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Diverse team ready to represent Asia in Royal Trophy

Two Thais, a pair of Japanese, a Chinese, a Korean and two Indians will proudly walk out on to a Bangkok golf course next week carrying the hopes of three billion people on their shoulders.

The eight golfers will comprise the Asian team to compete against Europe in the inaugural Royal Trophy - and their presence will have both sporting and historical significance.

Sporting, because it will be the first staging of a tournament which organisers confidently expect to grow into a golfing rivalry similar to that of the Ryder Cup.

Historical, because, for the first time in a mainstream, global sport, a team has been selected to represent the whole of Asia, a vast continent of countless cultures, ethnic diversity and, it has to be said, numerous political differences.

Long-standing national rivalries will be forgotten for one glorious week as fans from India to Indonesia and anywhere in between get behind the Asian team.

"This truly is a 'first' as far as frontline sport is concerned - a fully united Asian team with each player selected purely on sporting merit," says Piya Smutkochorn, marketing manager of tournament sponsor Heineken.

"There have been no countries excluded and there are no politics involved. These are eight players from across the continent banding together for a common goal - to win the Royal Trophy for Asia.

"These guys are united in their loyalty to each other and their team - and we fully expect Asian fans to respond to that. We're expecting a fantastic atmosphere at the tournament."

The good news for Asia is that the eight men entrusted with the task of capturing the Royal Trophy are all world-class players and proven winners.

Spearheading the continent's star-studded lineup are the top three finishers on the Asian Tour Order of Merit - Thai duo Thaworn Wiratchant and Thongchai Jaidee and India's Jyoti Randhawa.

They are backed up by three of the top four on the Japan Golf Tour's 2005 money list - Japanese pair Yasuharu Imano and Keiichiro Fukabori and Korea's SK Ho.

And completing the eight-man team are the captain's picks, Arjun Atwal of India and China's Zhang Lian Wei, two of the biggest names in Asian golf.

Adding to the Asian team's array of weapons is non-playing captain Masahiro "Massy" Kuramoto, one of the true legends of Japanese golf with 30 career titles to his name.

The Royal Trophy - the first-ever team tournament between Europe and Asia - will take place at Amata Spring Country Club, Bangkok, from January 5-8, 2006

Each team will comprise eight players, led by a non-playing captain, competing in a series of 16 matches involving foursomes, four-ball and singles. The event has been sanctioned by the Asian, Japan and European Tours.

The significance of a unified Asian team is emphasised by Asian Tour chief executive Louis Martin. "Playing for your country is very special but qualifying to represent your continent is truly a tremendous honour," he says.

"Without question, our Asian team members will take the responsibility of representing this massive region very seriously and will perform to the very best of their ability."

Martin's words resonate because Asian sporting history is littered with fierce national rivalry.

The often frosty relations between China and Japan were underlined in the 2004 Asian Cup soccer final between the two nations - won by Japan - which supporters helped turn into one of the most intense and confrontational match-ups of recent years.

Cricket matches between India and Pakistan always take place against a background of political tension and national pride, rugby tests involving Japan and Korea are often blood-and-thunder affairs and any badminton match between Malaysian and Indonesian players is bound to be more keenly contested than usual.

But, at Amata Spring Country Club, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Indian and Korean players will be wearing the same-coloured shirts and cheering each other on.

The Japanese, particularly, are delighted to be involved. Sometimes portrayed as aloof from the rest of Asia, Japan has thrown its weight behind the Royal Trophy campaign.

"We're delighted to support the Royal Trophy - it's fantastic news for Asian golf," says Japan Golf Tour chairman Kosaku Shimada. "Asian players will rise to the challenge of going head to head with Europe's top golfers in a team environment and Asian fans will be treated to an extraordinary tournament played with passion and intensity."

Adding the sense of occasion - and giving the tournament a tremendous degree of prestige - is the involvement of Thailand's revered monarch, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

For the king has donated the dazzling silver trophy that Europe and Asia will contest - it presently sits at Amata Spring Country Club inside a 2.5-metre handcrafted traditional Thai case - while the tournament will be the first major sports event in Thailand to be held in the special year of commemoration of his 60th year on the throne.

With 2006 being such an auspicious year for the Thai monarchy and the inaugural Royal Trophy being held in Bangkok, Thai duo Thaworn and Thongchai have an added incentive to play well.

"If this first Royal Trophy were purely about golf, then it would already be a great tournament," says Andrew Yau, chief executive officer of Amata Spring.

"However, add in the unique appeal of a united Asian team and you have a truly historic occasion."

Europe are playing their part to the full by naming a team packed with Ryder Cup winners and established European Tour stars.

Their captain is Spanish golfing great Seve Ballesteros, the five-time Major winner who revolutionised the Ryder Cup in the 1980s with his commitment and charisma.

The team is spearheaded by England's David Howell, who held off Tiger Woods to win the HSBC Champions Tournament in Shanghai in November, and Irishman Paul McGinley, Europe's 2002 Ryder Cup hero and winner of the European Tour's 2005 season-ending European Masters in October.

They are backed up by four of the European Tour's leading lights - Danish ace Thomas Bjorn, England's Kenneth Ferrie, Swede Henrik Stenson and Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland.

England's Nick Faldo, a six-time Major winner, and Welshman Ian Woosnam, the 1991 Masters champion, are the captain's picks.

"The potential of the Royal Trophy is immense," adds Yau. "We want to see it become a great competition for European and Asian golfers and fans. Team golf is unique, highly competitive and generates great passion, while at the same time highlighting sportsmanship in its purest form.

"This first Royal Trophy will give Asian golf fans the chance to sample the unique atmosphere of team golf. Not only will they be cheering for their individual heroes, they will be cheering for their team."

Asian captain Kuramoto, certainly, is under no illusions about the importance of the first Royal Trophy and the significance of a unified Asian team.

"I can assure the Asian people that our team competing at the Royal Trophy will be very strong and will fight very hard to win the trophy for our continent," he says.

"We will take the challenge of defeating Europe with the utmost commitment, dedication and the greatest fighting spirit. To represent your country is a great honour. To represent your continent has to be one of the proudest moments of a sportsman.

"I have been given a tremendous responsibility and I take it very seriously. I will do my very best in representing the three billion people of Asia."

December 29, 2005

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