1997 was a really turbulent year for me. I had done really well in the majors in 1996 – I think I ranked only behind Greg Norman and Nick Faldo in the average finish statistic – and as a result I had taken my PGA Tour card for the year. But in what was effectively my rookie season in America I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in my wrists, so 1997 really stands out for me professionally.
I have played in Hong Kong so many times over the years, and at the time the Hong Kong Open, along with Malaysia, was the most established event in Asia. A lot of us from Australia and New Zealand would pass through because it was a great event to play and fun, too. Greg [Norman] won the event twice, so the Hong Kong Open was most certainly on our radar.
Despite the arthritis I had been playing pretty well in the lead up to the event. I had won the Greater Greensboro Classic in April and headed to Hong Kong fresh off a victory at the Mexican Open. I had also been a winner in Indonesia that year.
My memories of the actual tournament aren’t all that fresh – funnily enough the thing that sticks in my mind is playing snooker with Sam Torrance on the full-size table in the clubhouse – but I do remember going into the final round with the lead and then getting off to a poor start. I think I made a couple of bogeys. I was playing really solid though and I really took control with an eagle at the ninth [the 10th hole of the New Course, where Nobilo fired a 246-yard 3-wood to within a few feet of the hole]. That really got my confidence going and I was able to go on to win quite comfortably [by five strokes]. That’s what happens when you’re playing well and you take the lead – you get into another gear.
Playing at Fanling was a joy, although you needed to adapt to conditions – and in particular, the grain on the greens. In those days you could hit a putt and hear it fizzing as it rolled into the grain. Ben Arda [a successful Filipino golfer from the 1960s and 1970s] was just brilliant at handling it. He’d hit a shot onto the green 20 feet right of the flag and you’d watch open-mouthed as it tracked back towards the hole because he knew which direction the grain was growing. It was amazing.
The other amazing thing about Fanling was the galleries that came out and supported. They really understood their golf and wanted you to play well, which gave you great motivation.
I have an affinity with Asia – my wife is originally from Malaysia – and the Hong Kong Open is definitely one of the cornerstones of golf in the continent. The tournament helped keep golf alive in the region in the years before China became immersed in the game on a professional level, so it holds a very important place in history.
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