Stars line up for 'best-ever' HK Open

James Tu

Organisers of the UBS Hong Kong Open hailed next week's field as the strongest in the tournament's 51-year history as major winners Mark O'Meara and Ben Curtis joined the stellar cast.

Forty of Europe's top 60 players and the top 10 from the Asian Tour will compete at Hong Kong Golf Club as UBS ends its five-year sponsorship with a bang.

Americans O'Meara and Curtis will join world number four Paul Casey and number five Lee Westwood and Asia's first major winner, Yang Yong-eun, at the US$2.5 million event.

'It is, far and away, the best field ever seen in Hong Kong,' said Martin Capstick, managing director of tournament promoter Parallel Media Group.

'The latest player confirmations, together with those already unveiled, mean we have 14 of the world's top 50, according to the Official World Golf Ranking, which is unprecedented.

'We have 40 of the leading 60 players in the European Tour's Race To Dubai - including four of the top six - and all the top 10 in the Asian Tour's Order of Merit,' Capstick said.

Hong Kong's oldest professional sporting event has taken on added importance as it is the penultimate event in the Race To Dubai, where only the top 60 golfers on the European Tour money list are eligible.

European Tour Order of Merit champion Robert Karlsson will also be at Fanling next week, as will Ian Poulter, who leapt up to world number 15 with his victory in last week's Singapore Open, and brilliant Northern Irish youngster Rory McIlroy, beaten in a sensational play-off at Fanling last year.

They are joined by South African ace Rory Sabbatini, who has won five US PGA Tour titles, and former Hong Kong champions Colin Montgomerie (2005) and Miguel Angel Jimenez (2004 and 2007).

Americans O'Meara and Curtis - both former British Open champions - will be making their debuts in the tournament.

O'Meara has 16 US PGA Tour victories to his name and enjoyed an incredible year in 1998 when he won both the Masters and the British Open and then beat close friend Tiger Woods in the final of the World Match Play Championship.

Aside from his British Open triumph, achieved at Royal Birkdale in Lancashire, he has three other European Tour titles, the last being the Dubai Desert Classic in 2004.

'I have always prided myself on playing all over the world, so to finally make my debut in the UBS Hong Kong Open is very special,' O'Meara said.

'I'm also going to try my hardest to get an American name back on that trophy - I understand the last US player to win was 14 years ago, so I'll be shooting to change that.'

Curtis astonished the golf world in 2003 when, as a virtual unknown, he won the British Open at Royal St George's in Kent - becoming the first player since Francis Ouimet at the 1913 US Open to win a major at his first attempt.

He also jumped from 396th to 35th in the world ranking, the biggest leap since the ranking system began in 1986. Since then he has consolidated his status as an elite player with two victories on the US PGA Tour and was a member of the United States' victorious Ryder Cup team last year.

'As a member of the European Tour, I have always enjoyed competing in the great events around the world, and I know the history of this event is very strong,' Curtis said.

'Its place on the schedule is very important, with this being the final chance to qualify for the Dubai World Championship. I need to make up some ground on that list so I'm looking forward to a great week.'

Other stars confirmed for the Open include defending champion Lin Wen-tang of Taiwan and top New Zealand teenager Danny Lee, who became the youngest winner in European Tour history when, aged 18 years and 213 days, he won last February's Johnnie Walker Classic while still an amateur.

Also confirmed are Thai ace Thongchai Jaidee, who leads the Asian Tour's Order of Merit with earnings of US$937,658, and mainland number one Liang Wenchong, second in the money list and runner-up to Poulter in Singapore.