Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond, the reigning Asian Tour Order of Merit champion, and American John Catlin, a double winner in Europe last year, are among a strong contingent of Asian Tour members competing in this week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship ― the opening event of the season on the European Tour.
They are joined by Thailand’s Thongchai Jaidee and Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Australians Wade Ormsby and Scott Hend, India’s Shubhankar Sharma and Gaganjeet Bhullar, American Kurt Kitayama and South African Justin Harding.
The US$8 million event is being played at Abu Dhabi Golf Club and is a Rolex Series event. The tournament is also the start of the Tour’s “Desert Swing” with events to follow in Dubai and Saudi Arabia.
Despite a growing resume, Jazz ― who has claimed six victories on the Asian Tour ― has yet to win a European Tour title.
He spent much of last year competing on the PGA Tour, where he made a fine debut in The Master, finishing in a tie for 51st place.
Catlin, on the other hand, broke through in Europe in 2020, winning his first European Tour title at the Estrella Damm N.A. Andalucía Masters in September before triumphing in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, a few weeks later. The American’s skill set had been honed on the Asian Tour, where he won four titles and two Asian Development Tour trophies.
Between them, the Asian Tour members, teeing off on Thursday, boast 25 European Tour titles: Thongchai has eight, Kiradech four, Hend three, and Kitayama, Ormsby and Sharma two each. Both Bhullar and Harding have claimed one apiece.
Ormsby currently leads the Asian Tour Order of Merit, thanks to his win in the Hong Kong Open last January. But the season was cut short quickly after that, with only four events played, due to the coronas virus pandemic.
England’s Lee Westwood is the defending champion this week. His success last year marked the start of a brilliant year that saw him crowned the Race to Dubai winner in December.
“I’ve always played pretty well in this part of the world,” said Westwood, an eight-time winner on the Asian Tour.
“And, you know, my two best results for the last year were Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the very beginning to the very end of the year. So I’ll be hoping for that again this year.”
A star-studded field is competing this week, including England’s Tommy Fleetwood ― the champion in 2017 and 2018.
Also playing are Germany’s Martin Kaymer, who is the only three-time winner of the event ― he triumphed in 2008, 2010 and 2011. He is one of nine Major champions in the field, alongside Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, American Justin Thomas, Irishmen Padraig Harrington ― the European Ryder Cup Captain ― and Shane Lowry, England’s Justin Rose and Danny Willet, and Swede Henrik Stenson, Danny Willett.
American Matt Kuchar was one of the marquee players at the SMBC Singapore Open last year, along with England’s Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson from Sweden. Having won bronze at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, behind gold medalist Rose, and silver-medal recipient Stenson, he arrived, somewhat, in their shadow. However, he proceeded to put the record straight in Singapore, by conquering the mighty Serapong course and departing like a gold medal champion. We look back at what was an epic edition of the prestigious tournament ― the final round of which was played on this day, a year ago.
Much was made of Matt Kuchar’s brave recovery from a triple-bogey eight on the seventh hole on The Serapong at Sentosa Golf Club to win the SMBC Singapore Open last year.
With England’s Justin Rose and two of Asia’s most exciting young golfers, Jazz Janewattananond from Thailand and Korean Joohyung Kim, hot on his heels the tall American shifted gear and toured the back nine in three under to triumph.
But, in retrospect, there were a number of decisive moments during his march to victory ― not least an astonishing nine-under-par 62 on Saturday and a truly brave birdie on the 72nd hole, where calamity could have so easily intervened.
Kuchar, or “Kooch” as he is popularly known, was playing in Singapore for the first time and had been dialed-in all week. He fired a 66 on the first day to sit one back from the leader, Japan’s Kosuke Hamamoto.
He trailed Jazz ― an expert in this event having won it in 2019 and finished joint fourth in 2018 ― by two at the halfway mark, after shooting a 68.
And that sensational 62 on day three saw him open up a three-shot advantage from Jazz and Filipino Miguel Tabuena.
The 62, was the work of a master practitioner, and was the lowest round since the Singapore Open moved to its permanent home at Sentosa Golf Club in 2005, with just three players having shot 63: Angel Cabrera of Argentina, the 2007 champion, South Africa’s George Coetzee and Song Younghan of Korea, who won in 2016.
Kuchar disarmed the Serapong with long, accurate driving, pinpoint approach shots and heat-seeking putts. Employing his trademark arm-lock putting style that he has used effectively since 2011, Kuchar needed just 25 putts in his eye-popping round that thrilled the large galleries who sent howls of approval around Sentosa.
The then 41 year old set up his birdie opportunities, the majority of them from close range, by hitting 11 out of 14 fairways with an average driving distance of 310 yards and finding 15 out of the 18 greens in regulation.
He birdied the first, second, fourth, seventh, 10th, 14th, 15th, 17th and 18th in a round that will live long in the memory for those lucky enough to have witnessed it live.
