South Korea’s flagship golf event tees off under a cloud today after fears of an attack by nuclear-armed North Korea depleted the field and forced organizers to seek advice on safety.
The US$2.8 million Ballantine’s Championship is the golf-crazy country’s only European Tour tournament, but the competition was rocked this week by the withdrawal of US stars Zach Johnson and Dustin Johnson over “perceived unrest.”
The European Tour said it was “disappointed” by the decision and added that it was in touch with Britain’s Foreign Office, which had indicated there was no increased risk in visiting South Korea, despite high tensions with the North.
The neighboring countries have been locked in an elevating row since the North carried out its third atomic test in February, with hostile exchanges including threats of nuclear war and precision missile strikes.
Yesterday, South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, the world No. 7 and top-ranked player at the tournament, said he had received reassurances from his management and the European Tour and that “everything is fine in the end.”
“I think something drastically needed to go wrong for me not to come,” Oosthuizen told reporters. “And I am glad I came.”
Zach Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion, and Dustin Johnson, a two-time Ryder Cup player known for prodigious length off the tee, had been marketed as two of the tournament’s headline acts.
Oosthuizen, the Open Champion in 2010, leads the field along with South Korea’s Y.E. Yang, whose PGA Championship victory in 2009 made him Asia’s first major-winner.
Ryder Cup veterans Paul Lawrie, Paul Casey and Thomas Bjorn, along with Paul McGinley, European captain for next year’s edition, have also confirmed their attendance.
Yang, 41, arrived early to prepare physically and mentally as he makes a determined effort to become the five-year-old tournament’s first South Korean winner.
“I’ve got the invitation from the Ballantine’s a lot, but I never really reciprocated with good performance,” said Yang, who has played the Ballantine’s four times.
“I am trying to be more focused on my game this time around, and that is why I’ve arrived here early. I’m going to do my best so that we can take the trophy,” he said.
Austrian Bernd Wiesberger is the defending champion. He earned his first European Tour victory at the event last year and won the Austrian national championship three months later.
In his most recent European Tour appearance last month, Wiesberger tied for fifth in Morocco, his first top-10 finish of the year. He said he hopes to use that positive momentum this week.
“In Morocco, I had probably the best ball-striking week of the year so far,” Wiesberger said. “I think I’m now at the point where if I get a good feel on the greens and hole the odd putt, I can really compete again for another victory.”