Tours make way for new kids on block

BATTLES for golfing supremacy were not confined to the region's fairways during 1994. Nevertheless, all things considered, it has been an above-par year for Southeast Asia's leading golfers.

While 1994 will go down in the history books as the year the Asian Tour Order of Merit title was won by a Paraguayan, Carlos Franco, it will also be remembered for the emergence of an exciting crop of young players who will carry Asian hopes of glory into the 21st century.

Indeed, 1994 was a year when a new order began to take shape in many of the region's most prominent golfing nations.

While familiar faces such as Marimuthu Ramayah (Malaysia), Choi Sang-ho (South Korea) and Boonchu Ruangkit (Thailand) continued to be forces, their long-time domination of their domestic circuits came under threat.

Periasamy Gunasegaran, Kim Jong-duk and Prayad Marksaeng all gave indications of what lies ahead with mature performances that bode well for the ever-growing popularity of the sport in their own countries and across the region.

'Guna' captured the heart of his nation when he holed a monster birdie putt at the 72nd hole to join European Tour stars Joakim Haeggman of Sweden and New Zealander Frank Nobilo in a sudden-death play-off in the Malaysian Open at Royal Selangor.

Even though 'Guna' lost out to Haeggman at the eighth extra hole, his efforts lifted him to a new level where he was joined by Kim who won the Korean Open.

Like Gunasegaran, Prayad was a former stalwart of his country's amateur teams. In 1994 he showed he was ready to assume the position of Thailand's top professional from Boonchu.

Among other established Asian players, Frankie Minoza of the Philippines, Myanmar's Kyi Hla Han, Hsieh Chin-sheng of Taiwan and Singapore's Samson Gimson all impressed.

Minoza, Hsieh and Gimson continued to enjoy success on the Japanese PGA Tour, while Hong Kong-based Han put himself in contention for the Asian Player of the Year award with victories in the Hong Kong PGA Championship, Johor Masters and Singapore Open late in the year.

For the long-term well-being of Asian professional golf, perhaps the most significant breakthroughs of 1994 were made by Taiwan's Hong Chia-yuh, Indian Jeev Milkha Singh, Singaporean Mardan Mamat and the Chinese duo of Zhang Lianwei and Cheng Jun.

Hong won the Taiwan Open in April to become only the fourth amateur ever to win on the Asian Tour, while Singh's triumph in the Shinhan Donghae Bank Open in Seoul in September was the first top-level success for the highly rated 23-year-old.

Great things are expected also of 26-year-old Mamat, winner of the individual award in the Southeast Asian amateur championship for the Putra Cup in 1993. Soon after securing his second consecutive victory in the Singapore PGA Championship, Mamat relinquished his amateur status and marked his first round as a pro with a hole-in-one.

Most exciting of all in 1994 was the continued development of Shenzhen Golf Club duo Zhang and Cheng.

In October, Zhang claimed his place in history by winning the individual silver medal at the Hiroshima Asian Games - the first Chinese to capture a golfing medal.

Later that month he teamed up with Cheng to win the Volvo World amateur tournament at Sotogrande in Spain and followed that with a third-place finish in the Hong Kong Open amateur and his third China Open amateur crown.

In his eagerly-awaited professional debut at the beginning of December, Zhang came sixth in the Malaysian PGA Championship, while Cheng finished among the top-10 in the following week's Volvo Malaysian Masters.

For them, 1995 cannot come fast enough.

Spencer Robinson is Managing Editor of Asian Golfer