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Harrington set for Hong Kong title defence

Irish star Padraig Harrington is hoping to retain his winner's red jacket at the Hong Kong Open when he defends his golf title on Thursday against an elite field.

Harrington, ranked sixth in the world, faces the likes of Ryder Cup teammates Miguel Angel Jimenez, David Howell and the in-form Thomas Bjorn.

Thai star Thongchai Jaidee and Chinese ace Zhang Lian-wei will carry the Asian Tour's challenge in the $800,000 event, jointly sanctioned with the European tour.

"They are welcome to have my jacket for the next four and a half days but on Sunday afternoon, I want it back," said Harrington.

"I have a lot of good memories of the golf course and coming over here, there were a lot of good thoughts," he said. "I can remember every hole and every shot that I hit last year."

While the winning 20-foot birdie putt at the 72nd hole that sealed his title remains etched in his memory, Harrington, who finished third in the recent 2004 European money ranking, said a difficult chip at the 16th hole that saved par was the key moment in his triumph over South African Hennie Otto last year.

"It was the best chip I ever hit as a professional golfer. I had a chip from off sand, about 10 yards and had to land no more than six inches over the bunker. If I chipped it past the bunker, it would have gone down to the front of the green. I had to land on the upslope of the bunker and nearly holed it as well," he said.

Harrington turned down an opportunity to shoot for a $2 million payday in Sun City, South Africa this week in order to defend his Hong Kong title.

"I played well here last year and it's a good reason to come back as the course obviously suits me. I've always believed that you should defend a title if you have the opportunity," said the Irishman.

Korea's Kang Wook-Soon was the last Asian winner of the title in 1998 and local favorite Zhang and Thongchai, current number one on the Asian Tour Order of Merit, are likely contenders to end that Asian drought.

Victory at the Hong Kong Open could complete a unique collection of home titles for Zhang as he has previously won the China Open and Macau Open.

"I've overcome my hip injury from last week and hope to play well here. I've won in China and Macau, so winning this will be nice," said the self-taught golfer.

Former soldier Thongchai hopes to put one hand on the Order of Merit title in what the Asian tour's penultimate event.

Winner of the Carlsberg Malaysian Open and Myanmar Open this season, the Thai stalwart took last week off to recharge his batteries. He has also gone back to an old model putter which he used to win the Order of Merit crown in 2001.

"I feel good with this putter, so hopefully I can do well with it this week. I'll try to win the Order of Merit but Simon Yates (ranked second) is having a good season.

"However, I've got the proper equipment in my bag now after a club fitting session in California recently and I feel confident," said Thongchai.

Cigar-chomping and pony-tailed Jimenez will be a serious contender, having won in Thailand and Shanghai earlier this year en route to fourth place on the European money ranking, matching his career best.

Howell is looking forward to a successful Hong Kong debut.

He was ranked 10th in Europe and capped his year by being in the victorious Ryder Cup win over the United States but is not expecting any favors from his Ryder Cup teammates.

"These guys are as competitive as they come and we'll try to get this red jacket off Padraig," said the Englishman.

Other top names in this week's star-studded field include six-time major champion Nick Faldo, England's Ian Poulter, two-time Masters winner Jose Maria Olazabal and last week's Volvo China Open champion Welshman Stephen Dodd.

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