McDowell faces tough Ballentine's defence


GOLF: Graeme McDowell will face some stiff opposition when the defence of his Ballentine’s Championship in Korea comes around in April after Ernie Els, Lee Westwood and Henrik Stenson all confirmed their participation in the €2.1million co-sanctioned event.

McDowell won last year’s inaugural event in the most dramatic manner when he rifled a seven-iron to within inches of the cup on the third play-off hole to deny India’s Jeev Milka Singh and claim his third European Tour title.

The victory at Pinx Golf Club, Jeju Island, South Korea kick-started a fine season for McDowell, who went on to claim the Barclays Scottish Open at Loch Lomond and also made his Ryder Cup debut.

The 29-year-old also finished fifth on the European order of merit with earnings of €1,859,346 and climbed back into the world’s top 50 on the back of such a strong season.

“Winning the 2008 Ballantine’s Championship was an unforgettable moment in my career and also the start of a brilliant year for me,” said McDowell. “I have some wonderful memories of my week at Pinx Golf Club and I’m thrilled to be returning as defending champion.

“I know Ballantine’s and the organisers are putting together a world class field and the Korean fans can be assured I’ll be doing my very best to mount a successful title defence.”

The Portrush pro will be up against three-time major winner Els, who is looking forward to a return visit to Korea.

“I’ve enjoyed my previous visits to Korea and I’m delighted to be returning to take part in the Ballantine’s Championship for the first time,” said the South African, winner of the 1994 and 1997 US Open and the 2002 British Open.

“Korea is at the forefront of the Asian golf boom and the fans there are extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the game, so I’m really looking forward to playing at Pinx Golf Club.

With Els currently number 10 in the world, he will be joined in South Korea by Westwood and Stenson, who are 11th and 12th respectively in the standings.

Veteran Fred Couples will also make the trip after a rejuvenated finish saw the 1992 Masters champion record three top 10 finishes on the PGA Tour last season.

“I’ve always had so much fun playing in Korea and I cannot wait to return there to play in the Ballantine’s Championship,” said Couples. “I’ve heard great things about the tournament and Pinx Golf Club, so it promises to be an awesome week.”

The 156-man field will comprise the top 60 available players from the world rankings plus the top 25 players from the Korea PGA. The remainder of the field will be split between the European and Asian Tours, plus eight sponsor invitations for the co-sanctioned event.

News also emerged today that American sensation Anthony Kim and Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie have signed up to play at next month's €1.4 million Johnnie Walker Classic at the Vines Resort and Country Club in Perth, Australia.

"It's a tournament I haven't managed to win...but it is certainly a title I would like to have on my CV and I hope that this will be the year," said Montgomerie.