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2005 Asian Schedule starts st Okinawa Open

Four days after wrapping up its record-breaking inaugural season, the Asian Tour's 2005 campaign will tee off on Thursday with the joint-sanctioned Asia Japan Okinawa Open.

The US$830,000 championship, to be played at Naha Golf Club, is also the season-opening event for the Japan Golf Tour and has attracted some of the region's finest players, including title holder Hideto Tanihara, Toru Taniguchi, ranked second in Japan in 2004, former winner Hiroyuki Fujita, Thai duo Prayad Marksaeng and Boonchu Ruangkit and Korea's Charlie Wi.

The foreign charge will be led by sponsor's invitees, American former Ryder Cup star Scott Hoch and young phenom Ty Tryon, who was the youngest player at 17 years to earn a US PGA Tour card in 2001.

The Okinawa Open will also provide a fresh opportunity for both Asia and Japan to size each other up ahead of April's Visa Dynasty Cup, a Ryder Cup-style showdown, in China . In the first edition last year, Asia romped to a nine-point victory over Japan .

Six of the players who finished in the top-10 of the final 2004 Asian Tour Order of Merit are competing this week. They are Thaworn Wiratchant, Boonchu, Prayad , Korea 's Wi, tied second in last year's Okinawa Open, American Greg Hanrahan and Australian Terry Pilkadaris, who lost in a play-off to Jyoti Randhawa of India in last week's Volvo Masters of Asia.

In 2004, the Asian Tour hosted 22 tournaments across the length and breadth of the region and offered US$12.3 million in total prize money, which was a record in Asia . The Okinawa Open is the first of a minimum 14 events through next June and will offer total prize money of US$11.5 million.

The Okinawa Open, backed once again by the Okinawa Convention Bureau, moves to Naha Golf Club after being played at Southern Links Golf Club for the past two years. The Naha course opened for play in 1975 where tropical trees line most of its fairways.

Japan Golf Tour Organisation Chairman Kosaku Shimada said he was delighted to establish a partnership with the Asian Tour. "This is the first time that the JGTO is working with the Asian Tour and our partnership is a strong one. With Okinawa located in southern Japan , the climate is perfect for this tournament to be held this week.

"As the opening tournament in 2005, the Okinawa Open is taking up an important position for both Tours . The Naha Golf Club is a fine golf course and I am sure it will be a great success," said Shimada.

Asian Tour Chief Executive Louis Martin said: "By joining forces, both Tours will showcase the very best players from Asia and I'm sure we will witness a great event at the impressive Naha Golf Club, which is hosting the Okinawa Open for the first time.

"It will be very interesting as well to see players from both Tours lining up against each other in view of the upcoming Visa Dynasty Cup."

Thailand 's Thongchai Jaidee, who was crowned the Asian Tour Order of Merit winner last Sunday, withdrew from the event to rest his ailing back while Scotsman Simon Yates also pulled out with an injury.

Other top names tipped to challenge for honours include Korea's Yang Yong-eun and Hur Suk-ho, who finished third and fourth respectively on the Japan money ranking in the 2004 season.

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