JOHOR BARU: All eyes will be on Malaysian pro Ben Leong when he tees off in the company of two-time Asian number one Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand and former major winner Retief Goosen of South Africa in the US$500,000 Iskandar Johor Open, which begins today at the Royal Johor Country Club here.
The Malaysian rising star has been paired with Thongchai and Goosen for the first two rounds of the second richest golf tournament in the country.
It is usually intimidating enough to be placed on the same flight with players of high pedigree but Ben is game for the challenges.
“With this event taking place in Malaysia again, it is really nice to know that I have the added advantage of having the home crowd supporting me,” said Ben, who will again have his supportive father, N.C. Leong, carrying his bag.
The 22-year-old will certainly be looking to extend his winning form on Malaysian soil. Ben was in stellar form between July and August, winning three international tournaments on the trot.
Ben won his first professional title in the Mercedes-Benz Masters Malaysia at the Saujana Golf and Country Club in Petaling Jaya in July and followed up with victory in the Terengganu Masters the following week.
He went on to bagged his maiden Asian Tour victory at the Worldwide Selangor Masters in August where he out-duelled two-time Malaysian Open champion Thongchai in the final round.
That victory at the Seri Selangor Golf Club was something he had been aiming for since he began life as a professional on the Asian Tour last year.
It earned him a two-year exemption but more importantly, a chance to feature in big money events.
However, defeating Thongchai for his career breakthrough victory seemed like a long time ago for Ben.
He has not finished better than 35th place in six events since his career breakthrough in August and the Kota Kinabalu-born golfer is aware of the competitiveness of the professional golf game.
“I always play to win. But this game at such a level is so unpredictable. My game has been pretty average since the win. The swing feels a bit weak at the moment and on these small greens, it’s so easy to drop shots and harder to get the stroke back,” said Ben.
On what it takes to put up a good challenge on the par-72 Royal Johor course, Ben said: “Par on every hole will be a good score this week.”
The other top Malaysian pros who will be looking to make the cut in style will be Iain Steel, Danny Chia, Airil Rizman and S. Sivachandran.
It will also be a familiar battleground for Thongchai, who returns to what he calls his second home and will be eyeing a ninth career Asian Tour victory.
However, the former soldier has the odds staked against him as he is battling jetlag after flying in from Spain on Monday.
“I slept for only two hours last night. I need to adjust again to the conditions here,” said Thongchai, a regular on the European Tour.
Thongchai added that his putting was far from satisfactory. He is aware that he has to hit the right lines at the venue’s tricky greens.
“In my last two events, I hit like 16 and 17 greens consistently but took an average of 34 putts. That’s not good enough,” he said.