Mikael Lundberg will be looking to gift himself a belated birthday present as well as create a small piece of golfing history this week when he attempts to be the first man to successfully defend the Imperial Collection Russian Open on The European Tour International Schedule.
The Swede, who turned 33 on Sunday, claimed his maiden European Tour title at Le Meridien Moscow Country Club last season but had to go the extra mile to achieve the feat, tying with England’s Andrew Butterfield after 72 holes, before taking the title at the fourth hole of a sudden-death play-off.
The championship has been won twice in the past – by Iain Pyman – but the Englishman’s successes did not come in successive years, occurring firstly in 1999 and secondly in 2002.
Now Lundberg will attempt to do just that. Should he achieve the feat it will not only see him enter the record books, it will also turn around a season where he has struggled for the main part and which currently sees him in 191st position on the Order of Merit.
Another player making the trip again to the Russian capital is England’s Benn Barham who finished strongly in last year’s event with three rounds in the 60s and, had he not posted an opening 73, could well have been in Lundberg’s position of claiming his maiden European Tour title.
“That has been the case for me on a number of occasions,” he said. “Apart from my sixth last year, I was second there before and fourth too. On all three occasions I didn’t really get started until the weekend so it would be good this year to have a good couple of rounds early on and try and follow up from there.”
Barham admitted however, he will have no problem getting motivated for the challenge ahead. “It is probably one of the best courses we play all year,” he said. “It is set in a pine forest and it is always in really good condition. The organisation is fantastic and we stay on site in the hotel which makes it a good fun week.
“It is amazing when people ask you where you are next week and you say ‘Moscow’ - you can see the look on their faces. It has this kind of mystique about it, in fact the whole of Russia does.
“The flight is a bit longer that we are used to at this time of the year but once you get there it is great. I am going to try and go to Red Square this year, try and make myself appreciate the culture of the place a bit more than I have on previous trips.
“I’ve been playing well the last couple of weeks and I am looking to do well there. I’m a big believer in horses for courses and you do see guys year in year out doing well at the same courses. To your eye, you see the shots easier on some courses than you do on others and that is the case with me there. Hopefully I can use that to my advantage.”
This year sees the Imperial Collection Russian Open become a fully fledged European Tour International Schedule tournament for the first time. It was a Challenge Tour event in its first seven years of existence from 1996 to 2002 and a dual ranking event between The European and Challenge Tours from 2003 to 2005.
Now it carries full European Tour status which means a substantial increase in prize money from the €400,000 on offer last year to this year’s figure of €783,880, while the winner will also, of course, receive an exemption until the end of the 2008 season.