Zhang steps on to world stage
Zhang Xinjun has been flexing his muscles in the gym. Today, he hopes to punch above his weight for China on the world stage.
The unheralded Zhang faces the biggest test in his career when he partners Liang Wenchong, China number one, in the US$7.5 million Omega Mission Hills World Cup, which starts in Hainan today.
The trailblazing era of Zhang Lianwei is over. Now his namesake has been given the responsibility by the China Golf Association (CGA) to show that a new generation of Chinese golfers is alive and well.
Zhang Xinjun, 24, is a member of the national team, and justified the CGA's faith in selecting him by starring at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai three weeks ago, shooting 64 in the third round and finishing in a tie for 13th.
'I have been working out in the gym and I feel fit and healthy,' Zhang, a native of Xian, said yesterday.
'Liang is like a big brother to me, and I know he'll always be there to support me as my career progresses. I'll be looking for him to support me against the best players in the world.'
Liang, 33, will be making his fifth World Cup appearance, and is ready to play the role of mentor. 'I have every confidence in [Zhang], as he has shown he is capable of matching up against the best,' Liang said.
Liang said it was important for them to perform and help raise the profile of the sport, which is considered a rich man's game on the mainland and accessible to a privileged few, as there are only 600 courses.
The new Chinese partnership will be feeling their way in today's opening fourballs (best ball), and will have to quickly find the 'chemistry' that sets teams apart.
Chemistry is the X factor when it comes to winning World Cups, all the players say, and three countries have it in abundance.
Defending champions Italy will again be represented by Francesco and Edoardo Molinari, Colombia has the Villegas brothers Camilo and Manuel, while Portugal also has a set of brothers, Ricardo and Hugo Santos.
The Molinari brothers will have their work cut out to defend their title - won at Mission Hills' Shenzhen complex two years ago before the World Cup was changed from yearly to every other.
The field is stronger this year, but they showed that brotherly love could prove the difference, holding their nerve on the last hole to beat Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, who have gone on to win the last two US Opens.
'It was fantastic because neither of us had won such a big tournament before,' Edoardo said. 'When you play for your country there is extra pressure. But we know each other so well and know what to expect from each other. The course is very similar to the course we won on two years ago with quite big fairways, and quite small greens. But as defending champions there is extra pressure on us ... everyone is expecting the same this week.'
Ireland (McIlroy and McDowell) may be the favourites, but at least eight countries are capable of winning. England have not won since 2004 (Paul Casey and Luke Donald) but have a formidable pairing in Justin Rose and Ian Poulter.
'We are very good mates and get on exceptionally well,' Poulter said.
'We've played well in the Ryder Cup together. It's always nice to be able to represent your country, and to be on a winning team would be extra special.
'It's an honour to be playing in England colours [after 2001, '07, '08 and '09], and to win it would be awesome,' said Poulter, who will try to defend his UBS Hong Kong Open title at Fanling next week.
'Justin's in good form and I am coming back into form. There is still much to achieve, and after what has been a disappointing year I can really turn this into a really good year.'