From protests to pro golf as postponed Hong Kong Open tees off
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Hong Kong (AFP)
Open champion Shane Lowry and US big hitter Tony Finau are the headline acts as the Hong Kong Open finally goes ahead on Thursday, six weeks after it was postponed over the pro-democracy protests gripping the city.
Organisers hope a successful staging of the $1 million golf tournament will show that normality is returning to the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, which has seen months of unrest and demonstrations.
"Hopefully the tournament this week shows everyone that things are starting to get back to normal... that it's safe to come back here and stage your event," Asian Tour commissioner and CEO Cho Minn Thant told AFP.
The tournament at the historic Fanling course -- whose previous winners include Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose -- was originally slated for November, but was postponed as the finance hub wrestled with the often-violent protests.
After a WTA tennis tournament, a Formula E race and other events were cancelled, a recent period of calm encouraged organisers to squeeze the Hong Kong Open -- one of Asia's biggest and oldest golf fixtures -- back onto the sporting calendar.
The re-scheduled tournament is sanctioned by the Asian Tour but not the European Tour, which will resume its support when the event returns to its November slot later this year.
The changed date also resulted in the loss of original headliners Patrick Reed, Henrik Stenson and Aaron Rai, the defending champion.
Finding big names to come and play "wasn't easy", said Cho. "But, most of the burden was on the (Hong Kong) golf club, and they've come through with flying colours."
- On the buses -
That includes tempting Lowry to make his first appearance at Fanling in a decade as he kicks off a year where "the main thing" is securing selection to countryman Padraig Harrington's Ryder Cup team.
Australia's Wade Ormsby, the 2017 champion, and the Asian Tour Order of Merit Jazz Janewattananond of Thailand are also in the field.
Finau, who averaged 309 yards per drive in the 2019 season, said he was looking forward to the unusual challenges of Fanling's short fairways, small greens and dog legs.
"If you hit it in the fairway and hole some putts you could be holding the trophy at the end of the week," said the world number 16, the first Polynesian to play in a Ryder Cup.
Lowry's last appearance in Hong Kong came in 2010, shortly after he had turned professional, and on the heels of close friend Graeme McDowell's victory at the US Open.
The Irishman remembered McDowell "getting all the red carpets laid out for him... and all the cars and I was on the (player's) bus".
Since that year, when he failed to make the cut at Fanling, he has had an "incredible" decade, topped off by the win at Portrush.
"I'm certainly going to take it all in and enjoy it," Lowry said.
"It's nice to be back and it's nice to have my own car this week."
© 2020 AFP