Kiradech spearheads Thai challenge

Fourteen Thais are in Singapore to take part in the hastily-arranged Championship which tees off today at Laguna National Golf and Country Club.

The Thais are led young star Kiradech Aphibarnrat and veteran Prayad Marksaeng in the US$1.5 million event sanctioned by the European Tour and the Asian Tour.

World No.74 Kiradech, who will play in the same group with Bernd Wiesberger of Austria and Tommy Fleetwood of England in the first two rounds, is one of the contenders thanks to his recent form.

"I am really happy with my game now. I have been playing solid golf,’’ said the 22-year-old, who has been working with coach Pompetch Saraputti.

Kiradech is bidding for his second European Tour title after his maiden win at the Malaysian Open last year.

He is also hoping to be in the world’s top 60 by the first week of June for a place at the June 12-15 US Open.

Prayad, 48, will play alongside Edoardo Molinari of Italy and Gregory Bourdy of France in the first two rounds.

The eight-time Asian Tour winner struggled last week when he missed the cut at the Indonesian Masters.

The Championship will tee off after a last-minute shift from South Korea forced players to swiftly change their travel plans.

Some players had to cancel flights, while defending champion Brett Rumford had passport problems and nearly missed last week’s Volvo China Open after he sent off for an unneeded Korean visa.

And India’s Anirban Lahiri turned up in tropical Singapore with jumpers and jackets which he had packed for chilly South Korea before the venue change was announced earlier this month.

"Those are the hazards of what happens sometimes. But it’s part and parcel of what we do and I’m just glad that we’ve got this tournament here and we still have the playing opportunity,’’ Lahiri said.

The tournament, formerly the Ballantine’s Championship, was held at South Korea’s Blackstone Golf Club six times from 2008 but was moved three weeks ago after losing its title sponsor.

Yesterday, players practised on a makeshift driving range at Laguna National Golf and Country Club, which is mid-redevelopment and had little time to prepare for the European and Asian Tour-sanctioned tournament.

The unsponsored Championship is the biggest men’s golf event in Singapore this year with the Singapore Open, once known as "Asia’s major", sidelined since the withdrawal of its title sponsor.

It underlines a difficult year for Asian golf with only seven confirmed tournaments on the Asian Tour schedule so far this year. Previous full seasons have had more than 20 tournaments.

"We are fortunate to have the tournament from what I’ve heard,’’ said Bernd Wiesberger, winner of the Ballantine’s in 2012. "We lost the tournament at Blackstone, which was a shame for me as I’d played well there for two years.

"But it is great to be here in Singapore and we have to pay a great deal of credit to everyone for setting up a tournament like this in such a short period of time.’’

Despite the late move, the Championship, which has few recognised stars, is a valuable opportunity for Asia-based players to get a win which would give them valuable access to the European Tour.

"One of my goals is to be playing in Europe, and this is one of those chances,’’ said Lahiri, who is on a roll after winning last week’s Indonesian Masters.

Kang Sung-Hoon paid tribute to the victims of this month’s ferry disaster, when a vessel headed to Jeju island — former home of the Championship — capsized leaving 210 dead and 92 missing.

"So I’ll just do my best, and give them at least a little bit of consolation,’’ he said.

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