Zhang turns dream into reality

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 November, 2003, 12:00am

China was celebrating last night after Zhang Lianwei fulfilled a nine-year quest by winning the US$500,000 Volvo China Open.

The 38-year-old golfing pioneer overcame nerves and a fast-diminishing lead to deliver for an expectant nation at the Shanghai Silport Golf Club. 'I am so happy to win this,' said Zhang after his two-stroke victory over Thailand's Thaworn Wiratchant.

'I have been trying for nine years. I feel a mixture of relief and excitement. I hope this sparks a golf boom in China.'

The champagne corks were popping as officials celebrated Zhang's victory. 'This is a dream result, there is nothing better,' said Cui Zhiqiang, secretary general of the China Golf Association.

'It will make a major impact on the development of golf in China. Zhang is a great role model for our young crop of golfers coming through.'

Zhang, who has won on the European, Canadian and Asian Tours, rated the achievement above his victory over world number three Ernie Els in the Caltex Singapore Masters in January. 'I have also won a lot of small tournaments in China but this is most important to me,' said Zhang, who now sets his sights on winning the US$700,000 Hong Kong Open early next month.

'I have won the Macau Open [twice], the China Open and now I want the Hong Kong Open,' he added. 'I have been in the top 10 there for several years and I want to win it.' A victory at Fanling in Hong Kong would put him top of the order of merit on the Asian PGA Tour and guarantee him a place at the British Open.

The US$90,000 cheque for winning the Volvo China Open boosted Zhang's winnings on the Asian Tour to US$245,569 from only five events. He trails leader Arjun Atwal of India by US$36,600.

Zhang will return for two tournaments on the Japan Tour, where he now chases the yen, before heading for Hong Kong.

The self-taught star was cruising to victory with a five-shot lead at the 12th hole yesterday when the wheels came loose. Two bogeys and a birdie charge from Wiratchant saw his lead cut to one.

Zhang was unaware of the growing threat as he lined up his second shot from the rough on the16th hole. He smashed a nine-iron from 129 yards to within six inches for a birdie, which gave him the winning two-stroke cushion.

'That was the best shot I hit over the four days. Just magic,' said Zhang, who becomes the second Chinese player to win the Open after Cheng Jun in 1997.

Zhang finished with an even-par 72 for an 11-under total of 277.

Wiratchant felt things were swinging his way when he came to the 17th hole only one shot behind, but he missed another birdie putt from six feet. 'I didn't feel any pressure,' he said. 'I thought I might have a chance. I'm very happy to finish second.'

Wiratchant, who posted the best equal score for the day with a three-under 69, left Shanghai with US$55,500, which took him from eighth to third on the Asian money list with US$143,265.

Defending champion David Gleeson fell out of contention after a double bogey at the par-five ninth and finished with a 73, eight strokes behind Zhang. 'I was thinking well, putting well and playing well. I just didn't score well,' he said. 'I could have been nine-under easily with just a bit of luck. I'm very happy and hope to carry it on to Hong Kong.'