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We now enter the PGA Tour's 'Asian Swing', a three-part, short field, no cut adventure with the CIMB Classic followed by the CJ Cup next week in South Korea and the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai the week after. The CIMB Classic is now into its sixth season as a fully-fledged PGA Tour event, but the origins of this tournament go back to 2010 when Ben Crane won at The Mines Resort where we were on board at 40/1. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia and Hideki Matsuyama have all played this event in the past, but none of them have ever triumphed - instead a champions' list that starts with Ben Crane and moves on to Bo Van Pelt, Nick Watney, Ryan Moore (twice),Justin Thomas (twice) and Pat Perez highlights a tournament where 'under the radar' quality tends to come through.
The CIMB Classic field comprises 78 attendees including the top 60 available players from the closing 2018 FedEx Cup rankings, 10 from the Asian Tour and 8 Sponsor's Exemptions. A $7 million purse this week makes the CIMB a draw for plenty and the field strength corresponds well with 2-time TPC Kuala Lumpur winner and Le Golf National hero Justin Thomas heading the field. He's joined by Billy Horschel, Paul Casey, Xander Schauffele, Marc Leishman, Louis Oosthuizen, Kyle Stanley, Branden Grace, Thomas Pieters, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Brandt Snedeker and last week's winner Kevin Tway. We also have the likes of Anirban Lahiri, Gaganjeet Bhullar, Min Chel Choi, Sang-Hyun Park and Shubhankar Sharma, making for a truly international select field.
Over on the European Tour, Paul Williams previews the British Masters - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
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Course Guide: TPC Kuala Lumpur's West Course is an original Nelson and Wright design. The course is a short (7,005 yard), scoreable Par 72, that features the traditional split of four par-3, ten par-4 and four par-5 holes. Seven of the par-4s are sub-425 yards with five of those at 400 yards or less. Greens averaging 6,500 sq.ft. run to 11 on the stimpmeter and feature TifEagle Bermudagrass.
West Course, TPC Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Designer Nelson & Wright, 1992, Parslow, 2007, PGA Tour and Parslow & Winter Golf Design 2017; Course Type: Resort; Par: 72; Length: 7,005 yards; Water Hazards: 10; Fairways: Celebration Bermuda; Rough: Celebration Bermudagrass 2"; Greens: 6,500 sq.ft average featuring TifEagle Bermudagrass; Stimpmeter: 10.5ft; Course Scoring Average 2013: 71.97 (-0.03), Difficulty Rank 28 of 43 courses; 2014: 71.30 (-0.70), Difficulty Rank 30 of 52 courses. 2015: 69.62 (-2.48), Difficulty Rank 47 of 50 courses. 2016: 70.30 (-1.70), Difficulty Rank of 44 of 50. 2017: 70.66 (-1.34), Difficulty Rank 41 of 51.
Course Designer Links: For research purposes, other Robin Nelson designs include:
• Sheshan International - HSBC Champions
Course Overview: The West Course at TPC Kuala Lumpur is an interesting test where players can choose to be aggressive or conservative with equal opportunity. The course is short for PGA Tour professionals. Wind never tends to be a factor here and conditions are always hot and humid plus very soft and receptive. The ball travels a long way in these climes and with a number of short par-4s and par-5s to attack, this course is always there for the taking. Indeed slightly firmer conditions (no, lift, clean and place) and a slight breeze saw the course rise from 44th easiest to 41st easiest on the PGA Tour last season. It's certainly not a challenge, indeed the course has received some small changes over the past few years with the aim of helping scoring even further. 2015 saw the 280-yard par-4 14th get a new tee box which allowed for a straight tee shot. The difficult par-5 18th hole, which played as the toughest of the par-5s in 2014, was also reconfigured to provide a bigger drive landing area, encouraging more players to go for the green in two shots. 2016 saw the par-4 9th hole extended by 20 yards (to 24 yards), taking the course to over 7,000 yards for the first time in its history.
The easing of course difficulty has also seen a significant change in scoring around the West Course. Where Ryan Moore won twice (2013 & 2014) on a course where the par-5s were difficult to access, hence restricting the winning scores relatively, since 2015 the course has ranked 34th, 32nd and 27th easiest for par-5 Birdie or Better Conversion. The par-3s and par-4s were always easy around here, but now the ability to also score heavily on the par-5s has undoubtedly helped players who have the ability to convert on the longest holes.
For 2018 we'll also be seeing a new renovation on the West Course which will add some intrigue. Started last November after the LPGA event concluded, the PGA Tour and Parslow & Winter Golf Design renovation has focussed on adding length to selected holes as well as some bunker and fairway modifications. The main difference to the course though sees a total change across the property in terms of grass. Where there was total tee-to-green Seashore Paspalum, that has become Celebration Bermudagrass across fairways and rough + TifEagle Bermudagrass greens. The contours on selected greens have been reworked to ensure the undulations are compatible with new green speeds, which you would expect to be faster from a stimpmeter perspective. Fact is though, in these equatorial climes, courses have to be constantly watered.
