Ben Leong made a brilliant par save on the par-five ninth, his final hole, at Hidden Grace Golf Club to grab the first-round lead in the US$1.5 million Volvo China Open today.

The Malaysian, who is in 67th place on the Asian Tour Order of Merit and battling to keep his playing rights for next year, played a gutsy fourth shot from 235-yards, with rescue, in to 40-feet from where he drained the putt for a six-under-par 66.

China’s Li Linqiang, the China Tour’s number one ranked player celebrating his 20th birthday today, and Zhang Huilin, the winner here in 2020, Spaniard Eugenio Chacarra, Thailand’s Chonlatit Chuenboonngam, Itthipat Buranatanyarat and Settee Prakongvech plus Australian Jack Thompson all carded 67s.

A month ago Leong had to pull out of the SJM Macao Open before he could tee-off on the opening day, feeling unwell – putting even more pressure on him with the season in its closing stages.

He said: “I’d just finished in the top-20 in the International Series Singapore and I was looking forward to the Macau Open but unfortunately I got sick in Macau and didn’t tee it up. So, after that I went back home to get ready for China, Hong Kong and Indonesia.

“I caught a cold in Macau, I was in the clubhouse waiting to play and I didn’t feel good. My body temperature was about 38 degrees so the doctor advised me not to play.” 

The rest has appeared to serve him well as he shot six birdies today and was the only player to go bogey free.

“Stuck the ball really well which was a surprise and made my fair share of putts. The drives here are pretty demanding, but I drove the ball pretty well. It’s a good golf course, in great shape,” said the 37-year-old from Sabah.

“That par on my last will certainly make dinner taste a lot better.”

Li handed himself the best possible birthday present with a great start to the biggest and most important tournament in his country.

He currently tops the China Tour Order of Merit after three wins this year, including last week’ s Hengdian International Golf Elite Pro-Am, and is clearly peaking at the right time for this week’s US$1.5 million event – which is being played on the Asian Tour for the first time since 2019 and is part of the blossoming International Series.

Seven birdies and two bogeys saw him move into contention, in an event that has been won on six occasions by golfers from China: Cheng Jun (1997), Zhang Lianwei (2003), Wu Ashun (2015), Li Haotong (2016), Zhang Huilin (2020), and Zhang Jin (2021). The latter two triumphed when the tournament was played as a China-only event due to the global pandemic.

“I didn’t look at the score on the leaderboard, just stuck to my rhythm and strategy,” said Li, who like Leong is playing in this event for the first time, and also debuting on the Asian Tour.

“My target was to play even today as it is the first time for me to play at Hidden Grace Golf Club. I feel my putting was excellent. Not only did I have just 28 putts, but also I holed two long par putts, both about 20 feet.”

Despite being in fine form he added: “I don’t think I am at my best. I had an injury on my left waist these two months, but it didn’t affect my swing. I just feel painful. Certainly, no plans to celebrate my birthday tonight. I don’t have time.”

Chuenboonngam, playing his first full season on the Asian Tour, also enjoyed a good day on the greens.

“I had a lot of big putts today,” said the 25-year-old.

“On hole 17 I holed from 20 feet, downhill, made it. And hole 10 I holed from the same distance. And all my other birdies were from same length. I like this course, but the tee shot is a bit narrow. The condition is very good.”

He has impressed this year and is the highest ranked Thai on The International Series Order of Merit in 13th position – helped by finishing second in the International Series Thailand, where he was defeated in a sudden-death play-off by Australian Wade Ormsby.

“It’s my putting, it’s been really good this year, that’s why I am playing well,” said the Thai golfer, who broke through on the Asian Development Tour last year finishing second on the Order of Merit, winning the Gunung Geulis Invitational, finishing second three times, and third twice.

American Andy Ogletree, leader of both the Asian Tour and International Series Order of Merits, is in a tie for ninth following a 68.

China’s amateur star Ding Wenyi, who lost in a play-off at the Asian Amateur Championship last weekend, fired a 70, while Asian Games gold medallist Taichi Kho from Hong Kong shot a 71.

Play was suspended at 6.01 pm local time due to fading light. A total of 16 players will resume Round 1 at 7.30am on Friday, with Round 2 to commence at 6.40am as scheduled.

