The first half of the 2019 Asian Tour season will be best remembered for thrusting the region’s best and promising players into the global spotlight.
A place where it all begins, the Asian Tour Qualifying School has always been the launch pad for aspiring golfers as they embark on their professional careers and chase their golfing dreams.
And it did not take long for the likes of rookies such as Zach Murray and Sadom Kaewkanjana to create ripples in the golfing world with their respective wins at the New Zealand Open and Bangabandhu Cup Golf Open in Bangladesh.
At the season-opening event in January, Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond found his winning rhythm again when he outclassed a host of quality players including Sergio Garcia, Paul Casey and Davis Love III to lift the iconic SMBC Singapore Open trophy for his third Asian Tour title.
New Zealand’s Ryan Fox then produced a dominant performance in the final match, by beating Spain’s Adrian Otaegui 3&2 to lift the ISPS HANDA World Super 6 Perth trophy the following month.
Like the unique formats of the popular ISPS HANDA World Super 6 Perth and New Zealand Open, which have been a huge success, Murray also endeared himself to the crowd when he signalled his arrival on the biggest stage by becoming the third-fastest Qualifying School graduate to win on the Asian Tour in March.
Murray’s wire-to-wire victory, which saw him being crowned as the newest champion of the New Zealand Open, was made even sweeter as it was his first professional win, achieved in what was only his third start on the Asian Tour.
RIGHT: Zach Murray won the New Zealand Open in March. PHOTO: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images.
Victory at the Maybank Championship in March was especially special for Queenslander Scott Hend, as he cemented his status as the most successful international golfer on the Asian Tour when he claimed his 10th victory in Malaysia.
Hend’s play-off victory over Spain’s Nacho Elvira was his first in three years since he last won in 2016. The 45-year-old also became the second player, following Thongchai Jaidee in 2014, to surpass US$5million in career earnings, thanks to his victory in Malaysia.
There was no lack of drama in March as Scotland’s Stephen Gallacher staged a remarkable comeback by firing three birdies in his closing four holes to win the Hero Indian Open.
Not to be outdone in the tale of rookies, young Thai talent Sadom surpassed Murray’s earlier feat by becoming the record-fastest Qualifying School graduate to win on the Asian Tour in his very first start at the Bangabandhu Cup Golf Open.
Sadom secured his 2019 Asian Tour card in his first attempt at the Qualifying School – and struck gold again with his first Tour victory and a second win as a professional after his maiden win on the Asian Development Tour (ADT) in February.
The Asian Tour headed to East Asia in May where an exciting run of events in China, Korea and Japan reignited the Order of Merit battle.
Finland’s Mikko Korhonen ensured his first play-off duel with France’s Benjamin Hebert would end in victory, when he drained an eight-foot birdie putt on the first play-off hole to defeat the Frenchman and win the Volvo China Open.
The 38th GS Caltex Maekyung Open Golf Championship saw the trophy being retained on home soil again, after Korea’s Taehee Lee edged Finland’s Janne Kaske to claim his first Asian Tour title.
RIGHT: Jazz Janewattananond trails Scott Hend by just over US$50,000 in the Asian Tour Order of Merit. PHOTO: Jamie Squire/Getty Images.
Japan’s Yosuke Asaji then delivered the perfect mother's day gift on the day that matters most when he held his nerve to win the Asia-Pacific Diamond Cup in Chiba prefecture.
Beyond home comforts, the golfing world also began to take notice of South Africa’s Justin Harding and Jazz, who both elevated into the higher echelons of the game.
Harding continued to make waves even on the European Tour by winning the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters in March and emerged as one of the surprise packages at The Masters. He finished tied for 12th to earn a return ticket to Augusta in 2020.
American Kurt Kitayama, who graduated from Qualifying School in 2018, also made big strides in the Middle East when he was crowned the Oman Open champion. It was his second European Tour title since winning the AfrAsia Bank Mauritius Open last December.
Jazz then took his prolific form to the major stage when he finished in a creditable tied-14th place at the US PGA Championship two weeks ago
That finish, which was also the best result by a Thai at the US PGA Championship, moved him to a career-high 69th place on the Official World Golf Ranking.
Amidst the intense competition that provided all with a great spectacle the last five months, new heroes have emerged with records rewritten.
Hend holds a slim advantage over Jazz on the Asian Tour Order of Merit at this stage.
Slightly over US$50,000 separates the two – but expect more twist and turns when the players return to action starting with the Kolon The 62nd Korea Open Golf Championship next month.