Race to Dubai on the European Tour. Willett is playing next week in the BMW Masters in Shanghai – McIlroy is not – and even if he doesn’t pass him, the Race to Dubai will come down to the final event.
McIlroy closed with a 50-foot birdie putt for a 66, ending a week in which his energy was low while recovering from food poisoning, and his putter was cold, as it has been since he returned in August from his ankle injury.
Spieth, who started the final round three shots behind, didn’t feel comfortable with his swing and didn’t make enough putts in his round of 70. Two birdies on the back nine at least allowed him to tie for seventh, and that was enough to move back to No. 1 in the world.
“Everyone is pushing each other a little bit, and when that No. 1 ranking slips away, it leaves some unrest in you and you really want to get back at it,” Spieth said.
Johnson wound up four shots behind, and with more reason than anyone to feel as though a third WGC title got away. He was one shot behind Knox on the par-5 eighth hole when his wedge covered the flag and appeared that it would land a few feet behind the hole or a tap-in birdie. Instead, it struck the pin and caromed harshly off the green and into the creek. A birdie turned into a double bogey, and Johnson never recovered. He closed with a 71.
The hopes were with Li, and the crowd stood four-deep behind the range with cameras on him at all times. The attendance this week (34,790) set a record, topping 2009 when Mickelson and Tiger Woods played in the final round.
But those hopes ended quickly. Li hooked his opening tee shot and had to scramble to make bogey. He hooked his second tee shot into the hazard and made double bogey. He didn’t make a par until the seventh hole, and only because he missed a 4-foot birdie putt.
But he kept fighting until the end, making two late birdies and saving par after a second shot into the water on the 18th, finishing tied for seventh.
“He was really off with his game, but man, did he have heart,” Spieth said. “He didn’t have his best stuff. If he did, he really could have done some damage today.”
Canada’s Richard T. Lee finished T46 at 4 under.