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Locals aim to topple stars in Korea

A crack local contingent is planning to ambush British Open champion Padraig Harrington at the European Tour-sanctioned Ballantine’s Championship in South Korea this week.

Korea’s most successful golfer KJ Choi will be at the forefront of the home assault at the $2.9 million tournament on the southern resort island of Jeju.

Yang Yung-eun, who held off world number one Tiger Woods to win the European Tour’s 2007 season opener at the HSBC Champions event in Shanghai, is another potential threat.

Three-times major runner-up Chris DiMarco is also likely to figure at Jeju’s Pinx Golf Club in a rare foray for the American away from the PGA Tour.

World number five Choi is perhaps a slight favourite at the inaugural Ballantine’s Championship after winning his seventh PGA Tour title at the Sony Open in Honolulu two months ago.

Choi joined Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh as the only players to win a tournament for a fourth consecutive season with victory in Hawaii.

“I feel awkward being called a hero,” Choi told reporters, trying to divert some of the pressure before the first European Tour event to be staged in his country.

“I don’t consider myself to be a hero. I didn’t plan any of this—it just happened. I work hard every day and that’s got me where I am today.”

Harrington, meanwhile, is bidding to ignite his season following a frustrating start to the year but insisted Choi would be the man to beat.

“The best word to describe KJ is ‘relentless’. KJ Choi is trying to be KJ Choi,” said the Irish world number 10, himself recovered from a neck injury and a bout of shingles.

“He’s not trying to be anyone else and that is an intimidating factor in a player, when he looks like he’s comfortable with who he is. I don’t believe I’m as self-confident as KJ.”

Along with Choi and the Jeju-born Yang, fellow South Korean SK Ho, who has made a successful transition to the Japanese tour, will be another outside bet on his return to his homeland.

Fast-rising American Anthony Kim, whose Korean heritage has triggered media interest, has six top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour to his name but was keen not to overplay his chances.

“It’s been a wild ride,” said the 22-year-old. “I do feel pressure but hopefully I’ll be able to make some birdies and make the Korean people feel proud.”

The Ballantine’s Championship, co-sanctioned by the Asian and Korean tours, begins on Thursday.


March 12, 2008

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