On the final day, when Kuchar ― ranked world number 24 at the time ― birdied the par-five fourth to stay comfortably out in front, victory almost seemed a mere formality for the American.
But, from nowhere, a nightmare hole seven opened the door to his rivals.
He pulled his tee shot left into the trees and from there he had a bizarre air shot when trying to extricate his ball from the roots of a tree. After getting his ball back into the fairway, at the second attempt, he then lost a ball after hooking his approach into the undergrowth to the left of the green.
His sixth shot found the green but he then faced an 80-foot putt and the strong possibility of a three putt. However, he drained his second putt, from 10 feet, for a triple, which saw him fall back into a tie with playing partner Jazz.
That setback would have been the beginning of the end for many but, clearly, eight was enough for Kuchar, as he responded magnificently to the challenge.
He did not drop a shot thereafter and birdied 11 and 16 to regain control and had a two-shot lead from Rose, playing in the group ahead, on the par-five 18th.
Trying to make sure he stayed clear of the lake on the left, he pushed his tee into a trap on the right, where he was fortunate the ball did not plug.
He was left with a tricky bunker shot and could only splash it out into the fairway.
The American was then left with a long-shot of 230 yards to the green ― a huge challenge in the circumstances.
Remarkably, he struck one of the finest shot of his career to 20 feet and promptly holed the birdie putt for a famous victory.
His final round 70 saw him finish with a four round aggregate of 18-under-par 266 ― for which he earned a winners’ cheque for US$180,000.
“Golf and life have a lot of similarities,” said Kuchar, in his post round interview.
“When you face difficult times, it’s how you persevere and overcome those things.
“To make a great turnaround and play a great back nine to close out the tournament with birdies on the 16th and 18th was a real thrill. I’m awfully proud of being able to bounce back from adversity and not let hard things get the better of me.
Seven was a disastrous hole to make triple bogey there. I felt like I was cruising along and had a four-shot lead at that point and it was awfully comfortable.”
It was the 17th win of his career and first on the Asian Tour and Japan Golf Tour Organization.
Rose, helped by a brilliant back nine of four-under-par 31, finished three behind in second place after returning a 67.
Jazz took third spot thanks to a 71 while Kim, the 17-year-old wonder kid who had claimed his first title on the Asian Tour a few months earlier, ended in fourth place, after also signing for a 71 ― marking him down as a potential future champion of Singapore’s national Open.
Anirban Lahiri is all set to tee off 2021 at the Waialae Country Club in Hawaii as he tees off at the PGA TOUR‘s Sony Open this week. Hawaii is not new for Lahiri, who has played the event three times before but with very modest results.
Lahiri arrives in Hawaii after a break at home in India following a series of decent results in the fall season, which included his first top-10 finish on the PGA Tour.
In recent months, Lahiri has done well on the Islands – he was tied-sixth at the Dominican Republic and T-11 in Bermuda. So Hawaii and Sony Open could bring in some more good news and results. The results at the end of 2020 meant an improvement in his rankings and that translated into at least three or four straight weeks of action.
Lahiri is excited about the Sony Open and said, “The schedule so far is looking good. At the moment, I should get into the first four (events) starting with Sony Open, then the American Express and then Torrey Pines, and hopefully (Waste Management Open) Phoenix. Phoenix might be touch and go, but I think it’s the same week as Saudi (European Tour) so I think I should get in.”
He added, “So yeah, I could actually continue playing but I think as of now, I’m planning on just playing the first four and let us see how it goes. I am feeling good with the game. And I would love to do well in Hawaii.”
The year 2020 was unlike none before in his life and it was the same. His form dipped and there were not enough tournaments, but the silver lining was that the status he had for 2020 was retained as per PGA Tour’s decision. “That was a big boost for many of us,” he said.
A truncated 2020 saw him miss four cuts in first six starts before the Tour was halted in the wake of a pandemic. Lahiri, who had come to India to play the Hero Indian Open in March 2020, was forced to stay on in India as flights out were stopped.
He laughs and says, ”It was tough for my golf, but not all that bad, because I got to spend a lot of time with my family, which I normally don’t get. Also I managed to get a lot of time with my coach, Vijay Divecha and work on my game and that helped.”
Lahiri returned to US, but got only one more event before the 2019-20 season got over for him. Then came the Fall season and things turned for the better.
Starting with the Safeway Open he got in four starts and made cuts in all including T-6 in the Dominican Republic and T-11 in Bermuda. “Those and a couple of other results indicated the game was in a good place. Then came another trip to India.”
He added, “The (second) trip to India was good. I didn’t spend that much time with Vijay, but we kind of went over everything that we had done earlier and kind of consolidated, some of the work. Also, it was nice to play some tournaments Chandigarh and Jamshedpur (on the Indian Tour).”
