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Thongchai looking for repeat in Myanmar

The Myanmar Open celebrates its 10th anniversary on Thursday and Thai star Thongchai Jaidee could well make it a memorable one.

The Asian Tour number one headlines this week's field fresh from his successful title defence of the Carlsberg Malaysian Open on Sunday and will this week shoot for another slice of golfing history at Yangon Golf Club.

Thongchai, the defending champion, can become the Myanmar Open's first three-time champion but utmost on his mind is his continued drive to earn a spot in the US Masters, the year's first Major, in April.

Last week's victory propelled Thongchai to 58th on the Official World Golf Ranking, a jump of 32 rungs, and he needs to be inside the top-50 by the end of March to secure his place alongside the world's elite at the Masters.

" Whenever a player has a chance to defend a title, he should go to honour the tournament and its sponsors. I'm feeling good about my game right now, feeling confident. I'll try to win here again," said Thongchai, who won last year's merit title with record earnings of US$381,929.

Last week, Thongchai produced some of his best golf, accumulating a winning score of 21-under-par and outscoring Europe 's Ryder Cup stars Miguel Angel Jimenez, Thomas Bjorn and Padraig Harrington in head-to-head duels.

A return to the Yangon layout, which he says reminds him of his home course in Lopburi, will make him the firm favourite once again. "The playing conditions are very similiar," said Thongchai, who also won here in 2002. "Also, it is only a one-hour flight from Bangkok and the proximity to Myanmar and similarity helps all the Thai players.

"Knowing that I've moved up the world ranking is also a confidence booster. This takes me nearer to my goal of earning a spot to play in the US Masters."

Several past champions, including Chinese Taipei's Lin Keng-chi, Thai veteran Boonchu Ruangkit and Korean American Anthony Kang, will try to stop Thongchai's charge.

Held since 1996, the Myanmar Open has over the years helped produce emerging talents from within the region and two-time former champion Boonchu believes the event has grown in stature and importance.

"The Myanmar Open has helped develop Myanmar golfers and also Asian players, that's for sure," said Boonchu, who won back-to-back triumphs in 1996 and 1997. "This championship has been staged annually and at the start of each new season, I'll pencil the Myanmar Open on my playing schedule without question."

The Myanmar Open is the first full field event of the season on the Asian Tour, which means that the Qualifying School graduates will enter the fray for the first time this week.

All eyes will be on young Indian Shiv Kapur, who won the 2002 Asian Games individual gold medal in Korea and Wisut Artjanawat, a four-time member of the Thai victorious team in the Putra Cup. Both are playing in their rookie year on the Asian Tour after earning their cards from Qualifying School .

The old guards will include Chinese Taipei legend Chen Tze-chung, known better as TC, and Filipino Frankie Minoza, a six-time winner in Japan . TC won the LA Open on the US PGA Tour in 1987 and finished second in the 1985 US Open.

Six of last season's Asian Tour winners, Mardan Mamat of Singapore , Filipino Angelo Que, American duo Edward Loar and Jason Knutzon, Thailand 's Thammanoon Srirot and Thaworn Wiratchant are also competing here. Two-time Asian number one Kang Wook-soon will also bid for the Myanmar Open title.

Aung Win, Zaw Moe, Soe Kyaw Naing and seasoned-campaigner Kyi Hla Han, the Asian Tour chairman, will spearhead the local assault. The event has yet to herald a local champion although Win has come close in recent times, finishing sixth, third and ninth in his last three appearances.

The Myanmar Open is the final counting event for Asian players to earn automatic places to face Japan in April's Visa Dynasty Cup at Mission Hills , China . Singapore 's Mardan Mamat is sitting on the last qualifying place in eighth position.

Other players fighting for a chance to play for captain Hsieh Min-nan include Amandeep Johl of India , Chinese Taipei's Chen Yuan-chi and Thailand 's Thammanoon, the man who holed the winning putt for Asia in the 2003 clash.


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