Ambitious Zhang shoots for the stars
'I want to be Asia's No 1 so I can be the first Chinese to play in the British Open'
Having put a man in space, China has one last frontier to conquer - to see a mainland golfer play in one of the Majors. And Zhang Lianwei desperately wants to be that man from China to do golf's version of the moonwalk.
The Chinese ace can take one giant step towards that goal this week if he beats a strong cast and wins the US$700,000 Omega Hong Kong Open, which starts this morning at the Hong Kong Golf Club in Fanling. Zhang will tee off in one of the first flights of the day, starting at the 10th tee at 7.35am, accompanied by England's Nick Faldo and top Korean Choi Kyung-ju.
Zhang, the mainland's first professional and currently its number one player, is aiming to become the first golfer from China to compete in a Major. One day, in the not too distant future, mainland players are likely to be a yuan a dozen and appear in the world's elite events. But for now, no one from the country has ever walked the hallowed fairways in the United States and Britain.
If Zhang lifts the winner's purse of US$113,000 on Sunday, he will then take a huge step to winning the 2003 Asian PGA Tour Order of Merit title and grab an automatic spot in next year's British Open at Royal Troon, Scotland.
'It would be a milestone for me if I won a place in next year's British Open. I want to be Asia's number one so that I can be the first Chinese to play in the prestigious tournament. I would be playing for my country, rather than for myself,' said Zhang yesterday as he prepared for the penultimate leg of the 2003 Asian Tour.
A trailblazer ever since he turned professional back in 1994, Zhang is currently lying in second place behind India's Arjun Atwal in the Asian money list race, trailing by US$36,624. The gap was larger - over US$100,000 - a fortnight ago until Zhang narrowed it by winning the Volvo China Open, for the first time, in Shanghai.
Atwal is not in Hong Kong to defend his lead. He is in the US, playing the final qualifying stage for the PGA Tour. So the in-form Zhang has no cause to worry about how his rival is performing.
A javelin thrower during his schooldays, Zhang is now aiming to win the Hong Kong Open for the first time in his career and completing a historic 'people's' treble, having already won the Open titles in China and Macau.
'I have won in China and Macau. Now I want to win the Hong Kong Open. Whenever I win a big tournament, it raises the profile of Chinese golf and I'm happy to achieve that,' said Zhang, who has plied his trade on the lucrative Japan Tour for the past two seasons.
His successful involvement in Japan over the past 12 months has had a downside in that he has not been able to devote as much time as he would like to play on the Asian Tour - the Hong Kong Open being only his fifth event this season.
'I have played over 30 tournaments this year with most being in Japan. But despite that, I'm happy to be in this position of being in with a chance of finishing as Asia's number one this year,' said Zhang.
So far he has a 50 per cent strike rate in Asia this year. From the four APGA tournaments he has appeared in, he has won in China and also the Caltex Masters in Singapore in January when he upstaged South African great Ernie Els, winning by one stroke with victory clinched on the final hole. That title saw Zhang become the first Chinese to win on the European Tour.
Having faced top calibre opposition in the past, Zhang is unlikely to be fazed by the strong field assembled this week by organisers of the Hong Kong Open, which is co-sanctioned by the European Tour.
The field drawn to Fanling - boosted by $2.3 million of government funds from the Relaunch Hong Kong Campaign - includes three of the top four golfers in Europe last season: Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland, Padraig Harrington of Ireland and defending champion Fredrik Jacobson of Sweden, who were second, third and fourth respectively on the European Tour Order of Merit.
The presence of Faldo, Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal, the 2001 winner, US-based Korean Choi Kyung-ju - the highest-ranked Asian in the world rankings (19th) - and New Zealand's Michael Campbell will make the cocktail more potent.
Zhang will look to six-time Major winner Faldo for inspiration over the first two rounds as he bids to become China's first man to enter the rarified atmosphere of playing in a Major.