Chinese pro, compatriots at NZ PGA Pro-Am

Zhang Xinjun, of China, will be joined by three compatriots when he returns to New Zealand to compete in this year's star-studded NZ PGA Championship, which will be held at The Hills in Queenstown from February 28 to March 3.

Zhang, 25, shot a closing 67 to finish 25th last year when he was the only Chinese player in the field. Next month he will be joined by Kevin Huang Wenyi, 30, Henry Han Ren, 24, an Indiana University graduate, and Li Haotong, 17, at the PGA Tour of Australasia event, which this year marks the centenary of the PGA of New Zealand.

Toshinori Muto, who won his fifth Japan Golf Tour title at last year's Kansai Open, Kang Kyung-nam, third on last year's Korean Tour money list, Angelo Que of the Philippines, a three-time Asian Tour winner, and Michael Tran of Vietnam are among other Asian golfers signed up for the fast-growing event.

In his rookie season in 2011, Zhang finished 13th at the WGC-HSBC Champions and teamed up with Liang Wenchong in the World Cup, then last year followed his Queenstown debut with two wins on the China PGA Championship Tour.

"I really enjoyed myself in Queenstown," said Zhang, who trains with Huang and Li in the China national team.

"The Hills is the most beautiful course I've played on, so I know the other players from China and around Asia will really enjoy competing there this year. It's truly stunning, like a postcard.

"The pro-am format is really interesting for me because you meet famous sportsmen and businessmen, and last year I played with a famous netball player [Julie Coney].

"It will be fun going back there with my team-mates."

Australian Brendan Jones, third in last year's Japan Golf Tour money list and a 12-time winner in Japan, is the highest-ranked player in the field, while Michael Hendry of New Zealand will defend his title after becoming the first winner under the new celebrity pro-am format.

The tournament mirrors the successful format used in the AT & T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am on the US PGA Tour and The European Tour's Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland.

English cricket legend Sir Ian Botham and rugby's most capped international, Wallaby hero George Gregan, will make their tournament debut as celebrity players next month.

Justin Marshall, the former All Blacks halfback and Jones' partner last year, fellow rugby legend Nick Farr-Jones, of Australia, and teenage golfing prodigy Lydia Ko, the world's top-ranked women's amateur, are among the amateurs looking forward to their second straight NZ PGA Championship.

"Without a shadow of a doubt, it's one of the greatest things I've done in my life. The NZ PGA Championship was just incredible and playing with Brendan was a tremendous experience," Marshall said.

John Hart, chairman of the NZ PGA Organising Committee and a former All Blacks coach and Auckland halfback, says the event is starting to establish itself as one of the highlights of the Asia-Pacific golfing calendar.

"Benefiting from its stunning venue at The Hills and Queenstown's gorgeous scenery, the NZ PGA Championship is fast on its way to becoming the pre-eminent pro-am event in the region - the Asia-Pacific version of the Alfred Dunhill Links or the Pebble Beach Pro-Am," Hart said.

"This will be the second year of the pro-am format, which continues to receive strong support from players, celebrities, corporate sponsors and the New Zealand Government.

"As well as attracting top pro golfers from across Asia-Pacific, we have over 30 international businesspeople participating as amateur players in the event, including many leading businessmen from the likes of Japan, Korea and Indonesia."

Last year, Zhang was the only Chinese pro in a field dominated by New Zealanders and Australians and which also featured players from Korea, South Africa and Sweden.

Hendry, the 2010 Indonesian Open champion, will be back to follow up his victory in Queenstown, which was followed by another three titles last year and top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour of Australasia and OneAsia.

He also secured his card for the 2013 Japan Golf Tour.

Mark Brown, winner of the 2008 Johnnie Walker Classic on the European Tour, will also return to The Hills after finishing runner-up to Hendry last year.

Fellow New Zealander Steven Alker, the 2009 winner, will be back after missing the event last year, when he went on to post a top-20 finish at the Open Championship.

Other top Kiwis who will play include David Smail, Ryan Fox, Gareth Paddison, Josh Geary, Brad Shilton, Phil Tataurangi, Richard Lee and Perth-based Michael Long, and three-time US Open champion Hale Irwin is also in the field.

The Southland Times