KAEC, Near Jeddah, Feb 2: Shubhankar Sharma leads a pack of seven Indians at the star-studded Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisors. The US$5 million event is the opening event of the season on the Asian Tour and tees-off tomorrow at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club.
Apart from Sharma, who was runner-up at the Abu Dhabi Championship on the DP World a fortnight ago, the other Indians include Shiv Kapur, Rashid Khan, Khalin Joshi, Viraj Madappa, S Chikkarangappa and young Veer Ahlawat, who came close to winning his maiden Asian Tour title in Singapore last month as the 2021-22 season wound up.
The Asian challenge is led Korea’s 19-year-old star, Kim Joohyung who won the 2021-22 Order of Merit. Kim Joohyung plays with former World No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Jason Kokrak in the first round.
Over 50 Asian Tour members are competing including six Asian Tour number ones. That includes Shubhankar Sharma, who was Asian Tour No. 1 in 2018.
The Asian Tour is aiming to stage 25 events this season, which will include the 10 new International Series tournaments announced yesterday. This is backed by a huge investment by Liv Golf.
LIV Golf Investments and the Asian Tour had on Tuesday unveiled The International Series and the 2022-23 destinations and prize purses for the ground-breaking series of 10 marquee international events announced in November 2021.
In what is the most significant development in the history of Asian golf and a boom for the global game, what is now to be known as ‘The International Series’ will be integrated into the full 2022-23 Asian Tour schedule.
The series will kick off in Thailand in March followed by visits to England, Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, China, Singapore, and Hong Kong and will feature prize purses ranging from US$1.5 to US$2 million per event
Meanwhile, the focus right now is on Saudi International. Leading the global star cast at the Saudi International is former World No. 1 and current No. 5, Dustin Johnson, who is bidding for a hat-trick of Saudi International titles. Johnson admitted that was “probably the best field they’ve had” yet he is hopeful to bring in the title once again.
The American, who is competing in just his second event of the year, is the defending champion, having been victorious last year, while he also won in 2019 and was runner-up in 2020.
Two-time Major winner Johnson made his first start of the year at the Farmers Insurance Open on the PGA Tour finished in joint 25th place.
“Well, I mean, this year is no different than any other year,” said the 37 year old. “Absolutely I’m going to try to do everything I can to put myself in a position to have a chance to win come Sunday. Yeah, obviously the field keeps getting better and better every year, so it gets a little harder and harder to win the trophy.
“They’ve done a great job with this event and keep bringing a lot of world-class players in. I think this year is probably the best field they’ve had. It’s a lot of talent, a lot of really good golfers. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Johnson has been drawn with newly crowned Asian Tour Order of Merit champion Joohyung Kim, Korea’s 19-year-old star, in the first two rounds and compatriot Jason Kokrak.
Johnson is joined by a powerful contingent of Americans including Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele, Phil Mickelson, Tony Finau, Bubba Watson and Patrick Reed. Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, the winner here in 2020, Spaniard Sergio Garcia, and Englishmen Lee Westwood, Paul Casey, Tommy Fleetwood, and Ian Poulter, are also competing.