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The Malaysian capital city is our next stop as the Saujana G&CC in Kuala Lumpur hosts the second Maybank Championship this week after the tournament made its bow 12 months ago. The event isn't to be confused with the Maybank Malaysian Open which was a regular event on the European Tour until recently with a similar slot in the schedule, the same sponsor and also played on another track in Kuala Lumpur - the differences are subtle but important nonetheless and we're effectively starting with a blank canvas here once again after moving to a new track this year.
In the absence of any of the leading names that we saw in the Middle East over past 3 weeks, Rafael Cabrera-Bello takes over the reins as favourite for this week at an uneasy 12/1 generally, with Charl Schwartzel on a similar mark as he makes his first competitive appearance since Leopard Creek at the start of December. Bernd Wiesberger (14/1) and Lee Westwood (20/1) also feature heavily at the top of the bookmakers' lists this week in what looks to be a truly wide open event.
Over on the PGA Tour, Steve Bamford previews the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Course Overview. The Palm course at Saujana G&CC is an undulating 7,186 yard, par 72 lined with palm trees. Dubbed 'the Cobra', 7 of the holes feature water and there are a number of dog-leg holes of varying degrees. The Ronald Fream design, which originally opened in 1986, has recently been updated, however the small, undulating Bermuda TifEagle greens still await players and in fine conditions it's generally a player's performance on these putting surfaces that will make or break their week. The 4 par 3s are all around the 200 yard mark, the 4 par 5s measure between 523 and 604 yards and there are 5 par 4s below 400 yards whilst another couple are nigh on 500 yards in length.
Tournament Stats. Last year's Maybank Championship was the inaugural event and it was played on a different track (final leaderboard is here) so that result may hold less relevance. This year's host course, Saujana G&CC, did however play host to the Malaysian Open some years and the results from the 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009 events held here have been collated for this week's field: Course Form | Current Form
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
DraftKings Predictor Model: For those of you who play DraftKings there's now a dedicated predictor model available here.
Winners & Prices. 2016: Marcus Fraser, 175/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the European Tour for the past 6 years based on the completed 2016 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Kuala Lumpur is here. As is usually the case in this part of the world, it will be hot and humid throughout with temperatures in the low to mid 90s Fahrenheit which will quickly sap energy. For the most part it will be dry and sunny with light winds and the increased chance of a shower or two over the weekend.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Last year's inaugural Maybank Championship was held at the nearby Royal Selangor Golf Club so to get an idea of how the Palm Course here at Saujana G&CC plays we've trawled the records back to 2004-2009 when the event was held here. Since these events the course has been renovated, however these were the key figures from those years:
No official stats were captured for 2009 winner Anthony Kang so that result hasn't been listed above.
In 2007 when the conditions meant that scoring was a lot tougher, GIR proved to be the most important factor with Hedblom's 3 nearest challengers ranking 1st, 3rd and 4th for finding greens over the course of the week. In the other years, putting on these Bermuda greens has been pivotal with Jaidee ranking 1st and 3rd in his 2 wins on that count and Kang's nearest challengers, who did have their stats recorded, ranked 1st (Horsey), 3rd (Randhawa) and 5th (Tunnicliff) for putts per GIR. With receptive conditions and light winds forecast this week I'd err on the side of putting this week.
In terms of incoming form of the winners, Anthony Kang had missed the cut on his season opener the week before on the Asian Tour but had finished 4th in Cambodia in his penultimate event of the prior year. Peter Hedblom's first 2 events of 2007 had produced finishes of 41st and 54th in Abu Dhabi and Dubai after missing the cut in 6 of his final 9 events of the prior year, so there was little to inspire a pick in that respect. Jaidee was in better overall form for both of his wins though having finished in the top-5 in two of his previous 4 events before defending successfully in 2005 and riding the crest of a wave in 2004 with a form line of 1/10/8/4/1 prior to success on this track.
In terms of prior course form, that's throwing us few clues either. Kang had played here at Saujana five times prior to victory but finishes of MC/42/41/67/MC hardly inspires. Peter Hedblom, on the other hand, won on course debut in 2007 so no pointers there either. Only Jaidee had any positive course form having finished 7th here in 2001 prior to his two consecutive victories in 2004 and 2005.
Looking back at last year's event on the Royal Selangor track, there was little to excite about the incoming form of eventual winner Marcus Fraser whose three outings that year had produced finishes of MC/59/MC, so drawing any tentative conclusions from last year's event would seem impossible, however Fraser clearly found something in his short game to win the way he did on a course that suited him well.
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My selections are as follows:
Only time will tell exactly how good Jeunghun Wang really is, however with 3 European Tour wins in the last 12 months I suspect the answer is very good, very good indeed. At 39th in the world rankings, the 21 year-old already has his Open Championship invite tucked away and, barring some catastrophic drop in form and ranking, his debut at Augusta will be confirmed at the next OWGR cut-off in a season where he's also likely to make his maiden Presidents Cup appearance for the International team provided he can keep pushing on in 2017. The future looks bright for the South Korean star and there's no reason to suspect he'll be taking his foot off the gas any time soon with these carrots dangling in front of his nose.
