November 13, 2006 – Asian golfing legend Lu Liang Huan enjoyed an emotional “homecoming” at the UBS Hong Kong Open on Monday.
The player affectionately known as “Mr Lu” was the tournament’s first ever champion in 1959 and won the title again in 1974. He also spent two years – from 1962-64 – as club pro at the Hong Kong Golf Club in Fanling, where the Open is played each year.
The 70-year-old Taiwanese star was back at the club on Monday after accepting an invitation from organisers of this week’s US$2 million UBS Hong Kong Open to be their guest of honour.
“It is like a different world from when I played here, but it is very nice to be back here again,” said Lu. “Everyone has been so friendly and helpful. They keep saying, ‘Welcome home, Mr Lu’. It’s wonderful.”
Lu put Asian golf on the map in a stellar 20-year career that saw him compete with some of the greats of the game.
After winning his first Hong Kong title and becoming the club pro, he played an exhibition match at Fanling in 1964 against American superstar Arnold Palmer, who was so impressed he invited him to play in the United States.
He appeared in many high-profile tournaments in the US and played several times in the Masters at Augusta National.
But it was in 1971, at the 100th British Open at Royal Birkdale, that he became world famous. With his gentlemanly habit of tipping his pork-pie hat to the fans, he earned the moniker “Mr Lu” as he went toe-to-toe with Lee Trevino, playing some magical golf before the American prevailed by a single shot.
A week later Lu won the French Open at Biarritz, becoming the first Asian ever to capture a European Tour title. He returned to Fanling in 1974 and regained his Hong Kong Open crown after a gap of 15 years.
Lu had no trouble remembering how he captured his first Fanling title. “It was my first career victory and it was memorable because it was an exciting finish – I was still one stroke behind my friend Bruce Crampton going into the final hole,” he said.
“I hit my approach shot to within a few feet of the hole and that brought a big cheer from the crowd. I thought it was going to be a playoff, but then Bruce missed the green and made a bogey. I holed the birdie putt and became champion.”
Lu’s next appearance in Hong Kong came in 1962, when he finished fifth, and it was then that he became the Hong Kong Golf Club’s head pro. “At that time there wasn’t too much golf in Taiwan, so Hong Kong was a much better place to develop my game,” he explained.
Lu played alongside some fabulous players during his years at the top. “I always tried to learn from everyone I played against. Arnold Palmer was very strong but, out of all the big players, I admired Peter Thomson’s game the most.”
As for that famous 1971 British Open, he blamed an errant putter for his narrow failure to become the first Asian to win a Major. “My iron play was very good that week, but my putting let me down,” he recalled. “I three-putted on the 18th twice in the tournament.”
These days, Lu remains heavily involved in the sport through his Lu Liang Huan Foundation, which supports junior golf development in Taiwan, and he has a pro shop in Taipei.
Lu will be honoured at the UBS Hong Kong Open Gala Evening at the Mandarin Oriental hotel on Tuesday when guests – including 2006 tournament drawcards Colin Montgomerie, Retief Goosen and Michael Campbell – will be shown a video montage of his greatest moments.
He is also looking forward to playing in Wednesday’s pro-am tournament when he will be paired with one of Hong Kong’s brightest young prospects, 18-year-old amateur Jimmy Ko.
And he promised fans they would get to see his trademark pork-pie hat. “I like to play in a hat with a brim to keep the sun off my neck,” he said. “I’ll certainly be wearing it on Wednesday.”