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Johor Bahru, Malaysia: Malaysia’s Iain Steel hopes to continue his recent renaissance by challenging for the US$1.25 million Iskandar Johor Open which starts on Thursday.


The Asian Tour strongman has bounced back to form after a dismal start to the season and he plans to upstage the stars including title holder K.J. Choi of Korea, double US Open champion Retief Goosen, Europe’s victorious Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie and team member Padraig Harrington at the Horizon Hills Golf and Country Club.


Asian Tour Order of Merit leader Noh Seung-yul of Korea and second-ranked Marcus Fraser of Australia are also in this week’s elite event, which boasts a record prize fund in what is its fourth edition.


Steel needed to show some steely resolve after starting out the year with six consecutive missed cuts but the 39-year-old has turned the corner with a top-three and tied 12th finish in his last two events.


“I’ve played well the past few weeks. I’ve played solid,” said Steel today. “Since June, I’ve been playing nicely and let’s hope the train continues and hopefully I can improve on some positions that I’ve had lately.”


He credited work with his sports psychologist for helping him bounce back. “Between the number one player in the world and 1,000th in the world, a lot of it is upstairs (the mind). A lot of us can hit golf balls. It depends on who’s got the toughness in the couple of inches between the ears,” he said.


“I’ve been making light of things rather than making things as important as they seem. I’m trying to keep myself on an even keel, not to get too high and not to get too low. From 2009 till halfway through this year, it’s been terrible. But I’ve been working on the mental side and the golf has come back a lot quicker than I expected,” said Steel, who is of Malaysian-Scottish parentage.


While Steel is still seeking for the elusive first victory on the Asian Tour, Thailand’s Pariya Junhasavasdikul, the Tour’s latest first-time winner when he won the Mercuries Taiwan Masters two weeks ago, is hoping to let the good times roll.


The 26-year-old, a graduate from Purdue University and a licenced pilot, knows he must keep his feet firmly on the ground. “It kind of sunk in eventually,” said Pariya of his breakthrough. “But you’ve got to put the win behind you. It’s a big relief to get a first win and now, you want to try to maintain and keep your standard and improve.


“The Iskandar Johor Open is a big event and the course here is a challenge. It’s not as long as some others but you’ve got to put the ball on the fairway to give yourself an opportunity. I’m not going to walk taller or anything like that. I’m just going out to try to shoot as best a score that I can,” he added.


Pariya added he did not have the opportunity to bask in his hour of glory immediately after his win in Taipei. “I was more nervous giving a speech than going out in the play-off. I didn’t get a chance to grasp the (winning) moment. But when I walked into the airline lounge later that evening, all the Thai players were in there and they all stood up and gave me a big clap. It was a big moment,” said Pariya.


“These guys are my role models. Thaworn (Wiratchant), Thammanoon (Srirot) and Chawalit (Plaphol) were guys I looked up to and gave me advice and I don’t know how to tell you the feeling when they came up to me, shook my hand and say ‘great job’.”


Indian prospect Himmat Rai, who pushed Choi all the way in the final round last year before finishing joint third with Goosen, is relishing a return to the Iskandar Johor Open.


A second place finish on the domestic circuit last weekend has given him an added boost in confidence as he is presently languishing in 95th place on the Order of Merit. “I’ve got very fond memories from last year and I’ve been looking forward to this week. I’m well prepared,” said the 23-year-old.


“You do look at the merit list as it shows where you are but I do not believe that’s where my game is. At end of last year, I got in a new psychologist and a new coach where we have been working on a new system on swinging the club more consistently. I’m happy with the direction of my game,” he added.


The 19-year-old Noh, who is bidding to become the youngest Asian Tour number one, is looking forward to crossing swords again with his idol Choi, whom he beat at the Maybank Malaysian Open in March.


“Two weeks ago, I played with K.J. in a Korean Tour event where he finished second and I finished third. It’ll be nice to play with him on Sunday afternoon in the last match and I hope we can do it here. If it happens, I think we’ll be talking a lot more than focusing on the golf as he’s like a big brother to me,” said Noh, who has been paired with Harrington for the opening two rounds.


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