SMBC Singapore Open 2019: Asian golfers pose threat

Defending champion Sergio Garcia, flanked by Englishmen Matthew Fitzpatrick (far left) and Paul Casey, playfully showing his reluctance to hand back the trophy during Tuesday's press conference. The home contingent for the SMBC Singapore Open at the
Defending champion Sergio Garcia, flanked by Englishmen Matthew Fitzpatrick (left) and Paul Casey, playfully showing his reluctance to hand back the trophy during Tuesday's press conference. The home contingent for the SMBC Singapore Open at the Serapong Course in Sentosa comprises eight pros and four amateurs.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

While Casey and Garcia are big draws, Thais and Japanese are aiming to make an impact

Paul Casey is the highest-ranked golfer at the US$1 million (S$1.35 million) SMBC Singapore Open and was part of Europe's victorious Ryder Cup team last year.

But when the world No. 24 heard that Thailand's Poom Saksansin was also in the 156-man field, he said in mock horror: "Is he playing this week? Yes? Oh no."

Jokes aside, the Asian threat is very real for European stars such as himself and defending champion Sergio Garcia, who stopped the Asian streak at two since the Open returned after a three-year hiatus. Thailand's Prayad Marksaeng won in 2017 and South Korean Song Young-han in 2016.

Poom beat Casey in last January's EurAsia Cup, although Europe eventually won 14-10.

"He outplayed me in the singles," Casey said of his flight mate today.

"Putted brilliantly and dusted me off at the last, and I was playing very nicely that week too. That just shows (the rise of Asian golf).

"You see the best (Asian) players playing world golf but it's now very deep as well. I don't think we could honestly say that a decade ago."

Poom won last month in an Indonesian Masters field that included world No. 1 Justin Rose and 2016 The Open Championship winner Henrik Stenson.

He is expected to lead the Asian charge alongside compatriot Jazz Janewattananond, second in Indonesia and fourth in Singapore last year, and South Korean Park Sang-hyun, second on the 2018 Asian Tour money list.

Poom said of Sentosa Golf Club's 7,403-yard Serapong Course: "It is very tough. It's long for me because I don't hit it very far so I have to rely on my short game and smart play."

Ryo Ishikawa is also hoping that he and his fellow Japanese can make an impact in the event co-sanctioned by the Asian Tour and the Japan Golf Tour Organisation.

"It's rare for the Japanese to be able to watch and compete against top players like Sergio and Paul so this is a huge chance and opportunity," the world No. 220 said yesterday in a pre-event conference.

"Shigeki Maruyama and Ryuji Imada showed us how to compete with top foreign players on the PGA and European Tours and now it's our turn. Hideki (Matsuyama) is the best Japanese player now and we are all trying to follow him."

The former teen prodigy has not won since August 2016 but fancies his chances this week. He finished tied-16th in his first Singapore Open appearance last year.

"Last season was very tough but the last month or so was very big for me," said Ishikawa, who lost in a play-off to eventual champion Satoshi Kodaira at the Golf Nippon Series JT Cup last month.

"Although I couldn't win, I think I felt something (in my game) that I'd lost the last couple of years."

This year, there are 12 Singaporeans, eight professionals and four amateurs, including Choo Tze Huang. The 32-year-old said: "It's always nice to be playing at home. My game is going in the right direction so I just have to keep working, give my 100 per cent, and we'll see what happens."

SMBC SINGAPORE OPEN

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Key men to watch

SERGIO GARCIA, 39

World ranking: 27 Career highlights: 2017 Masters champion, 10-time PGA Tour winner, record points scorer in the Ryder Cup. Why he could win: The Spaniard shrugged off the heat, fatigue and rain delays to win the Singapore Open by five strokes. Even playing 27 holes on the final day did not faze him; he did not drop a shot. That helped him get off to a good start last year and he also ended strongly with five top 10s, winning the Andalucia Valderrama Masters as host and was tied-ninth at the DP World Tour Championship.

PAUL CASEY, 41

World ranking: 24 Career highlights: Two-time PGA Tour winner, 13-time European Tour winner, 2006 European Player of the Year. Why he could win: The cheerful Englishman is the highest-ranked player. He is slightly ahead in preparations, having already played twice in Hawaii this year, and that could work to his advantage. Casey showed last March he still has the game to mix it up with the best when he won the Valspar Championship for his first PGA Tour triumph since 2009.

MATTHEW FITZPATRICK, 24

World ranking: 40 Career highlights: Five-time European Tour winner, finished tied-seventh at the 2016 Masters. Why he could win: Fitzpatrick has consistently been talked up as the next big thing in European golf, with good reason. He became the youngest Englishman to win three European Tour titles at 22 when he won the DP World Tour Championship in 2016. The man who he displaced in the record books was none other than former No. 1 and six-time Major winner Nick Faldo.

RYO ISHIKAWA, 27

World ranking: 220 Career highlights: Youngest winner on the Japan Golf Tour Organisation at 15 years and eight months, youngest player to reach the top 50 and 100 in the world rankings. Why he could win: The question marks hanging over Ishikawa have never been about his talent. He shared the lead at the halfway mark last year but petered out over the last two rounds. If he can be consistent, there is every chance he could be in contention come Sunday.

JAZZ JANEWATTANANOND, 23

World ranking: 111 Career highlights: Youngest golfer to make the cut on the Asian Tour aged 14 years and 71 days, two-time Asian Tour winner. Why he could win: The Thai was fourth at Sentosa last year and that earned him a spot at The Open Championship. And he is well-placed for a repeat performance, being the form player on the Asian Tour - third and second in his last two events of 2018 and finished fifth at the Boonchu Ruangkit Championship to start the year.

Lester Wong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2019, with the headline 'Asian golfers pose threat'. Print Edition | Subscribe