The challenge with any young player like Wang is attempting to categorise his style of play and matching it to the varied challenges that professional golfers face on the circuit. Last week's missed cut in Dubai tells us nothing new as he was caught on the wrong side of the draw meaning he faced the worst of the windy conditions, plus it was only a matter of days after having won in Qatar. Does that weekend off mean he can't win this week? It's not even remotely relevant in my view and from what we've already seen of this talented young man on the European Tour, we know full well that he can maintain his form over a number of weeks and can also win immediately after a missed cut - a form line of 2/8/MC/1/1 in the middle of last year illustrates both points perfectly.
In terms of pigeon-holing his game, looking at his wins there's little that really correlates: his Trophee Hassan II win was on a long, classical track with bentgrass greens; a week later he triumphed on a long, exposed, coastal track where wind was a significant factor; Qatar, on the other hand, is a reasonably long desert track with Bermudagrass greens. In each case Wang was making his competitive debut on the course so clearly prior experience isn't a hindrance to him and, if anything, this renovated track that relatively few have any practical experience of in its current or previous guise swings the pendulum further in his favour in my view.
Looking at this in a practical fashion, we know that Wang can perform on a classical style test, we know he can putt on Bermuda greens, we know he can perform on course debut and we know he has that ability to convert chances into victories that a number of his peers can only dream of. Despite the relatively short price, I see little ahead of him in the betting that concerns me here and I'm happy to back him accordingly.
Another player with credible Presidents Cup ambitions is Anirban Lahiri and following a couple of decent enough finishes over his last 2 outings - 25th at the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour and 19th last week in Dubai - he may well be ready for another seriously contending performance in a country that's been fruitful for him in the past. 18 professional wins over the years across the European Tour, Asian Tour and PGTI is an excellent haul for a player who's yet to reach his 30th birthday and his breakthrough win at this level came in Malaysia when he secured the Maybank Malaysian Open in 2015 a fortnight before winning again, this time in his homeland of India.
2nd and 3rd at the Selangor Masters in 2013 and 2014 is positive local form plus he finished 3rd in Kuala Lumpur on the PGA Tour's CIMB Classic in October having entered the final day with a 4-stroke lead and having played some scintillating golf. That effort followed a play-off defeat the week before at the Macau Open where he'd birdied the final 7 holes to force extra time, so clearly when the putter's hot this is one player who can score heavily. Form on the PGA Tour should never be ignored when players hop to this lower grade and further finishes of 28th at the OHL Classic, where he was in a strong position before a Sunday round of 72, 13th at the RSM Classic which featured a final day 65, and 25th at the CareerBuilder Challenge, as already mentioned, which contained a Saturday round of 64 all point to a player who should thrive at this level in a part of the world where he's very comfortable. With amateur experience of the track here in Kuala Lumpur, I'd expect Lahiri to hit the ground running this week.
I'll squeeze a couple of outsiders in to complete this week's team. David Lipsky has been on my shortlist for this event for a few weeks now, however travel delays and lost baggage at the time of writing for the American doesn't bode well and I'll reluctantly swerve this time around.
First up, David Horsey who was 2nd here at Saujana G&CC in 2009 before the course was renovated and was playing nice enough golf at the back end of 2016 to warrant a bit of support despite a slow start to 2017. One of many players caught on the wrong side of the draw last week in Dubai which gave him an extra couple of days to prepare for his return to Saujana, I'm happy to ignore that effort and instead focus on a string of impressive results last year including 13th at the DP World Tour Championship (1st for putting), 11th at the Dunhill Links, 5th at the Italian Open (2nd for putting), 4th at the KLM Open (3rd for putting) and 2nd at the Turkish Airlines Open (2nd for putting). After a rusty missed cut in South Africa to start 2017, a much improved 29th in Abu Dhabi followed and had he been on the right side of the draw last week and put in even a moderate performance, I'm sure he'd have been half this price given his tangible form here on this track. As a former winner in Morocco of the Trophee Hassan II, we know he's adept at handling classical-style tracks and the temperatures topped 90 Fahrenheit that week to suggest he's quite happy playing in the heat. If putting does prove to be one of the more critical factors here this week, as I suspect it will, then siding with an excellent putter like Horsey - who ranked 5th for putts per GIR for the 2016 season - seems like an approach that may pay dividends.
Those punters who managed to pick Marcus Fraser out last year at 175/1 did so by putting his immediate form to one side and another player who I'm happy to overlook a seemingly poor start to 2017 from is Julien Quesne. Believe it or not, a form line of 49/MC/MC is actually an improvement on his results versus this time last year as he'd failed to make a single weekend in the Middle East - clearly desert golf isn't his forte - before arriving at last year's venue for this event and finishing 4th. A new track this year of course, however a lack of experience didn't stop him winning his 2nd European Tour title back in 2013 at the Italian Open and both of his victories to date have come on what I'd classify as similar tracks to this. In fact, if you dig through his recent results, one thing that jumps out is that when presented with a tree-lined, classical-style test the 36 year-old can seemingly find his form from nowhere: at the back end of 2015 he recorded a 9th place finish at Woburn having missed 2 cuts on the trot, then again last year he finished 4th at Wentworth after an identical string of results. Now this isn't a Woburn or a Wentworth I grant you, however the track is (palm) tree-lined and of a similar style and at the price I'm happy to take the chance that we'll see the Frenchman bounce back to form here. A streaky putter who's well capable of playing on TifEagle Bermuda (ranked 7th for putting on the same surface at the Earth Course), Quesne hasn't missed a cut in his 6 visits to Malaysia on the European Tour over the years and also finished 5th in 2014 at the Malaysian Open.
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