Defending champion Lee Westwood is looking to mix business with pleasure when he goes in search of an unprecedented third victory at the Thailand Golf Championship, which will return to the award-winning Amata Spring Country Club in Chonburi from December 10-13.
The popular 42-year-old, one of England’s greatest golfing exports, will line up alongside multiple Major winners Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer in a star-studded field for the fifth edition of a tournament that has become a favourite among the game’s elite.
Past champion Sergio Garcia, 2016 European Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke and local favourites Thongchai Jaidee and Kiradech Aphibarnrat have also committed to play in the Asian Tour’s flagship event, which boasts a prize purse of US$1 million.
Khun Sarath Ratanavadi, Executive Director of the Thailand Golf Championship, revealed that preparations for the tournament’s fifth edition are well on track and that the Thailand Golf Championship’s status as an Open Qualifying Series event will continue for a second consecutive year.
Four highly coveted places at The Open in 2016, which will be staged at Royal Troon, will be up for grabs at Amata Spring for those players who are not already exempt from golf’s oldest major championship.
Westwood, so often a hero for Europe at the Ryder Cup, claimed a historic second Thailand Golf Championship title last December when he staged a brilliant come-from-behind victory to pip debutant Kaymer and Australia’s Marcus Fraser on a thrilling final day of action.
Amata Spring, which has been voted the Best Course on the Asian Tour for the last three years, clearly agrees with the Englishman. He fired the lowest round of his professional career – a scintillating 12-under-par 60 – en-route to winning the inaugural championship in 2011.
“The Thailand Golf Championship is one of the most enjoyable weeks on my schedule, so it’s going to be great to return to a course where I’ve enjoyed success in the past,” said the globe-trotting Westwood, who has racked up 42 wins since turning pro in 1993.
“I have many wonderful memories of playing at Amata Spring,” continued the former World No 1. “Both my wins are special and both were very different – shooting 60 in 2011 to win by seven, and then putting in a good round in tough conditions last year to win by a shot.
“It’s a first-class tournament that always features a high-quality field. I’m looking forward to the challenge that lies ahead.”
In Watson and Kaymer, Westwood faces a pair of major champions who return with their sights set firmly on a title that has narrowly eluded them in the past.
“The Thailand Golf Championship is always a blast,” said two-time Masters winner Watson, whose best result in his three appearances at Amata Spring came in 2012 when he finished in a share of second behind Charl Schwartzel.
“The hospitality during the week really is second to none and I’ve made a lot of great friends in Thailand over the years. Every time I tee it up I want to win, I want my name on that trophy.”
Kaymer, whose last victory came at the 2014 US Open where he put in a amazingly dominant performance at Pinehurst to win by eight strokes, returns to Thailand with something of a point to prove.
“Coming so close on my debut last year makes me all the more determined take the silverware home with my this time,” said the 30-year-old German, whose first major title arrived after he defeated the long-hitting Watson in a play-off at the 2010 US PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
“Before arriving in Thailand I didn’t really know what to expect – but the tournament certainly exceeded all expectations; it was a fantastic week. The field is obviously strong, the golf course is definitely challenging and the fans are really enthusiastic. It has all the ingredients that we as professional golfers love.”
One player who needs no introduction to the Thailand Golf Championship is Kaymer’s Ryder Cup teammate, Sergio Garcia. The Spaniard has been a regular fixture at Amata Spring since the start – and tasted a sweet victory in 2013.
“Having played the championship since the beginning I’ve seen at firsthand how it’s grown in prestige and importance,” said Garcia, who posted a tournament record score of 22-under to clinch his win of two years ago.
“Those memories will last forever. I had a hole-in-one in the final round and I simply played great golf and ended up as the champion. It was the perfect end to a fabulous week.”
Although the elegant Thailand Golf Championship trophy has gone to international players for four straight years, the galleries can be assured of a strong Thai challenge thanks to the form of local stars Thongchai Jaidee, Kiradech Aphirbarnrat and Prayad Marksaeng.
“Playing on home soil makes the Thailand Golf Championship a very important tournament for me,” said 45-year-old legend Thongchai, a three-time Asian Tour Order of Merit champion who made his way onto the International team at the Presidents Cup earlier this month after enjoying a string of top performances in Europe.
“The tournament always features strong international players, but I’ll be trying my best to win and to keep the trophy here in Thailand. I’ve had a consistent season so far so maybe my time has come.”
The significant financial rewards on offer and its position as the penultimate event on the Asian Tour calendar means the Thailand Golf Championship will likely play a key role in determining who claims the Order of Merit.
Furthermore, as part of The Open Qualifying Series, the tournament provides the kind of additional opportunities that no other event in the region does: berths in golf’s oldest major championship.
In 2014, current Asian Tour Order of Merit leader Anirban Lahiri of India, the Australian duo of Scott Hend and Marcus Fraser, and Jonathan Moore of the United States all secured their spots at St Andrews this summer after finishing the Thailand Golf Championship as the top four players who weren’t already exempt for The Open.
“The R&A is delighted for the Thailand Golf Championship to be an Open Qualifying Series tournament for the second time,” said Dominic Wall, Director Asia-Pacific, The R&A.
“This year we look forward another four players qualifying for the 145th Open, which will be held at Royal Troon Golf Club in Scotland from 14-17 July, 2016.”