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Stephen Dodd looking for title defence in China

Defending champion Stephen Dodd of Wales returns to the US$1.3 million Volvo China Open starting on Thursday with fond memories of a championship which launched his career to a new high.

The 39-old Dodd claimed his maiden European Tour title in China 's national Open 12 months ago and subsequently enjoyed a second victory in Ireland before finding himself at the top of the world when he partnered Bradley Dredge to help Wales lift the WGC Algarve World Cup last weekend.

Back to defend his crown, the quiet man from Cardiff is eager to wrap up his year on high note at Shenzhen Golf Club despite feeling jetlagged from recent long hauls between Europe and Asia . "It's nice to be back. I'm feeling a bit tired at the moment as I only got in last night. The course looks good from what I saw this morning (in the pro-am) and I'm looking forward to playing this week," said Dodd today.

Dodd is amongst the title favourites in the Volvo China Open, which is co-sanctioned by the Asian Tour and European Tour for the second year running.

Other top names bidding for this week's top cheque of US$216,660 include Ryder Cup stars Paul Casey and Thomas Levet, Nick Dougherty and Asia 's finest which includes current Order of Merit leader Thaworn Wiratchant, last season's number one Thongchai Jaidee , India 's Jyoti Randhawa and Chinese home heroes Liang Wen-chong and 2003 Volvo China Open champion Zhang Lian-wei.

After several uneventful seasons on the European Tour, Dodd came of age when he held off Ryder Cup star Thomas Bjorn in Shanghai last year to claim his career breakthrough. He later won the Irish Open in May before his World Cup heroics with Dredge at a weather-shortened event in Portugal .

"It's changed things around hasn't it?," reflected Dodd when asked on the importance of last year's triumph at the Volvo China Open. "I think my confidence has got a lot better from winning a year ago. That's been reflected in my performance this year.

"It's nice to go into a tournament feeling like you can win. I'm not saying it's like that all the time. It was nice to follow up on that in Ireland and knowing that it wasn't a one-off. That was a nice thing. I'm in a confident mood after a good result last week. If I play well, I'll have a chance. I think there are so many players here who can win any way. If it's your week, you need a few things to go your way," said Dodd.

The in-form Thaworn is strongly tipped to challenge for top honours a week after a record fourth victory of the season at the Carlsberg Masters Vietnam which also made him the player with the most career Asian Tour wins at eight titles.

"Winning last week in Hanoi was nice. I didn't really think I would do it but that 66 in the second round helped me and gave me the chance to win. I holed a lot of long putts so it always helps. I guess all my hard practice for so long now has suddenly helped me to a good year. Everything has worked out just nicely for me. At the start of the year, I wouldn't have thought that I could win four times," said Thaworn, who has earned US$483,420 which is already a record for earnings in a season.

The man with the unorthodox golf swing leads the race to become Asia 's number one player by nearly US$100,000 from compatriot Thongchai, with Randhawa in third place at US$223,660. However, the 38-year-old Thaworn realises that it could all change dramatically due to the big purses available over the next few weeks.

"I'm thinking about the Order of Merit. I will have to play my best over the next three events as Thongchai and Jyoti can still beat me to it if one of them wins a tournament. The course here this week is challenging and I'm hoping to first make the cut and play my way up," said Thaworn.

Randhawa, the 2002 Asian number one, may have to challenge for the Volvo China Open title with a new set of golf clubs as his luggage failed to arrive in Shenzhen after finishing ninth in the World Cup.

"It could either be stuck in Lisbon , London or Shanghai which was the route that we took to get here. I've got a new set of irons and woods from my equipment sponsors but they are of different models," said Randhawa.

His year has been hit by injuries but last week's success with Arjun Atwal has given him a huge lift, especially when he will defend his Volvo Masters of Asia title in Bangkok in a few weeks time. "My game feels better and I'm looking forward to this week. I'm not really thinking of the Asian Tour Order of Merit as Thaworn is so far ahead. He's really in good form and we have to win one of these to have a chance.

"It'll be important for me to finish the year strongly as I'm playing on the European Tour next year. These next two events count for 2006 so I want to try and get off to a good start," said Randhawa.

The local hopes with rest squarely on Zhang's shoulders, who is playing on his home course. The 40-year-old, who won the Volvo China Open in 2003, has a long association with Volvo events, first winning his maiden professional title at the Volvo Open a decade ago at the Shenzhen course and then lifting his first Asian Tour title in the Volvo Asian Matchplay in Indonesia in 1996.

"I am very pleased to be able to play so close to home, and having my family and friends so close will be very nice. I will also be able to stay at home each night and spend time with my children, Apple and Tiger," said Zhang.

"I always feel very comfortable playing on home soil and that helps me. I won my first pro event on this golf course so I'm looking forward to it. However the Shenzhen Golf Club is a difficult course and the event will again have a strong international field."

The Volvo China Open is the third last event on the 2005 Asian Tour and is the second leg of the 2006 European Tour schedule

November 24, 2005

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