A review of the PGA European Tour Ballantines 2008 event, Jeju, South Korea
The world golf spotlight shone briefly on Korea’s largest island in March as the European Tour arrived in Jeju. The biggest tournament in Korea and the fourth largest in Asia, the inaugural Ballantine’s Championship at Pinx Golf Club was sanctioned by the European, Asian and Korean Tours. The Championship was celebrated by the blending of an extremely rare 40 year old Ballantine’s Scotch whiskey. Only eight bottles of the ‘Championship Blend’ exist, with one bottle being sold for $12,888 during a silent auction at the opening ceremony. After presenting the bottle, tournament players were introduced to a crowd of 300 people, as Scottish string quartet Siren and the Red Hot Chilli Pipers performed traditional Scottish music.
The Ballantine’s Championship attracted some of the biggest names in golf, including American PGA player Chris DiMarco, 2007 British Open champion Padraig Harrington, 9 time European tour winner Thomas Bjorn and Paul McGinley, who featured on three consecutive Ryder Cup winning teams. KJ Choi, the greatest Korean player ever to grace the game, entered the field with a world number 5 ranking and attracted huge throngs of Korean fans throughout the tournament. “It’s always good to be back in Korea,” Choi earlier told reporters, “I just want to give the best performance I can.”
The championship was also a homecoming for Jeju native Yang Yong-Eun, who beat out Tiger Woods in 2006 to take the HSBC Champions in Shanghai. He was joined on the lynx by American-born Anthony Kim, a rising star on the PGA tour whose parents immigrated to America from Korea in 1971.
But in the opening days of the tournament the greatest opponent facing the field was Jeju’s infamously fearsome winds, causing lengthy delays on the first and second days and significantly affecting play.
Just ask Graeme McDowell. His driving distance is usually around 285 yards, but on day two saw the winds carry his tee-off nearly 340. Anthony Kim also complained about the high winds, but said recent emphasis on strength training helped him power through them.
Despite the tough conditions, Chris DiMarco managed to birdie 3 of the first 5 holes in round one. When asked if he’d like to continue in the windy conditions in light of his early success DiMarco replied amusingly, “No, I’m good. I’d rather play in calm conditions to tell you the truth.”
The tournament drew sizeable crowds from this normally tranquil island, whose economy is based primarily on tourism and the production of oranges. They came in large part to cheer on local heroes KJ Choi and Yang Yong-Eun, snapping pictures with their cell phones and cheering boisterously with every swing of the club.
The tournament ended with Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell and India’s Jeev Milkha Singh sharing the lead and forcing a playoff. On the third playoff hole, Singh missed a crucial birdie putt to give McDowell his first European Tour win since 2004. He took home the €2 million ($2.9 million) prize and bottle number one of that coveted 40 year old Ballantine’s Scotch whiskey.
With the success of this year’s tournament, organizers plan to make the Ballantine’s Championship in Jeju an annual event.