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Zhang & Couples top draws for Macau Open

Chinese ace Zhang Lian-wei launches his bid for an historic third Macau Open title on Thursday hoping to live up to the saying that golfing life does begin at 40.

The self-taught Zhang, a two-time former champion, starts as firm favourite in Macau which he considers as his second home and will take on the likes of former US Masters champion Fred Couples and Thai star Thaworn Wiratchant, currently second on the Asian Tour Order of Merit.

After winning five titles in the region and notching wins over Ernie Els, Nick Price and Colin Montgomerie in his 30s, Zhang begins a new phase in his career as a 40-year-old after reaching the landmark two weeks ago.

"Forty is not a young age in sports but in golf, it's nothing," said Zhang today. "We can play competitive golf into our 50s. We've also seen golfers win the US Masters in their 40s (referring to Jack Nicklaus).

"I know I can still compete and the most important thing is for me to maintain my fitness level. I don't push it too hard these days in the gym and I maintain my physical well-being by playing other sports such as table tennis and basketball," he said.

Zhang has missed only one cut in seven starts on the Asian Tour this season and while he has yet to secure a top-10, the amiable Chinese star is targeting a third Macau Open title at the spectacular Macau Golf and Country Club. He won back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002 and is the only two-time champion in the event's seven-year history.

" Macau is like my home as it's so close to Shenzhen where I live," said Zhang. "I would like to win a third Macau title. I feel confident of doing so. The course is challenging and you need to be precise with your shot-making. I'm happy with my form this year but not so with my putting which has been inconsistent," added Zhang, who rates his play-off success over Price in the 2002 edition as the best of his two triumphs.

Zhang will not have to look far for inspiration as the 45-year-old Couples is a prime example of top golfers remaining competitive with age. The smooth-swinging American finished tied second in last week's SK Telecom Open in Korea and will be making his debut in Macau .

"It's very exciting to be here. The course is brilliant and it's a good driving course. If you drive it off line at some holes, it's easy to drop bogeys or doubles. The biggest thing for me would be to be careful from off the tees," said Couples, whose last victory was in the Shell Houston Open two years ago.

"I felt good about my game in Korea and I'm driving it well. I feel like my form here is good. When I get away from the US , I actually play better as I can focus better because the people get to see you just for one time."

Couples stamped his endorsement on the Asian Tour, saying the tour is moving in the right direction. "For the last couple of years, I've come out here and I hope to continue doing so as it's a lot of fun. The Asian Tour is getting bigger and stronger and the players are playing for a lot more money. To be a part of that, it's a nice thing. It's refreshing to come out here.

"As far as the playing standard goes, it's fantastic. I played with Zhang last year in the practice round in Augusta (at the US Masters) and it's obvious why he's won here twice as he drives it beautifully. The play here is great," said Couples.

A winner of 15 US PGA Tour titles, including the 1992 US Masters, Couples is also looking to make the most of his maiden trip here by visiting the sights and sounds of Macau, and may also try his hand at the gambling tables.

"I was at the Sands Macau casino for dinner yesterday and it is a very impressive place. It makes Las Vegas look quiet," said Couples, who is also hoping to watch the horse races at the weekend. "It's very nice to be here."

American Jason Knutzon will defend his Macau Open title but needs to find some winning form after missing four cuts in his last five outings. "Last year was neat, especially beating Padraig Harrington in the final group. I've had some top-25s this year but my putting has primarily let me down. I hope the memories of winning here will help me," said Knutzon.

Sunday night could see a new name at the top of the Asian Tour Order of Merit. Rich pickings here will help Thaworn dislodge compatriot Thongchai Jaidee whom he trails by approximately US$6,500.

Despite playing in his fifth straight week, Thaworn, winner in Indonesia in March, is determined to dislodge Thongchai from his perch. "I played well last week in Korea (to finish fourth)," said Thaworn, runner-up behind Knutzon in Macau last year. "If your form is good, you don't feel tired. I'm feeling good now and I'm looking forward to playing. In fact, I am thinking of playing in the Philippine Open next week.

"I've not had a break since the Visa Dynasty Cup but I somehow feel fresh. I've been seeing the physiotherapist for massage work and have not gone overboard with my practice. I'm hoping to get nearer to Thongchai after this week or even overtake him. My game is there right now."

 

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