Austrian Markus Brier will attempt to make history as the first player to successfully defend the Volvo China Open when the first round gets underway at the Beijing CBD International Golf Club.
Twelve months ago Brier secured a commanding five stroke victory in Shanghai , prompting unprecedented interest in the game in his home country and a letter of congratulation from the Austrian Prime Minister.
“That was a first,” said Brier of his congratulatory note on the eve of the $2,200,000 event. “I suppose it was the equivalent of an African winning a skiing medal or something. The reaction was incredible. In Austria it was the first time that golf got in the media big time, on the TV and in the press.”
His victory sparked a run of form which saw him pick up two more top fives in his next two events, including a play-off defeat in Italy, and a career high finish of 32nd on The European Tour Order of Merit.
This season he has struggled to reach the same heights and he has made the cut in only two of his six events this year but after a top ten finish in Andalucia three weeks ago, Brier is confident he has turned a corner.
“I started early last year and the victory was my kick off point,” he said. “I had a few good results after that. And I have had some good results coming here so I am getting into form now and hope it is the start of my season.
“It’s a new course and the set up is great. I know how hard it is to defend. I have tried it once and didn’t succeed and the Volvo China Open hasn’t been defended yet but I hope I can do well this week.”
Graeme McDowell is the highest ranked player in the world in the field and starts as the pre-tournament favourite as he looks to add to his success in the Ballantine’s Championship on his last visit to Asia. Last year he finished joint runner-up behind Brier and has his sights set on going one better.
“One better would be very nice,” said the Ulsterman. “My form has been improving in Asia the last couple of years. It takes a little getting used to, the different venues, jet lag and all the things you have to deal with coming out here. But I like the look of this week, like the way the course is set up. It is difficult and I think it will separate the men from the boys.”
McDowell has also got a longer term goal, namely to make the European Ryder Cup Team and his win in Korea has set him up nicely for the race ahead.
“The Ryder Cup is the ultimate goal this year. I am off to a very good start but I realise that is all I am off to, a good start, and there is a lot of work to do. It is going to be a highly competitive team and I am going to have to play some very good golf between now and September to give myself the chance to make the team. I am off to a great start and the win in Korea gave me a boost but I have to keep plugging away. I will need to win again at least and keep punching away and putting points on the board.”
David Howell has already experienced the drama of The Ryder Cup and after finishing runner-up in his last event, losing out to Gregory Bourdy in a play-off for the Estoril Open de Portugal, arrived in China with a timely confidence boost as he looks to put his recent troubles behind him.
“It wouldn’t have been a miracle to win as I came close but having played how I have the past year and then turned up with a win would have been pretty amazing,” said Howell. “I have got to be pleased with just getting back up there. Things didn’t quite go my way and if I had a little more luck perhaps I would have sneaked the win but it was a big turnaround in my form and it is my job to continue it.
“We all need a result now and again to remind yourself you can still play the game and I hadn’t had one for some time. It was a big thing. It doesn’t necessarily mean you will continue in that vein constantly but you have to have your first good week at some stage.
“The confidence is vastly improved as a result. That was the first week with a new coach, Jamie Gough, and we embarked on changing a number of things. They clicked into place that week but that process is continuing. It is not like I am completely comfortable. It will take time to get really competent and comfortable with the changes and I am not there yet. I don’t stand on the first tee feeling I am in the best form of my life but I feel I am working on some good things and that is important.”
Liang Wen-chong, winner of the Asian Tour Order of Merit, leads the home challenge in a bid to spark early Olympic celebrations by lifting his national Open in his capital city just a few months before China hosts the Olympic Games in August.