JAKARTA, March 7 - He may not be the defending champion, but Australian Nick Cullen will still be a hot favourite when the Enjoy Jakarta Indonesia PGA Championship tees off at Emeralda Golf Club later this month.
The pristine course was the scene of Cullen's breakthrough professional victory last year at the Indonesia Open, and the 27-year old is relishing a return to happy hunting ground -- albeit for a different tournament.
"It's almost a year since I won in Indonesia and I've had some good finishes since, but not good enough," said Cullen.
"My goal for this year is to win again. My ball striking is great so if I can get the putter working I won't be far away."
To win, Cullen will have to take on one of the strongest Asia-Pacific fields ever assembled as the tournament is co-sanctioned by OneAsia and the Japan Golf Tour Organisation and includes over three dozen champions boasting more than 200 titles between them.
Fellow Australian Andre Stolz will be defending his title from 2011, while Indian ace Jeev Milkha Singh is a star attraction making his debut in a OneAsia event.
"It's great," Cullen said of the burgeoning relationship between OneAsia and the JGTO.
Last year's Indonesia Open was the first collaboration between the two bodies, but that partnership is taken to a new level with the Thailand Open (March 14-17) and Enjoy Jakarta Indonesia PGA Championship (March 28 - 31) opening both seasons -- with earnings from the U.S. $1 million tournaments to count towards both Orders of Merit.
A win by a OneAsia player at either event would give them full status in Japan.
"It's really exciting to have the opportunity to gain status on a tour as big as the JGTO," said Cullen. "I played three events there last year and loved every minute of it. I would be ecstatic if I could play there full time."
Cullen, a left-hander from Adelaide, got last year off to a flying start by qualifying for The Open Championship (he missed the cut by a stroke) before winning at Emeralda by a shot from New Zealander David Smail.
He lost his way a bit in mid-season, but found some form at the brutally tough Emirates Australian Open for a joint 18th finish to end up fifth on the OneAsia Order of Merit with earnings of nearly U.S. $210,000.
"I did take a break over Christmas -- I went to Canada for 10 days," said Cullen, an avid NFL fan who supports the Atlanta Falcons.
"But since I got back its been all go -- working on the game and playing Australian events."
Cullen, who has been troubled by back problems in the past, is also paying more attention to his conditioning this year.
"I started working with a new trainer to get stronger and my body more balanced while helping my back issues," he said.
"It's been great so far -- feeling stronger on and off the course. Everything else is pretty much the same, but I've been doing a little more on the biomechanics side which has been good."
His career has also been given a boost by being named this week in Golf Australia's Rookie Professional Squad -- a national initiative that gives wide-ranging support to select individuals.
"At the moment I'm just focusing on playing as good as I can, and if I play well the rest will follow," said Cullen.