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Padraig Harrington favourite for title defence

Defending champion Padraig Harrington starts as firm favourite in the BMW Asian Open on Thursday, excited at being a part of the golf boom in mainland China .

The US$1.5 million tournament at Tomson Golf Club is the first in mainland China to be staged and jointly sanctioned by the Asian and European Tours and Irishman Harrington, along with golf legend Greg Norman of Australia, Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, Korean star Choi Kyung-ju and home favourite Zhang Lian-wei will lend their star appeal to the historic event.

World number eight Harrington is no stranger to success in Asia, having won the Omega Hong Kong Open last December, Europe's first counting event for the 2004 season and his victory in the 2002 BMW Asian Open is still very fresh in his memory. "I remember it well as it was a tight finish. I holed a 10-foot putt to win it. It was an exciting tournament and you don't forget it when you hole a putt at the last to win," said Harrington.

"I do like coming to Asia . This is my first time to mainland China and one of the main reasons that I'm coming is to see Shanghai . China is certainly the fastest growing place for golf. I do see it as a big step for the European Tour to be coming to China to play as I do believe there is a great future for golf in China ."

This is the third edition of the BMW Asian Open. Eccentric Swede Jarmo Sandelin, who is in the elite field this week, won the inaugural edition in Chinese Taipei in 2001 (the first event on the 2002 European Tour schedule) before Harrington succeeded him in the following year to maintain the European stranglehold

Asia 's challenge cannot be disregarded this week with Choi, known better as KJ, and local hero Zhang leading the charge. Fresh from his third place finish at the Masters, Choi, a two-time winner on the US PGA Tour, arrived for the BMW Asian Open on the back of three events but said he was feeling fresh.

"I've got over my jet lag as I slept well on the plane coming over and last night as well. Every thing feels good about my game right now and I feel at home being back in Asia . Finishing third in the Masters has convinced me that I can win the title some day. Contending in the final round was one of the best experience in my career. It was very rewarding," said Choi.

Zhang, who has been drawn to play alongside Norman 'The Great White Shark, is hoping his game will fall into place this week as he seeks to deliver a victory in front of his home fans. Last November, he won his home Open on a different course in Shanghai .

"My game has been erratic in the last few weeks. Sometimes, my driving is not good and other times, my chipping lets me down. Hopefully this week, everything will fall into place. I'm looking forward to playing alongside Greg Norman. When I turned pro in the 1990s, he was the world number one then and it will be an honour to play alongside him.

"It is tremendous that there is another big event here and it will provide further impetus for the growth of the game. When young kids watch this tournament on TV or on the golf course, they will watch some great players in action," said Zhang.

Harrington warmed up for his title defence with a fifth place finish on the Asian Tour's Macau Open last week. He has no doubt as well that the Asian challengers will rise to the occasion. "I was rusty at the start of the week in Macau but as the week got on, it all started coming together. Overall I'm happy with the week. It certainly was good preparation for the BMW Asian Open. It helps with the acclimatisation. I took three weeks off previously and I needed to play.

"I tend to like the greens over here and other players tend to not like them. I'm at an advantage and they are at a disadvantage. On this course, it seems like the difficulties lie in the greens, which are very good and undulating.

"The Asian players have gained a lot in confidence. When Europe first came out here we were surprised to note how good these players were. But they didn't seem to have the confidence to bring their game outside of Asia .

"The Asian players can play. But it is just a question of believing which takes a little bit of time. Obviously the co-sanctioned events have helped. They've seen they can compete in stronger fields and once they all start playing in co-sanctioned events, they know they are good enough to win on the European Tour," said Harrington, who has also backed the bid for golf to be re-introduced into the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

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