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Choi & Couples top draws at SK Telecom Open

Korean golfing superstar Choi Kyung-ju will make a rare return to home soil for his title defence of this week's US$400,000 SK Telecom Open, the 12th leg of this season's Asian Tour.

Choi, a two-time winner on the US PGA Tour, will be up against a strong field which includes former US Masters champion Fred Couples and Hur Suk-ho, winner of last week's Japan PGA Championship.

Last season, Choi pipped compatriot Shih Yong-jin for the SK Telecom Open title in a play-off to register a popular victory in front of his adoring fans. This week's event will be staged again at the Baekahmvista Country Club.

The former powerlifter warmed up for his title defence with a fourth place finish in the BMW Asian Open, jointly sanctioned by the Asian and European Tours, in Shanghai on Sunday.

"I'm feeling good with my game," said Choi. "I struggled with a bit of jetlag at the start of the week in Shanghai but my body is now back to Asian time. I'm looking forward to defending my title in the SK Telecom Open.

"It is always nice to return to Korea to play in a tournament in front of my fans and I'm looking forward to it. I remember last year's tournament was cut to three rounds because of rain and I managed to win after an exciting play-off."

Last month, Choi underlined his Major credentials once again when he finished third at the Masters at Augusta National, a performance that further convinced him that he can win the event soon. "Every year, I will try and win the Masters. Challenging for the title this year was my best experience as a professional. It showed that no matter how dim the prospects are, there is always a chance and you don't give up," said Choi, who finished behind winner Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els.

He played his way into the history books on two occasions. During the second round, he shot an outward 30, achieved previously only by Johnny Miller and Greg Norman, and in the final round, he holed an eagle two on the 11th hole, which launched him into a fierce battle for the Masters title. There have been only three eagles on the 11th hole in Masters history.

Amongst the other Asian Tour winners who will be challenging for the title in Seoul include American-based Korean Charlie Wi, winner of back-to-back SK Telecom Open titles in 2001 and 2002, Thailand's Thaworn Wiratchant, Phillipine Open winner Edward Michaels, Thailand Open winner Boonchu Ruangkit, Indian Open winner Mardan Mamat of Singapore and recent Macau Open champion Jason Knutzon.

At 44, Couples, who possesses one of the best swings in the game, is playing some of his best golf in his career. A winner of 15 US PGA Tour, he won the Houston Open last year although his biggest career victory was the 1992 Masters. He was tied sixth in this year's Masters and has made the cut at Augusta National for the past 20 years, the longest active streak of any player.

Couples, ranked 36th in the world, has tasted victory twice in Asia, winning the Johnnie Walker Classic in the Philippines in 1995 and later partnering Davis Love to claim the World Cup in China in the same year.

Choi's compatriot Hur will loom as the largest threat. The slender-built Korean was victorious in Japan at the weekend, winning the weather-shortened Japan PGA Championship by one stroke. Hur has also tasted success in Korea following his victory in the Shinhan Donghae Open on the Asian circuit in 2002 when he beat Simon Yates of Scotland in a play-off.

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