Turning 40 in February next year is not something that worries Zhang Lianwei, who has been swinging along merrily despite his advancing years. China's top player has been turning in some of his best golf and if life does begin at 40, as some folks have it, his rivals on the competitive international circuits had better watch out. As he looks forward to celebrating his birthday, Zhang is certainly enjoying life more than ever and his game continues to improve. It has been an eventful year for one of Asia's top golfers. For Zhang, the thought of retirement has never occurred to him. He's still in love with the game and there's too much at stake to be holding back. And the arrival of a baby boy, Tiger, in his life has given him new drive. There is also some business to take care of as he attempts to defend his title at the US$1 million Volvo China Open in Shanghai this weekend. Last year was a memorable one for Zhang. The mainlander beat South African star Ernie Els, the current world number three, in a head-to-head duel to win the Caltex Masters in Singapore and become the first mainland Chinese pro to win on the European Tour. This year has been even better as he became the first golfer from China to play in the US Masters, performing creditably and missing the cut by just one stroke. 'My year has been incredible,' said Zhang, reflecting on his 2004 season, which comes to fitting climax with the defence of his title at Silport Golf Club. 'Off the golf course, with the birth of my son [in August], has been the part that I most treasure so far. My family has been so supportive of me travelling around the globe and to have a wonderful family back home supporting me has been great. Whenever they come to events, it is always a special feeling for me,' said Zhang. China's enduring champion will have a task on his hands as he attempts to make it back-to-back titles on home soil in Shanghai. With a number of leading European players headlining the field for the first time, Zhang will face a stiff test. Twelve months ago, he fulfilled a dream by winning the tournament. 'I remember it being a close finish with the scores so close and having to make a birdie on 16 to have the best chance of winning. I was able to do so despite not leaving myself very easy shots,'' he said. 'To win in China is always important so to finally win the title was a mixture of emotions. It is probably every young golfer's dream to win their country's Open all over the world and to finally be rewarded for my hard work and persistence was my dream come true. 'I would love to win the tournament again and hope to do so against the European players, too. The European players are very good, but so are the players from Asia, who know the course. It is not easy so everyone has a good chance and I hope I can play well again.' Zhang still talks about golf as he were a rookie, saying there was nothing better than playing at home in China. Retirement? He hasn't even thought of it. Not when he's enjoying the best years of his career. 'There are a lot of big tournaments in China next year which is really exciting for me and this is one thing that I am most looking forward to. I am proud to represent China wherever I play, but when doing so at home against some of the world's best is amazing. 'There are rumours that Tiger Woods may come back to China to play and I think that would be great for the game. If I was given the opportunity to return to the US to play events on the PGA, I would certainly take it. To prove yourself on the best courses against the best players is a great test. 'I hope to continue playing to the best of my ability for many more years to come.' Earlier in April, Zhang received an invitation to compete at the Masters in Augusta. His excursion ended when he missed the cut for the third round by one shot. He took home just US$5,000 - not even enough to cover expenses. But such is life for Zhang, who still feels he has been blessed in a glittering 10-year pro career that has made him a household name and put him in Forbes magazine's Top 100 Chinese Celebrities List - not bad for a player who used to spend his youth working in the fields. 'It has been a struggle. To get to where I am today in golf I have completely exceeded all my expectations since beginning the sport almost 20 years ago, and that's not easy for anyone. 'But I have had to make many sacrifices, and continue to, such as being away from my family for extended periods - to foreign countries with foreign languages. 'It has been difficult to make yourself comfortable at every tournament since that contributes as much to your overall performance as much as how well you swing the golf club. Actually, earlier this year I signed with IMG [International Management Group], which has made playing golf easier since I do not have to worry about other things and my wife [Le Le] can spend more time with our children. 'I have a manager and an assistant now and this has been a nice change of pace for me and my family.' Right now, Asian golf is in the midst of a boom and Zhang has been part of it from the very beginning. 'Asian golf is improving very quickly and narrowing the gap with others. KJ [Choi] has done exceptionally well and is a great role model for all of the players in Asia. I count KJ as a good friend. He was one of the first to greet me in the US. 'During the Memorial he encouraged me to come to the US full-time. It is very expensive to travel and play in America, but the upside is big payouts for strong finishes. I think the level of play is getting to be as good as anywhere, but to be the best you have to compete with the best and right now that is in the US.' Zhang said American players had a great advantage, playing at home where they lived and on courses that were familiar to them. Thanks in part to Zhang's efforts as one the pioneers of the professional game in the mainland, golf continues to enjoy tremendous growth in China. And Zhang believes another Chinese player will carry on his good work and eventually challenge for the Majors against the US and Europeans 'China golf is growing considerably. There are more courses every year and more players, too. With so many tournaments being played in China in 2005 this will add more exposure to top quality golf and hopefully more people will be attracted to the game,' said Zhang. 'There are many talented young players in China right now and with Johnnie Walker coming to Beijing next year, along with Volvo, BMW and Volkswagen the opportunities are there for Chinese professionals to match their skills against other top players. They can see first-hand the consistency that the next level demands. 'I think the number one difference is the consistency. The talent is getting there and it will only be a matter of time before there are more Chinese players challenging the world's best, whether in Asia, Japan, Europe or ultimately in the United States and in Major championships.' When he does retire, Zhang will still be involved in the development of the game. He has already started a junior golf camp called the Zhang Lianwei Trophy and there is talk he might launch his own golf school in China. 'It has been something I am looking forward to developing when the timing is right. I started a junior golf camp, Zhang Lianwei Trophy, which IMG is committed to work with me to develop a junior programme that is not just a local event but with a more national focus. 'I'm still playing championship golf for much of the year, but this is a way I can try to get the young talent passionate about the game with instruction and competition each summer. Maybe from this programme a natural extension into a school or academy could be possible but that will take more time and planning so it can be done right. But now I have others thinking about that side of golf for me and maybe things can happen much sooner,' he said.