Can the ‘Smiling Assassin’ end Asia’s major drought?

LONDON: Ever since Taiwan’s Lu Liang-huan ran Lee Trevino desperately close at the 1971 British Open, the golfing world has patiently awaited the first Asian winner of a major. 

Scores of talented Asian players have plied their trade on the European and PGA Tours over the last three decades but not one has managed a major breakthrough, despite a few close calls along the way. 

Although twice-major winner Vijay Singh is of Indian ancestry, he was born in Fiji and therefore counts as an Australasian, while Tiger Woods, with eight majors to his name, has a Thai mother but, born and brought up in the United States, is undoubtedly an American. 

Since the popular Mr Lu with his distinctive pork pie hat ended up trailing Trevino by a stroke at Royal Birkdale, Asia has celebrated two other second-place finishes at major championships. 

MARUYAMA: Many expect the Japanese to be the first Asian winner of a major.

Japan’s Isao Aoki, one of golf’s best exponents of the short game, broke the scoring record in the 1980 US Open at Baltusrol – with rounds of 68, 68, 68 and 70 – but even that wasn’t enough as Jack Nicklaus trimmed it by another two shots to win. 

In the 1985 US Open at Oakland Hills, Taiwan’s T.C. Chen equalled the tournament record for the first 36 and 54 holes but his victory hopes faded as he closed with a 77 to tie for second, a stroke adrift of Andy North. 

Asia’s major record is certainly due for a change and this weekend served as a sharp reminder of the rich reservoir of golfing talent in that continent. 

Thongchai Jaidee made history at the Malaysian Open on Sunday, becoming the first Thai to win on the European Tour, while Japan’s Shigeki Maruyama finished a shot behind winner Mike Weir at the PGA Tour’s Nissan Open. 

The 34-year-old Thongchai, a former army paratrooper, had won the Asian Tour Myanmar Open the previous week and he fired a closing round of four-under 68 to seal victory by two strokes at Saujana Golf Club in Kuala Lumpur. 

“It’s been my dream to play on the European Tour and now I will have to get used to life in Europe,” said the Thai, whose victory earned him a two-year exemption. 

“I’m looking forward to taking the opportunity to play alongside some of the best players in the world.” 

Thongchai, whose win took him to fourth in the European money list with earnings of 207,425 euros (US$260,300), has won three times in his last six starts, beginning with his triumph at the Volvo Asian Masters in December. His further progress in Europe will have to be monitored closely. 

The 34-year-old Maruyama, however, appears to be a more likely major winner than the Thai. 

A successful performer in the United States with three PGA Tour titles to his name, he has finished in the top 40 in the US money list for the last four years. 

The ever-beaming and ultra-polite Maruyama, affectionately known as the “Smiling Assassin”, came closest to a major breakthrough in the 2002 British Open at Muirfield. 

After 36 holes, he was tied for the lead at six-under 136 with eventual winner Ernie Els and three others, and ended up in a share of fifth on the Sunday after closing with a 68. 

It was the second top-10 major finish of his career, following his share of 10th in the 1997 British Open at Royal Troon, venue for this year’s championship. 

Maruyama was in with a shout of victory down the stretch in the Nissan Open on Sunday until a bogey at the last allowed Weir to win by a shot. 

“I was trying to hit the ball farther because it started raining the last three holes and I thought I wouldn’t be able to make the green,” a rueful Maruyama said of his approach on 18. 

“I wasn’t expecting to hit the ball that hard but it happened under pressure. That was the biggest mistake of my whole week.” 

The Los Angeles-based professional has clearly learned from that experience and in 2004 he can be expected to extend his record of winning at least once on the PGA Tour for the fourth year in a row. 

If that victory comes in a major, the “Smiling Assassin” would be a highly popular choice to end that long wait for an Asian breakthrough. – Reuters 

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