BANGKOK: Almost exactly a year after denying Ernie Els in Singapore, China's Zhang Lianwei is dreaming of stopping the Big Easy's repeat title bid when the star-studded Johnnie Walker Classic tees off at the Alpine Golf & Sports Club here today.
Exactly a year ago this week, the self-taught Zhang, one of Asias most successful players, scored a stunning victory over the South African superstar in a European Tour stop in Singapore, preventing Els from running away with his third straight victory.
Els had won twice in Hawaii before jetting to Asia last year but Zhang pulled the rug from under him at the Caltex Masters with a gutsy birdie at the 72nd hole.
Els got off to another great start this season by retaining his Sony Open title in Hawaii a fortnight ago and is hot favourite to defend the Johnnie Walker Classic, which is tri-sanctioned by the European, Asian and Australasian Tours.
It seems like a long time ago that I beat Ernie, said Zhang yesterday. It was a great moment but you cannot always dwell on the past. Im starting here this week fresh and ready to go after a three-week break. Hopefully, I can get my game together and be in contention at the weekend.
Zhang, who turns 39 in May, is hoping his familiarity with the Alpine layout will help him. When the Johnnie Walker Classic was last staged at the same venue in 2000, he finished as the top Asian, in equal ninth position.
Els romped to a 10-stroke victory in last years Johnnie Walker Classic at Lake Karrinyup, Australia after accumulating a record four-day total of 29-under 259.
But he was not thinking of records this time around. Im not going to try and win this on Thursday. Ill take it day by day and if I have a chance on Sunday, Ill be trying my best, said Els, who has overcome a stomach bug after holidaying on Phuket island.
The home challenge will be led by Thongchai Jaidee, Prayad Marksaeng and veteran Boonchu Ruangkit, who last week won the Thailand Open at the age of 47. Indias Jyoti Randhawa, the Asian number one in 2002, and Taiwans Lin Keng-chi are the other top Asian names who will be out to eclipse the stars.
Besides Els, the other foreign stars will be reigning Major champions Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel, Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie, Thomas Bjorn, Adam Scott and recent European Tour winners Trevor Immelman and Marcel Siem.
The Johnnie Walker Classic, jointly owned by Diageo and IMG, is presented in co-operation with the Tourism Authority of Thailand. The US$1.8 million prize money makes the Johnnie Walker Classic the richest event on both the Australasian and Asian Tours.