New Delhi: Two-time defending champion Anirban Lahiri will aim for a hat-trick of titles but will face stiff competition from a stellar line-up of Asian Tour stars at the SAIL-SBI Open next week. Five players from the top-10 of last year's final Order of Merit and 13 of the top-20 have committed to the tournament to be played from February 26.
Lahiri, who finished third on the Merit list last season, will spearhead the local hopes once again at the venerable Delhi Golf Club against a field which includes EurAsia Cup teammates Siddikur Rahman of Bangladesh and Malaysia's Nicholas Fung, the 2013 Asian Development Tour number one.
Former Order of Merit champions Thaworn Wiratchant of Thailand and India's Jyoti Randhawa, who finished in top-20 last year, will also be back to challenge for the SAIL-SBI Open title at a venue which they have tasted victory in the past.
Other leading lights who have signed up for the USD 300,000 tournament include Thailand's Prayad Marksaeng, winner of the season-ending King's Cup Golf Hua Hin in January, countrymen Prom Meesawat, Chawalit Plalphol, Chapchai Nirat and Arnond Vongvanij, Filipino Angelo Que, India's S.S.P. Chowrasia, Korea's Kim Gi-whan and American Berry Henson.
Lahiri will need to be at his best as the likes of Chowrasia and Karlberg have also won at the Delhi Golf Club previously on the Asian Tour, which is the official sanctioning body for professional golf in Asia.
The SAI-SBI Open will also be the first tournament for the recent Qualifying School graduates to shine on the region's premier Tour.
Japan's Akinori Tani, who topped the Qualifying School, will be in the fray alongside Singaporean Lam Chih Bing, Korean duo Lee Tae-hee and Shin Hyuk-chul and Pakistan's Hamza Amin, who earned his Tour card on his third try at the Qualifying School.
India's rising star Rashid Khan, who lost to Lahiri in a play-off last year, will be back to challenge for the tournament as a full member of the Tour after a highly success campaign where he finished 41st on the Order of Merit.
All eyes will be on Lahiri as he seeks to launch his 2014 campaign on a winning note. Following his third Asian Tour success, the 26-year-old went on to register three other runner-up finishes and two more top-fives to rack up USD 517,030 in winnings. Thanks to his career best finish to date, Lahiri also earned a spot in Team Asia to face Europe in the EurAsia Cup presented by DRB-HICOM, which is a Ryder Cup style showdown, next month.
Currently ranked 106th in the world, the talented Indian is aiming to crack the top-50 this season and a successful title defence at the SAIL-SBI Open will be the ideal launchpad towards his goal. "My aim for 2014 will be to get into the top-50 on the world rankings. Of course the ultimate dream is to get into the top 10," said Lahiri.
Siddikur will be among Lahiri's main rivals at the SAIL-SBI Open as the Delhi Golf Club is also a happy hunting ground for the Bangladeshi. He has achieved numerous top-10s at the venue but none was bigger than his triumph at the Hero Indian Open last year where he pushed Lahiri and Chowrasia into second place.
Over the past four seasons, Siddikur has finished top-10 on the Merit list on three occasions which reinforces his growing reputation as one of Asia's established golf stars. "Winning the Indian Open was definitely the highlight of my season. I'm very happy with that victory and sometimes when I don't play too well, I reflect on that win to be inspired to do better. It is a memory that I will always remember," said Siddikur.