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2006 Asian Tour starts with Okinawa Open

Four days after completing a triumphant season, Thai star Thaworn Wiratchant launches his 2006 campaign by headlining the Asia Japan Okinawa Open at Naha Golf Club starting on Thursday.

Thaworn closed out a sensational 2005 Asian Tour season at last week's Volvo Masters of Asia where he was crowned the Order of Merit winner for the first time in a year which saw him claim four titles and a record US$510,122 in earnings.

However, there will be no rest for the 38-year-old Thai, who will be playing in his 15th consecutive tournament at the Naha Golf Club this week.

The 38-year-old Thaworn, who was also voted the Player of the Year by his peers, will remain very much in the spotlight in the co-sanctioned event with the Japan Golf Tour as he has been paired with the country's leading woman golfer Ai Miyazato, who is playing on a sponsor's invite, in the opening two rounds.

The US$830,000 Okinawa Open is the opening leg of the 2006 season for both the Asian Tour and Japan Golf Tour.

"It has been a big year for me," said Thaworn. "All the hard work has paid off and I have learnt from past mistakes. My luck has been very good and it's not often you get years like this.

"I will have to plan my schedule carefully for the 2006 season as I hope to play in Asia, Japan and Europe . I'm also looking forward to playing in some overseas events like the British Open next July (where he has been exempted)," said Thaworn.

Other top guns competing in Naha Golf Club include India 's Shiv Kapur, who won the season-ending Volvo Masters of Asia in Bangkok and two-time Asian number one Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand .

In total, eight of the top-10 players from the final 2005 Asian Tour Order of Merit are competing in Okinawa this week. The other players tipped to contend include Korea 's Ted Oh, Thailand 's Chawalit Plaphol and Australian trio Marcus Both, Andrew Buckle and Terry Pilkadaris.

Japan 's leading stalwarts Yasuharo Imano and Keiichiro Fukabori, who finished second and third respectively in the recent money ranking, will spearhead the local charge.

The attention will be very much on Ai Miyazato, 20, who has created a big buzz in Japan since winning the World Cup earlier this year. She went on to claim six titles on the Japan LPGA and two weeks ago, she topped the US LPGA Tour Qualifying School by a landslide 12 strokes.

It will be a family affair for Miyazato, who hails from Okinawa , as her older brother, Kiyoshi is this week's defending champion. He won last year's title by one stroke after closing with a final round 64 at the same venue.

The other previous big-name woman golfer who has played against the men in Asia was England 's former world number one Laura Davies, where she missed the halfway cut at the 2003 Korean Open by four strokes.

Thaworn will be focusing on his own business where he hopes to add Japan to his growing list of conquests. Over the past 12 months, the Thai with an unorthodox golf swing has tasted victories in Indonesia , Chinese Taipei, India and Vietnam and he will be gunning to launch his 2006 campaign on a winning note.

Korea 's Charlie Wi, who played on the US PGA Tour this year but failed to retain his card, will also make a return to the Okinawa Open where he finished tied second last year.

The 2006 Asian Tour season is poised to hit a new milestone with an anticipated 32 tournaments offering over US$24 million in total prize money. The recently concluded 2005 season saw Asia 's best players competing in 27 tournaments with over US$20 million on offer, both a record in Asian golf history.

December 14, 2005

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