Lahiri lost in the play-off at the Jeev International in Chandigarh and capitalised on an invite into the season-ending Indian Tour event in Jamshedpur to finish T-11. “The golf was good, but I also put on weight in India, eating all the yummy food. It was generally a good time with family and friends,” he added.
So, when Lahiri came back to US just before the calendar turned for 2021, he had to ‘rework’ a few things. “Since I’ve come back I’ve gotten back in the gym to get that weight off. So I was just trying to get back to my routine. Get in the gym; get on the range play some golf and get myself prepared and ready to go. So, so far so good. It was a nice Christmas and New Years with my family and then some of our friends, Indian friends will live in America. So it was good. I think the last month or so has been has been good for me both on and off the golf course. And, you know, hoping that 2021 is a good year for everyone really, and also for golf in general.”
Written by V. Krishnaswamy for asiantour.com
Swamy is one of India’s leading sports writers, who has covered over 20 Majors and 250 international golf tournaments. Follow him at @Swinging_Swamy.
Wade Ormsby, understandably, says that after COVID-19 played havoc with last year, he almost forgot he actually won a tournament, the Hong Kong Open. But when we spoke to him, last week, about that dominant victory ― exactly a year ago today ― the memories quickly came flooding back.
To say Wade Ormsby was a driven man, seeking redemption, at last year’s Hong Kong Open at the Hong Kong Golf Club is probably an understatement.
There was real sense of commitment and purpose to his second victory in one of Asia’s blue-chip events and it all stemmed from bitter disappointment a few weeks earlier.
He had been in contention at the Australian PGA Championship at RAVC Royal Pines on the Gold Coast, but dropped shots over the inward stretch and watched his famous compatriot Adam Scott march to victory.
“I gave myself plenty of opportunities, I just kept on messing up in the last 10 to 12 holes,” said Ormsby from his home in Adelaide.
“I tried to figure out what was wrong and I realised the mental part wasn’t playing ball. I had to do something about that in those few weeks off because I wasn’t a very happy camper. I was really driven after my annoying drive to the airport, Sunday night after the Australian PGA.”
And after his wife also advised him not to go back on Tour until he had fixed the issue he says he sat on the couch one night and went through all his possible solutions.
This process led him to make contact with Noel Blundell – one of Australia’s leading sports psychologists.
“He has been around a long time and I found him,” said Ormsby.
“I sent him an email and he replied to me straight away. I told him what I was feeling and we got straight to work, did a few intense sessions and away we went. I worked on getting my mind under control, working on my pre-shot routine, and just putting everything in its place from a mental point of view.”
Fast forward to Hong Kong, and Wade Ormsby 2.0 stepped onto the famous fairways at Fanling, home of the Hong Kong Golf Club.
He was considerate enough to let someone share the lead with him on the first day, Japan’s Tomoharu Otsuki. They shot five-under-par 65s.
But thereafter, Ormsby was rarely challenged, thanks to three stunning 66s.
He had a two-shot lead at the halfway mark, and was three ahead after the penultimate day.
And come Sunday afternoon, his four-round aggregate of 17-under-par 263 was four better than the man in second-place, Ireland’s Shane Lowry – the reigning Open champion.
Ormsby earned a cheque for US$180,000 and became the second wire-to-wire winner of the Hong Kong Open after England’s Aaron Rai (2018).
He says: “I made a messy bogey on the first hole on Sunday. I turned a double bogey into a bogey thanks to making a 12 footer. So that was quite key. But I then birdied two, three and four and that really swung the momentum back my way. If ever there was a time I was going to stumble it would have been at that point.”
Throughout the week he drew upon the work he had done with Blundell – which was key in helping him handle the intense pressure that came with leading from start to finish.
“I felt like I knew how to control my thoughts for once. I had led the tournament that long and just figured I should keep doing what I was doing and I would be fine,” added the 40-year-old, a three-time winner on the Asian Tour who currently leads the 2020/21 Order of Merit.
“There are a lot of different techniques sports psychologists use to work on: breathing, pre-shot routine and keeping the messages simple in your head. It is a combination of those things I used. I kept on going to them out there when you kind of need them. They don’t always work at the same time depending on your situation and how you are feeling. I was working very hard internally even though it might look pretty easy from the outside.”
He says Australian Marcus Fraser, his best friend on Tour, was there to give him a beer on 18 when he won but there was not much chance to celebrate as they flew off that night to the next event in Abu Dhabi – which is where he is heading to next week to start his season, with three events in the desert.
Ormsby triumphed in far more dramatic circumstances when he first claimed the Hong Kong Open in 2017. He was four behind SSP Chawrasia at the turn in the final round but was let back into the tournament when the Indian triple-bogeyed the ninth.
