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Asian Tour celebrates great first half of year

The thriving Asian Tour is poised for a record run in 2004 after enjoying a great front half of the season with its talented cast producing memorable performances.

From its season-opening event in Okinawa to the recent SK Telecom Open in Korea , Asian Tour stars have sparkled both at home and abroad. Big-name players have reinforced their positions, the Tour has welcomed five new first time winners while low scoring has been achieved in 12 events staged so far.

With the newly-established Asian Tour receiving widespread support from corporate backers, sponsors, golf associations and national PGAs, the playing membership has let their clubs do the talking on some of Asia 's finest fairways.

The Asian Tour will have offered US$11.3 million in total prize money, a new record in the region, by the time the season comes to a close in December.

"We have enjoyed a superb front half of the season and the outlook for the rest of the year is looking very bright indeed," said Asian Tour Chairman Kyi Hla Han.

"The support received from international sponsors and golf authorities from across the golfing industry is tremendous and we are looking forward to a strong second half of the season with some more new events in the pipeline."

The Asian Tour was established in Singapore in Jan uary this year with the aim of safeguarding and enhancing the careers of the region's players. The Asian Tour replaced the former Asian PGA as the sanctioning body for professional tournaments in the region and its events are accorded world ranking status.

The commercial operations of the Asian Tour is conducted in house whereby any surplus funds derived from the Tour's activities will be reinvested for the members' benefit and the development of golf in Asia.

Asian Tour Chief Executive Louis Martin has visited member countries of the circuit in recent months and said that the support has been undivided. "The various sponsors and golf authorities that I have met over the last few months are whole-heartedly supporting the Asian Tour and its initiatives to organise and promote a golf circuit which will benefit our playing membership, corporate sponsors, the development of golf in Asia and provide entertainment value for spectators."

As the circuit continues to expand, Asian Tour members have time and again displayed their immense talent. The continuous rise in playing standards is evident with current Asian Tour number one Thongchai Jaidee leading the way.

The former Thai paratrooper is clearly soaring in confidence and dominated the headlines at the start of the season. He won back-to-back titles at the Myanmar Open and the Carlsberg Malaysian Open, the latter event being jointly sanctioned with the European Tour and has broken into the top-100 of the Official World Golf Ranking.

Before his double success, it was his older compatriot, known as the 'Big Brother' for Thai golf, who stole the early thunder. Veteran Boonchu Ruangkit proved that old is gold when he turned back to clock to win the Thailand Open at the age of 47 years and 258 days, becoming the oldest winner in Asia .

It was in Thailand as well when the Asian Tour notched a memorable 'double ace'. Taiwanese Chen Chung-cheng shot hole in ones at the same hole at the fourth at the Royal Air Force Course during the first day and third day, only to miss out on the lucrative prizes which were on offer at different par three holes.

Indian star Jyoti Randhawa continued to show his immense ability to shine on the big stage. At the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand and Caltex Masters Presented by Carlsberg in Singapore , the former Asian number one enjoyed top-three finishes thanks to superb closing rounds of 64 and 65 respectively.

He later added another feather to his cap by securing his third appearance in the British Open in Royal Troon in July by prevailing in the International Final Qualifying in Malaysia, along with Tour members Yoshinobu Tsukada of Japan, Australians Kim Felton and Scott Barr. The quartet will join Arjun Atwal, who received an exemption for finishing as last year's Asian number one, in the year's third Major.

Zhang Lian-wei , China 's pioneering professional, made history by becoming the first player from the Middle Kingdom to earn an invitation for the US Masters in April and agonisingly missed the halfway cut by one shot.

It was at the hallowed turf of Augusta National that another old Asian hand, Choi Kyung-ju of Korea , reiterated the Major credentials of Asian players when he challenged for the title on the back nine during the final round. He eventually finished third behind champion Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els.

A rice farmer's son who grew up on an island which did not have a single golf course, Choi showed great courage at the Masters, playing his way into golf annals by first shooting an outward 30 in the second round, only the third player after Johnny Miller and Greg Norman to achieve the feat, and then holing a glorious eagle two on the 11th which sparked his title charge on Sunday. It was also only the third eagle at the 11th in Masters history.

The Asian Tour welcomed a new event in China , the Volkswagen Masters - China , and heralded a rising star in the form of Rahil Gangjee of India . The slightly-built Indian, who grew up wanting to become a race horse jockey, stunned a strong field that included Zhang Lian-wei, Nick Faldo, Phillip Price and Kang Wook-soon to become an unlikely winner.

American Jason Knutzon joined Gangjee as another first-time winner when he birdied the last two holes to win the Macau Open, which was headlined by world number eight Padraig Harrington and Zhang. Other first time winners include Mardan Mamat of Singapore , who triumphed in the Royal Challenge Indian Open and Japan 's Hideto Tanihara, winner of the Okinawa Open.

Scotsman Simon Yates shed his tag as the 'nearly man' at the SK Telecom Open in Korea, prevailing by one shot from Korea's Charlie Wi and Canadian Rick Gibson. The player who is known as the 'Wee Man' missed a five-footer at the last hole to open the door for Gibson to force a play-off but Gibson subsequently missed a putt from four feet to hand the title to the Thai-based Scotsman.

With the Asian Tour poised to travel to new stops later this year, including for the inaugural Carlsberg Masters Vietnam, there are bound to be many more great performances from the star-studded cast that form what is surely the fastest growing golf circuit in the world.

Asian Tour Schedule August - December

Aug 19-22: Tianjin TEDA Open, Tianjin Warner International GC, China , US$200,000

Sept 9-12: Kolon Korean Open, Woo Jung Hills , Korea , US$400,000

Sept 16-19: Mercuries Masters, Tamsui GCC, Taiwan , US$390,000

Oct 14-17: Crowne Plaza Shanghai Classic, Tomson Golf Club , China , US$200,000

Oct 28-31: Sanya Open, Yalong Bay GC, China , US$200,000

Nov 4-7: Carlsberg Masters Vietnam , Chi Linh Star GCC, Hanoi , US$200,000

Nov 18-21: Hero Honda Masters, Course TBA, New Delhi , US$300,000

Nov 25-28: Volvo China Open*, Shanghai Silport GC, US$1,000,000

Dec 9-12: Volvo Masters of Asia , Kota Permai GCC, Malaysia , US$550,000

* joint sanctioned with European Tour

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