Kiradech Aphibarnrat talked about the possibility of a first Asian champion of the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters after the big-hitting Thai carded a six-under-par 66 in the first round of the European Tour event.
Koreans Wang Jeunghun – playing with Kiradech – and Lee Soomin, and China Number One Li Haotong all carded 69 in their tournament debuts, while India’s SSP Chawrasia carded a 70.
Kiradech, 27, started his year with a tie for fourth last week in Abu Dhabi alongside Martin Kaymer and Bernd Wiesberger, the trio finishing two shots behind winner Tommy Fleetwood.
All four players, as well as joint runner-up Pablo Larrazábal, are competing this week and Kiradech – a three-time European Tour winner – said he’s continuing from where he left off.
“This week, there are a lot of top players in the field so I’m going to have to work hard and who knows, there might be a first Asian champion,” said Kiradech, who’s playing the first two rounds with Wang and 2016 Asian Tour Number One Scott Hend.
“My game was solid today. From last week until now, I’ve hit a lot of good shots and even when I hit a bad shot, I can still recover. In fact, we were all doing great today.
“Scott and Wang are good friends and we all played together on the Asian Tour. Asian players have been improving, especially playing in the wind and on longer courses. In a couple of years, I think you’ll see more Asian players on the European Tour.”
Li, who finished behind Wang in the 2016 European Tour Rookie of the Year rankings, played down talk of winning on his first appearance in Qatar, but the 21-year-old admitted he enjoyed playing with 10-time European Tour winner Graeme McDowell for the first time.
“Graeme is a nice guy and a birdie machine! I really enjoyed playing with him. We talked a lot about his experience and funny things,” said Li, who played on the Web.com Tour in 2015 before becoming a full-time European Tour member last April after his China Open victory.
“Today surprised me because it was my first round of the year and I thought I wouldn’t play that great. My ball striking was good and has given me a little bit of confidence. I’m lucky there was no wind.
“I think I can keep playing well. My driver was really good and I hit a lot of fairways, but I missed a few putts. I still need to work on the pace of my putts. I just want to take it easy because it’s my first event of the year. First, I want to make the cut.”
Friday’s second-round action at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters starts at 6.30am, with the last groups teeing off at 12.20pm.
Leading contenders this week include World Number 10 Alex Noren, 2016 Ryder Cup rookies Rafa Cabrera Bello, Chris Wood and Andy Sullivan, Austria Number One Bernd Wiesberger, Race to Dubai leader Tommy Fleetwood, 11-time European Tour winner Martin Kaymer, four-time Ryder Cup star Graeme McDowell and four-time Major winner Ernie Els.
First held in 1998, the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters has helped establish Qatar as a world-class sporting venue and is considered the country’s annual ‘must-attend’ sporting and social event. Sitting at the heart of the European Tour’s Middle East swing, the tournament attracted over 25,000 spectators in 2016 and was broadcast to a global TV audience of over 400 million.
Tickets for the 20th Commercial Bank Qatar Masters are available for purchase at Doha Golf Club.