By the 18th, the Australian had a two-shot lead but he three putted for a bogey meaning Spain’s Rafa Cabrera Bello needed a birdie to win or a par to force a play-off. Fortunately for the Ormsby, Cabrera Bello carded a bogey to hand the Australian the biggest win of his career.
And why does Ormsby play so very well at the Hong Kong Golf Club?
Well, it’s just a matter of patience.
He says: “We all know Hong Kong Golf Club, it is a tricky place and you have to play it the way it is set up and don’t overpower it. Everyone has to play from the same spots more or less. It is a lot more about position and being patient. That is one of the fun things about it. And that’s why I like it so much and play well there.”
Korea’s KPGA Tour was able to stage 11 tournaments last year, plus two smaller specially approved events – despite trying circumstances caused by the coronavirus pandemic. We spoke to some of the leading players in Korea about how they dealt with 2020 and what their hopes are for the future.
While 2020 was a season most want to forget, there were some success stories in Asia and none more so than Korean Taehee Lee – who claimed the GS Caltex Maekyung Open in August.
Lee became the first player to win what is one of Korea’s most prestigious events twice, after successfully defending the title he claimed in 2019.
“Back-to-back wins at the GS Caltex Maekyung Open was amazing!” said the Korean, who also finished 2020 ranked first on the Korean rankings.
“It was also the first time in history that someone has won it more than once. This year I will do my best to make it three!”
Last season, the GS Caltex Maekyung Open would have been on the Asian Tour schedule but, with travel restrictions in place, the tournament – first played in 1982 – remained solely a KPGA Tour event.
Lee says he was able enjoy a better quality of life in 2020, although frustrated by the lack of tournament playing time.
“As the number of tournaments decreased I could hardly get out and play. The road to overseas events was blocked. But personally, I had more time on my hands; I had more time to focus on my family. It was a time when I could see how precious life is. I also traveled a lot [in Korea] and visited a lot of places. Of course, I had a lot more time to practice as well,” added the Korean.
His first victory in the GS Caltex Maekyung Open, when it was was part of the Asian Tour, saw him earn playing rights for the Tour and he is determined to find more success when the circuit returns.
“I like warm countries, so the Asian Tour is great for me because there are many Southeast Asian venues. I want to do better and I am preparing for that. I want to let my fans know my name if there is a tournament on!”
Two-time Asian Tour winner Sanghyun Park from Korea also welcomed the downtime.
“I have had a good time with my babies at home because of the coronavirus,” said Park, who was runner-up on the Asian Tour Order of Merit in 2018.
“But it has been difficult having lost a lot of tournaments and not being able to go overseas and train.
“I don’t have any plans for the New Year, I will wait and see what happens but I really want to participate in tournaments!”
Says Korean Kyongjun Moon, ranked number one in Korea in 2019: “Due to the spread of COVID-19, I have been taking care of my health with my family and staying quiet at home.
“The number of competitions has decreased and I can’t exercise comfortably, but I was more thankful than ever that I could participate in tournaments!”
Moon said he is prepared to travel this year once country’s “guarantee health and safety”.
“It has been difficult for the Asian Tour because it travels to many countries. In 2020, because of COVID-19, many people’s thoughts changed and it was hard, but in 2021, with vaccines and treatments coming out, I want to travel and meet golf fans on the Asian Tour like before,” added Moon.
“2020 was the ‘fastest’ season of my career,” joked Korean Bio Kim.
“Now I`m taking a rest and watching my baby and working hard on physical training.”
Kim triumphed twice in Korea in 2019, signaling a popular return to form for a player who 10 years ago, as a 21-year-old, was one of the hottest properties in world golf when he qualified to play on the US PGA Tour.
He lost his PGA Tour card after one season but upon returning to Korea in 2012, he claimed the GS Caltex Maekyung Open and the SK Telekom Open – another of Korea’s most important events. Great things were expected from him but he struggled thereafter until bouncing back with two wins two years ago.
“I came to think that health is the best [in 2020]. As much as the world was struggling, the players also had a hard year, and without spectators we felt very different as players,” added the 30-year-old, who made it through the Asian Tour Qualifying School at the beginning of last year.
“I want to participate in as many tournaments as possible, but the schedule has not come out yet, and I may need to think about planning for self-isolation for two weeks. But my goal is to win the Asian Tour Order of Merit!”
Seung Park, who in 2019 became the first Korean to win on the Asian Development Tour when he claimed the OB Golf Invitational in Indonesia, was the most philosophical with his answers – despite being 24 years old and at the start of his professional career.
Said Park: “There are a lot of people around the world who are having a hard time because of coronavirus, but history shows that the human race always overcomes any difficulties. Now that vaccines and treatments are being developed, I believe the good times will come back soon. The human race will find the answer. As always.”
*Special thanks to Louis Lee of Korea for assisting with the interviews.