November 12, 2007 – Hong Kong is one of José Manuel Lara’s favourite cities – the fact that it was the scene of his maiden European Tour victory simply adds to the appeal.
“I love this place,” said the Spaniard. “We were flying in yesterday [Sunday] and I was saying to my caddy, ‘Look at the buildings, look at the scenery.’
“It’s a great city, very exciting. And, of course, it has a lot of great memories for me after my win last year. I’m very happy to be back.”
Lara, 30, is back in town as the defending champion at this week’s UBS Hong Kong Open, one of the most storied and prestigious tournaments in Asia, and he is relishing every moment of his return.
“It is an old tournament and so many big names have won it in the past, great players like Peter Thomson, Greg Norman and Tom Watson, so I’m very proud to be among the winners here,” he added.
The US$2.25 million showpiece tees off at the Hong Kong Golf Club in Fanling on Thursday with a world class field that includes two-time US Open champion Retief Goosen, 2003 Masters winner Mike Weir and world No.11 KJ Choi.
Lara acknowledged the big-name contenders but stressed that familiarity with Fanling’s tricky par-70 Championship Course would be an advantage.
“Maybe the field is stronger than last year but this is the kind of course where it is very difficult to say who is going to win,” he said.
“You have to know the greens. They are very tough, quite hilly, and if you miss them, then it is very difficult to get up and down because of the Bermuda grass around the greens. For European players it is very hard.
“Putting is very important here. Last year my putter worked well, especially in the first three rounds. If you can hole your putts, then that is the key.
“The advantage for me is that I know the course, it’s my fifth year playing here and I know how to play it. I’m not going to change my approach.”
Lara’s thrilling win at Fanling a year ago – when he beat Filipino rookie Juvic Pagunsan by one shot – came after a string of near misses in European Tour events.
“I was under a lot of pressure. I’d finished second four times, third a few times. A lot of people in my country were asking when I was going to win, especially when new Spanish players were coming through and winning straight away.
“I had people in Spain saying to me, ‘You’re a pro for eight years and you haven’t won.’
“So that first win was very difficult for me. And you savour it so much more after being close so many times. It really hit me when I was flying back to Europe, I felt different, I had finally won.
“But at the same time, I don’t want to be relaxed about it because a lot of players have won for the first time and gone on to lose their Tour cards.”
Lara has endured a tough 12 months since his emotional breakthrough at Fanling. Hampered by a stress injury to his left foot, he struggled for form until finishing joint seventh – his first top 10 finish since Hong Kong – at last month’s Majorca Classic.
“That result in Mallorca was very important,” he admitted. “Normally I make five top 10s every year, but this year I missed too many cuts, it’s been a difficult year.
“The victory was great but after that it’s been the toughest year for me in maybe the last six years.”
With his foot almost fully mended and signs of a return to form, Lara is looking forward to defending his title.
“I can’t say my foot is 100 per cent but it’s almost 90,” he said, “It’s OK and I’m ready to play.”