Scores after round 1 of the Volvo China Open 2023 being played at the par 72, 7145 Yards Hidden Grace GC course (am – denotes amateur):
66 – Ben Leong (MAS).
67 – Chonlatit Chuenboonngam (THA), Li Linqiang (CHN), Jack Thompson (AUS), Settee Prakongvech (THA), Zhang Huilin (CHN), Eugenio Chacarra (ESP), Itthipat Buranatanyarat (THA).
68 – Nitithorn Thippong (THA), Steve Lewton (ENG), Jinichiro Kozuma (JPN), Jin Daxing (CHN), Doyeob Mun (KOR), Kento Nakai (JPN), Andy Ogletree (USA), Paul Peterson (USA), Chikkarangappa S. (IND), Chen Guxin (CHN), Lee Chieh-po (TPE), Pawin Ingkhapradit (THA).
69 – Sadom Kaewkanjana (THA), Qiu Yongqi (CHN), Richard T. Lee (CAN), Gunn Charoenkul (THA), Wu Di (CHN), Michael Maguire (USA), Huang Zijie (CHN), Suradit Yongcharoenchai (THA).
70 – Sangmoon Bae (KOR), Jaco Ahlers (RSA), Atiruj Winaicharoenchai (THA), Yang Yinong (CHN), Sarit Suwannarut (THA), Prom Meesawat (THA), Sam Brazel (AUS), Todd Sinnott (AUS), Pavit Tangkamolprasert (THA), Douglas Klein (AUS), Zhou Yanhan (am, CHN), Siddikur Rahman (BAN), Ding Wenyi (am, CHN), Ajeetesh Sandhu (IND), Trevor Simsby (USA), Gordan Brixi (CZE).
71 – Zhuang Zhu (CHN), Cao Yi (CHN), Taichi Kho (HKG), Kieran Vincent (ZIM), Terry Pilkadaris (AUS), Tong Yang (CHN), Dodge Kemmer (USA), Micah Lauren Shin (USA), Natipong Srithong (THA), Matthew Cheung (HKG), Miguel Carballo (ARG), Jbe Kruger (RSA).
72 – Poom Saksansin (THA), Andreas Gronkvist (SWE), John Lyras (AUS), Fan Jicheng (CHN), Graeme McDowell (NIR), Phachara Khongwatmai (THA), Chen Zihao (CHN), Qiu Zihang (am, CHN), Kosuke Hamamoto (THA), Kevin Yuan (AUS), Berry Henson (USA), Tirawat Kaewsiribandit (THA), Justin Quiban (PHI).
73 – Miguel Tabuena (PHI), Shahriffuddin Ariffin (MAS), Ian Snyman (RSA), Lawrence Ting (TPE), Zhang Zihong (CHN), Yonggu Shin (CAN), David Shen (TPE), Jazz Janewattananond (THA), Chan Shih-chang (TPE), Ye Wocheng (CHN), Danthai Boonma (THA), Zhang JinShen (CHN), Taehee Lee (KOR).
74 – Zhang Jin (CHN), Travis Smyth (AUS), Wang Wei-hsuan (TPE), Suteepat Prateeptienchai (THA), Yongjun Bae (KOR), Shen Wang Ngai (am, HKG), Matt Killen (ENG), Shen Nannan (CHN), Zach Murray (AUS), Nicholas Fung (MAS), Veer Ahlawat (IND).
75 – S.S.P. Chawrasia (IND), Su Dong (CHN), Hung Chien-yao (TPE), Gregory Foo (SGP), Huang Hsiang-hao (TPE), Scott Hend (AUS), Gaganjeet Bhullar (IND), Andrew Dodt (AUS), Liu Enhua (CHN), Hak Shun Yat (HKG), Xue Han (CHN), Tom Power Horan (AUS).
76 – Mingyu Cho (KOR), Ma Bingwen (am, CHN), Seungtaek Lee (KOR), David Drysdale (SCO), Yikeun Chang (KOR).
77 – Cao Senshou (CHN), Wang Xu (CHN), Yeongsu Kim (KOR), Wu Tuxuan (CHN), Kuang Yang (am, CHN), Xiao Bowen (CHN), Zhang Lianwei (CHN).
78 – Mardan Mamat (SGP), Tang Haizhao (CHN), Chen Yilong (CHN).
79 – Othman Almulla (KSA), Kieran Muir (NZL).
80 – Song Chunjun (CHN), Ye Jianfeng (CHN).
82 – Yoseop Seo (KOR).
83 – Shao Minghao (am, CHN).
89 – Albin Johansson (am, SWE).
Bio Kim, Korea – RT

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