The 38-year-old self-taught golfer made international headlines by becoming the first Chinese golfer to play in the year’s first Major earlier this month and agonisingly missed the halfway cut by one shot.
Though disheartened, Zhang is looking to make amends at the US$300,000 Volkswagen-sponsored event, the ninth leg on the Asian Tour, at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Pine Valley Golf Club. Winning would put the icing on the cake as Zhang turns 39 on Sunday, the day of the final round.
“I would like to suggest to the event organisers to provide this week’s winner with a green jacket (similar to the US Masters),” said Zhang, obviously still in Masters mode. “This is the Volkswagen Masters – China and it will be appropriate, I think.”
Zhang’s bid to put his name on the first Volkswagen Masters – China trophy will be up against the challenges from international stars Nick Faldo, Welsh duo Ian Woosnam and Phillip Price and the Asian Tour’s leading lights.
But with windy conditions expected to prevail over the pristine Pine Valley layout, he has been touted as a strong contender. Woosnam, who is no stranger to success in Asia, said: “I’ve played with Zhang a lot of times in the last five to six years. The style of his game is different but he hits the ball exceptionally well and he putts exceptionally well. He hits it low and it is very windy here this week and I can see him being right up there in the frame of winning the tournament.”
The Chinese number one, who will feature in the opening two rounds with Faldo, played down the compliment but said that he was in a good frame of mind this week. “I enjoy playing on Nicklaus-designed golf courses and I’m comfortable with my game right now. Playing at the US Masters was a great experience and I’ve learned from it. Standing on the first tee in the opening round, my legs were trembling as I was so nervous. It took me a while to settle down and find my rhythm.
“It is nice to see Volkswagen sponsoring a new golf tournament for the first time in China and it reflects the growth of the game here,” added Zhang, who finished last season as the second-ranked Asian player.
Woosnam featured in an exhibition skins game in Kunming at the weekend and is hoping to shrug off a cold to challenge for his 45th international victory. “It’s been a while since I last won a strokeplay tournament and that was in Korea a few years back. It’ll be nice to repeat that win in Asia this week. I’ve had a bit of a cold and have been trying to recover from that. I’ve taken it easy since arriving in Beijing but hope to pick up some form this week,” said Woosnam, whose last victory was the 2001 Cisco World Match Play Championship.
Price, famed for beating newly crowned Masters winner Phil Mickelson in the Ryder Cup two years ago, is looking to capitalise on his late inclusion into the Volkswagen Masters – China following Thomas Bjorn’s withdrawal due to injury.
The talented Welshman showed he means business after emerging as the big winner in the skins shootout in China at the weekend and could well drive away with the Volkswagen title. “I’ve been playing okay, nothing really great yet this season. My form was a bit better last weekend, so that is nice. I’m optimistic of playing well this week. I was in China in 1995 for the World Cup and it’s tremendous to see how much golf has grown in this country,” said Price, who was 10th on last year’s European Order of Merit.
Faldo said he has been window-shopping for Chinese art since arriving in Beijing and is looking to live up to his star billing here. He said his biggest challenge has been to maintain his consistency throughout the week.
“The second shots here are the key. The greens are good and it’ll be down to putting as well. If the weather is good, scoring could be low. I’m looking to play really well and have a great week and hopefully buy some Chinese painting. I would like to make some money and buy them,” said the six-time Major winner.
“In the last few years, I’ve played some really good rounds. I guess when you get a bit older, it’s tough to keep that consistency. I might play really well for six holes, 12 holes but making it happen for 18 and 72 holes get a bit tougher when you get older. I know what to do but I’ve just got to do it,” added the 46-year-old Faldo.
Singapore’s Mardan Mamat, winner of the Asian Tour’s previous stop in India, will be amongst the contenders for the top prize this week. “Since winning, I think my confidence level is really good. I played in a local event last week which was a good warm up and I struck the ball pretty nice. With several events coming up, I’m looking forward to playing well again. I just need to keep working hard at the game,” said the Singaporean number one.