Asia launched its newest international golf tournament amid the ancient Angkor temples when the Cambodian Open teed off yesterday.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen teed off the first ball of the inaugural US$300,000 tournament at the recently opened Phokeethra Country Club in Siem Reap Province, Cambodia's main tourist hub.
Siem Reap is the nearest town to Cambodia's most popular tourist attraction, the vast network of ancient temples including Angkor Wat -- as well as one of just three golf courses in the southeast Asian nation.
"The launch of this event symbolizes the growing emergence of professional golf in new golfing countries like Cambodia and it augurs for the game in Asia," Kyi Hla Han, Asian Tour executive chairman, said in a statement.
Thailand's Thaworn Wiratchant, a former Asian No. 1 and holder of a record nine victories in the region, is among the golfers competing at the tournament.
Other players include Chapchai Nirat, also from Thailand, and Scotland's Simon Yates, both ranked in the top-10 of the Asian Tour Order of Merit.
There are 150 professional golfers from 25 countries taking part, said Hun Sen, who described the tournament as a historic event in his opening speech.
Touted as the only international-standard course in Cambodia, Phokeethra is the result of a push by the Cambodia government to boost its tourist revenues. The 18-hole, 72-par course is 23km outside Siem Reap town.
Cambodia's other two golf courses are located near the capital Phnom Penh, with a fourth under construction in Siem Reap.
Tourism is a major foreign currency earner for cash-strapped Cambodia. There were 1.7 million foreign arrivals last year, and more than half of the tourists visited the Angkor temples.
England's Matthew Woods and Australians Craig Parry and Paul Sheehan capitalized on calm morning conditions yesterday to shoot 4-under-par 68s and share the lead after the first round of the New Zealand Open.
They were a stroke ahead of 10 players tied for fourth place.
Parry, the 2002 champion and a winner of two tournaments on the US PGA Tour, had five birdies and one bogey.
Breezy conditions later in the day made low scoring difficult on the par-72 Hills layout at Arrowtown, near the resort town of Queenstown.
Parry was happy to be in the clubhouse early before rising winds made their impact on scoring.
"It's a course that when it isn't blowing, you can go out and shoot a low number; if the wind blows like it normally would, par's a very good round," he said. "We had great conditions out there earlier, the greens were reasonably receptive, the putting surfaces were very good and I played really well."
Eight Australians were among 10 players tied for fourth with 69s, including former champions Peter Fowler of Australia and Michael Long of New Zealand.
Sweden's Daniel Chopra, runner-up in last week's Australian Masters and the tournament's main drawcard, joined 10 players tied at 70 as 37 golfers in the 156-man field were within three shots of the lead.
The tournament, co-sanctioned by the Australasian and European PGA Tours, has drawn only 32 European players.
The newly developed course, hosting a major tournament for the first time, was built and is privately owned by New Zealand jewelry magnate Michael Hill, the tournament sponsor.
Ernie Els is hoping some new clubs will lead to a familiar result at the Nedbank Golf Challenge.