Hidden Grace Golf Club, Shenzhen - 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 $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 a rescue club, 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.
Chacarra, a rising star in the LIV Golf League and member of Fireballs GC, is fresh off a historic victory on the International Series in Scotland earlier this year defeated Ripper GC's Matt Jones on the 10th extra hole at the St Andrews Bay Championship in the longest sudden-death play-off in Asian Tour history.
Leong had to pull out of last month's 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 medalist Taichi Kho from Hong Kong shot a 71.
For more information on the Volvo China Open please click here.