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Asian stars poised to make Els' cup choices more challenging

By Chuah Choo Chiang | China Daily | Updated: 2018-06-05 09:01
China's Li Haotong, currently ranked world No 46, is expected to be part of Ernie Els' International team for the 2019 Presidents Cup in Melbourne, Australia. [Photo/Agencies]

Next year's Presidents Cup is being billed as the mother of all showdowns, and Asia's top golfers, including China's No 1 Li Haotong, are already dreaming of being in the heart of the action at Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Australia.

Tiger Woods and Ernie Els will captain the United States and International teams respectively from Dec 9-15, 2019, setting the stage for a match unlike any other considering their historic playoff duel in South Africa in 2003 that concluded with the only draw in the history of the storied competition.

The race to make the International team (excluding European golfers) will begin in earnest from Aug 27 of this year, when Official World Golf Ranking points accumulated during a 12-month period will see the leading eight international players qualifying for the team, with another four to be selected by Els.

In eight previous editions since the inaugural match in 1994, the International team has featured a sprinkling of Japanese and Korean golfers, including Jumbo Ozaki, Shigeki Maruyama, KJ Choi and YE Yang.

It wasn't until 2015 that the International team welcomed its first team members from India (Anirban Lahiri) and Thailand (Thongchai Jaidee), and Li will certainly be hoping to make history by becoming the first Chinese competitor next year.

A captain's pick last year, Lahiri expects a greater spread of Asia's golfing stalwarts to challenge for a place on Els' squad, considering their success in recent times.

"It'll be a tantalizing contest," said Lahiri. "Tiger and Ernie have played arguably the most exciting moments in Presidents Cup history. I don't think there's been a Presidents Cup in which I've been more anxious to compete, so I'll be working really hard to make the team again."

Lahiri, Asia's No 1 in 2015, reckons the new breed of stars from China, India, Thailand and Malaysia, who are all in their 20s, could feature prominently for the International team, which will be eager to secure a second victory at Royal Melbourne, site of the team's lone triumph in the competition in 1998.

"We've had KJ, YE and Hideki (Matsuyama) being stalwarts over the years, but you can see that trend changing with guys from the other countries emerging as the strength of golf in Asia is improving dramatically.

"Now we've got Li Haotong and Shubhankar Sharma, and more will follow. Someone like Phachara (Khongwatmai) has the potential and Kiradech (Aphibarnrat) has played out of his skin this year. I definitely think over the next few years, more Asians will be on the Presidents Cup teams."

Seven Asians are currently ranked in the world's top 100, including Li, who is No 46. The 22-year-old narrowly missed qualifying for the Presidents Cup last year, but hopes to maintain his push in 2019.

"I've wanted to play since the last time I was nearly there but I didn't get in. I just need to keep playing well and then hopefully get in next year," said Li, who shot a final-round 63 playing alongside Els en route to a third-place finish at the British Open last July.

"As no Chinese has played in the event before, I want to be the first."

Following two impressive top-five finishes at the World Golf Championships this season, Kiradech, 28, hopes to follow Thongchai onto Els' team.

Malaysia's Gavin Green, the reigning Asian Tour order of merit winner, is potentially another contender. "There are not too many people who will get the opportunity to play in the Presidents Cup, so it's definitely on my radar, it's on my goal list," said the 24-year-old.

Matsuyama, Japan's world No 10, and Satoshi Kodaira, who won his first PGA Tour title in April, are tipped to also jostle for a spot on the International team alongside 2017 Players Championship winner Kim Si-woo of South Korea and India's Sharma.

Sharma, who caught Els' eye as a 10-year-old in India over a decade ago, has taken the golfing world by storm following two victories at European/Asian Tour co-sanctioned events in South Africa and Malaysia over the past seven months.

"It would be fantastic if I make it to the Presidents Cup. It'll be a dream come true," said the 21-year-old Sharma.

"When I attended Ernie's clinic in the 2008 Indian Masters, he said I would be a great player one day if I kept practicing. And for a kid like me who was only 10 at that time, it just made my day."

The writer is senior director, communications of the PGA TOUR and is based in TPC Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

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