GRAEME McDOWELL believes he faces a much sterner challenge this year as he sets out to defend his Ballantines Championship title at the Pinx Golf Club on Jeju Island.
As well as a tougher field, including the likes of three-time major winner Ernie Els, world number nine Henrik Stenson and Lee Westwood, McDowell believes the change in timing of the tournament will also play a decisive role.
This year’s event is being played a month and a half later than the inaugural event, meaning longer rough and stronger winds.
The winds in particular have already made an impact, with flights to and from the island being cancelled, meaning many players have had a day less to practice.
But despite the increased challenges McDowell – who won last year on 24 under par – is confident of challenging for victory come Sunday.
“Last year was probably easier than this. This time there’s more rough, the winds are blowing stronger, and I expect anyone who hits a score of 24 under will win by a lot of shots,” he said.
“The main differences are it’s obviously a month and a half further on in the year. We’ve got a little bit of growth in the rough. The course is definitely a little bit greener. It certainly feels like it’s playing a little longer.
“But this course fits my eye. It sits up nicely for me, it really does. It’s really going to be a tough weekend if this wind continues to blow, but it’s not something I have so much of a problem with. I like to play in the wind.
“I have good feelings about the place. I know if I play well, I’ll compete. I’ve just got to keep the head down and go for it.”
Els and Stenson are being tipped as the main threats to McDowell’s defence of the title, both of whom are making their first appearance in the event.
South African Els echoed McDowell’s opinions about the challenges ahead but insisted he is also confident of a good performance to make up for missing the cut at the Masters. “If you miss the fairway the rough is very, very heavy, as heavy as I’ve seen anywhere I’ve played this year,” he said.
“And the wind is really blowing. I don’t know how the weather conditions were last year but I cannot see 24 under this year.
“I’m very disappointed again (about the Masters). It’s the third straight year I’ve missed the cut there. Although it’s by one shot, it doesn’t matter.
“Now I’m just trying to get my game up and going again. I’ve been really working hard at my whole game to be honest. I just need to get the results now.”
Meanwhile Stenson, who made headlines last month when he stripped down to his underpants to play a shot out of a muddy hollow at a tournament in the United States, added: “Hopefully I can show off some good golf and win over a few fans here with my clothes on!”
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