▲ Thai golfer Thongchai Jaidee is all smiles, taking home the win in the recent Ballantines Championship tournament at Pinx Golf Club. Photos by Brian Miller
The crowning showpiece of Jeju's golfing calendar, the 2009 Ballantines Championship, teed off on the island last month in which eventual winner Thongchai Jaidee, beat out a star studded golfing line up including the likes of Ernie Els and Fred Couples.
Now in its second year, the $2.7 million European Tour and Korean PGA sanctioned event was held at the prestigious Pinx Golf Club, known for a tough 72-par with blustery conditions. This year proved no exception as a biting wind and unusually chilly weather conditions for the time of year made play difficult in the tourney, held April 23-26.
A three-way play-off between the 39-year-old Jaidee of Thailand, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano of Spain and Jeju native Sung-Hoon Kang decided a tense championship finale. Fernandez-Castano had the most work to do from the back of the green but upon missing his follow up stroke and Kang coming up short from seven feet, a composed Jaidee holed from only four to secure his fourth European Tour win and twelfth Asian championship triumph.
The win sees him break into the world’s top 50 players and qualify for this year’s Players Championship in the United States, playing for a share of $9.3 million in prize money.
Commenting on his win, Jaidee noted that weather conditions had a lot to do with the final standings, which saw Dutchman Robert-Jan Derksen, holding a two stroke lead into the final day of play, dropping back to finish joint forth with American Ernie Els. Korean rookie Noh Seung-Yul, who had high hopes coming into the championship, finished forty-sixth.
A tender moment with a Korean spectator, who helped Couples with a snack purchase, went down well with a ripple of applause from everyone in the vicinity, but it couldn’t help lift the veteran from a disappointing fifty-second place.
▲ American golfer Fred Couples competes in the recent Ballantines Championship tournament at Pinx Golf Club.
"You come to Korea, you want to play well. There's probably more pressure, and that's a good thing, because if you play at home in the United States, they see you all the time,'' he said. "So one of the best parts is coming and playing in a different place. It's a learning experience and a lot of fun.''
Els acknowledged the challenges of the course. Selected as one of the world’s best 100 by U.S. Golf Magazine, the 7,345 yard course has “some really good birdie opportunity holes, downwind holes, and then the holes uphill into the wind are the holes you want to par,” he said. Els has won 60 tournaments in his career.
Reworked prior to 2008, sixteen bunker changes, added trees for protection and difficult approach shots made an already difficult course more so.
It would prove too much of a challenge for last year’s winner, Graeme McDowell, who despite winning a warm-up pro-am tournament prior to the main event could not build upon his success. He missed Friday’s cut carding a 73 or five over par in the second round.
McDowell, did however, contribute in another way- by lending his taste for whiskey to the creation of this year's 35-year-old Championship Blend. Assisting Ballantines Master Blender, Sandy Hyslop. Fifteen limited edition bottles were made available, with one for the winner and others for auction. It remains to be seen if they will fetch as high a price as the 40-year-old Championship Blend of 2008 ($12,888).
As the Ballantines Championship 2009 drew to a close, the island's profile among the world's international golfing elite has certainly been raised. Large billboards posed the question, "Who will leave an impression?" For many, winner Thongchai Jaidee will. Yet for others, Jeju's infamous wind will leave a lasting impression of this stunning, but challenging golfing landscape.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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