Asia's best line up for title

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 December, 2004, 12:00am

'I sincerely hope an Asian wins. For far too many years the Hong Kong Open has been won by Europeans'

Who can snatch the Omega Hong Kong Open from these pesky Europeans? That was the plaintive cry from Kevin Rollenhagen, an American who calls Hong Kong his home.

'I sincerely hope an Asian wins this weekend. For far too many years the Hong Kong Open has been won by Europeans. I personally hope that an Asian wins this time,' said Rollenhagen, the vice-president of Omega, China and Hong Kong.

The oldest professional sporting event in Hong Kong has been the domain of European golfers since Swede Patrick Sjoland won in 1999. The last Asian to win was South Korea's Kang Wook-soon, the year before. The mists of time have since clouded that win and made it a distant memory.

So when Rollenhagen came out and took sides yesterday, a veiled challenge was thrown in front of an assembled crew of European golfers, including defending champion Padraig Harrington. It is now up to Asia's cream of golfing talent to make Rollenhagen's wish - and indeed most of the local fans - come true at this event jointly sanctioned by the Asian Tour and the European Tour.

Any number of players can carry the mace for Asia. Among them a bevy of Thais led by 2004 Asian Tour Order of Merit leader Thongchai Jaidee and others like Thaworn Wirachant, Boonchu Ruangkit and Prayad Marksaeng, who are all inside the top six players on the money list.

And of course there is Hong Kong favourite and Chinese number one Zhang Lianwei. The mainlander has all the right ingredients needed to eke out a victory. He has the temperament, the experience and the talent. He also has the ability to win.

'But the Europeans' ability is better than us Asians,' conceded the 39-year-old Zhang yesterday. 'I would love to see an Asian win in Hong Kong and I would be really happy if I could do it. But it is hard, although I will be trying my best.'

Zhang, who has won the China Open and the Macau Open, will be seeking to complete the 'People's Treble' this Sunday. To achieve that, he will have to get over a sore hip, which has been troubling him recently and which may have resulted in him losing ground to younger mainland rival Liang Wenchong at last week's China Open in Shanghai.

'There are three of us from China who are appearing this time and hopefully all of us will do well. We will try our best to push the Europeans,' said Zhang, who finished way down the field in cold and icy Shanghai.

'At least the weather is good in Hong Kong. Last week was too cold for us southerners,' smiled Zhang. He has been having regular massage treatments on his hip and says he is feeling much better. The sun had definitely revived his spirits yesterday.

Rollenhagen will also be praying that the sunny skies will also inject Zhang with a huge boost of self-confidence. For the Chinese ace is personally backed by his watch company.

'Asia has good golfers. Guys like Zhang and Thongchai Jaidee are very good. It's just a question of them believing in themselves and travelling with that belief,' says Harrington, who at six is the highest ranked player here.

Thai star Thongchai admitted that it will be a hard haul to beat Europe's top stars. Apart from Harrington, others to take part are six-time Major winner Nick Faldo of England, two-time Masters champion Jose-Maria Olazabal, fellow-Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez and red-hot Welshman Stephen Dodd, winner in Shanghai last week.

'There are a lot of big names out there. I hope I can do well. I did not play last year in Hong Kong as I was playing on the US Tour. That experience has helped me and I believe I'm a better player. I certainly can speak better English,' laughed Thongchai who has won US$354,635 to lead the Asian money list.

Last year, Thai Marksaeng had a golden opportunity to win when he was just one shot off the pace going into the final round. But he self-destructed and tumbled to joint-seventh when the final reckoning was done. He was the top Asian finisher.

Marksaeng will be hoping to put himself in line for a tilt at the crown once again - and to finish the job this time. The others, including Zhang, will also make a brave run for the money as they try to deliver the Hong Kong Open back into Asian hands.