Effectively the West Course is the kind of test that allows some of the world's best players plenty of birdie chances. Plotters can prosper, as can those with a more expansive, powerful game - take two-time winner here Justin Thomas and compare and contrast with Pat Perez. High-class ball-strikers of the ilk of Keegan Bradley, Xander Schauffele, Adam Scott, Brendan Steele and Hideki Matsuyama from the past 3 renewals have all gone close as well. What's for sure is that players with a liking for birdies and hot, humid conditions will inevitably come to the front. Plus look for those who are exceptional with a short iron from 175 yards and in.
Winners: 2017: Pat Perez (-24); 2016: Justin Thomas (-23); 2015: Justin Thomas (-26); 2014: Ryan Moore (-17); 2013: Ryan Moore (-14); 2012: Nick Watney (-22); 2011: Bo Van Pelt (-23); 2010: Ben Crane (-18).
Tournament Stats: We've published some key player statistics for this week's event that are well worth a look. Naturally they'll help to shape a view on players who could go well this week: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader | Top 20 Finishes.
Published Predictor Model: Our published predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 10 of my published predictor are Justin Thomas, Kevin Na, Ryan Palmer, Danny Lee, Billy Horschel, Ryan Moore, Gary Woodland, Keegan Bradley, Marc Leishman and Cameron Smith.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 8-tournament window that stretches back to the PGA Championship includes PGA Tour, European Tour and web.com Playoff events. Players must have played in a minimum of 2 Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2017: Perez 50/1; 2016: Thomas 25/1; 2015: Thomas 25/1; 2014: Moore 33/1; 2013: Moore 33/1; 2012: Watney 20/1; 2011: Van Pelt 25/1; 2010: Crane 40/1. Past 5 Renewals Average: 33/1. Average: 31/1. For a full summary of winner's odds on the PGA Tour since 2010 click here.
Weather Forecast: The latest weather forecast for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is here. Expect soft, receptive conditions and intense heat with humidity this week at TPC Kuala Lumpur. Wind will not be a factor, but with feel-like temperatures up to around 37 degrees Celsius in the afternoons, conditions will be energy sapping in the extreme.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of Kuala Lumpur G&CC winners since 2013 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
So let's take a view from players as to how Kuala Lumpur G&CC sets up and what skill sets the course favours:
Pat Perez (2017): "It's a race here. Everybody makes birdies. I'm not one of the longer guys, so I have longer clubs in. I can't carry a lot of stuff. But I'm hitting it well enough, but I have to rely on my short game to help me out. I'm putting better here than I have in the past. I really haven't hit it great this week, and I can't cover number 3, number 5 is a heap of trouble for me. But I can play the par-3s pretty good as I am the same with the irons as most guys. I have just been putting great, my short game has saved me. Made a lot of putts. The greens are exactly like Mayakoba where I won, so I am really comfortable on them. I can see it well, see it well, know the speed, so I putt great on them."
Justin Thomas (2016): "It's not a course you have to over-think. It's all in front of you. Just hit here, hit there and make the putt and beat everybody else. The course suits my game I think because I get to play a lot of wedges. I feel like I'm a pretty good wedge player, and you just kind of have to know how far your ball is going. There's not a lot of wind out here, so if you know how far it's going, you're going to be around pin-high all the time. I feel like I've been hitting it solid enough or hitting it well enough to where I know my distances and I've definitely hit some good iron shots the last couple days and especially last year. But it's just, I don't know, I guess there's something about it that I like. Conditions wise, it's very similar to Florida heat. It gets really hot in Louisville where I'm from, too, in the summers. But I feel like once it gets to about that 95, 100 heat index, it's all the same. We're wearing pants, we're sweating a lot and it's really just trying to maintain energy."
Ryan Moore (2014): "I think it was playing very much like it did last year. It was a little less rough overall for the golf course than it was last year, so it makes scoring a little bit easier. But it's a good test of golf. It tests every part of your game and you gotta put it in the fairway, and once you're in the fairway, you gotta hit good shots, and you know, always have to make putts."
Sergio Garcia (2015): "It's the kind of course that you have to drive the ball well. It's asking you to hit a lot of good shots, because if you start hitting from the rough, there's a lot of shots into the greens that are very difficult to get close and even hold the green. So, if you manage to do that, you can score decent, because it's not terribly long. You have a lot of holes where you can score and make some birdies. So, I guess that's pretty much about it."
Lee Westwood (2014): "I like the variation to it. I like that it makes you think. You know, there's driver off a lot of holes, but you don't have to hit driver. It gives you options even on the par 5s. It's tightened up quite a bit on holes like 3 and you could hit 3 wood up there, but if you want to take it on with driver, it's possible. I think it's a good golf course strategically wise, as well. And then you need to use your common sense and have good course management skills. I think there are a lot of opportunities to take holes on out there, but at the same time there are a lot of opportunities to play conservatively and take par on certain holes. It gives you chances with regard to the par 5s, making birdie on those, and I think hitting the fairway is going to be paramount, especially if the conditions are wet. You don't want to be coming out of the rough because the greens seem to stay firm. Hitting a lot of fairways and setting up iron shots that you can be aggressive with."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 4 CIMB Classic winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2013:
First Round Leader Analysis: First round leader(s), their wave and winning score since the tournament moved to TPC Kuala Lumpur in 2013. For full first round leader stats click here.
For the record, here's the breakdown of Bermudagrass PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
It's worth noting that the West Course has played host to both the CIMB Classic since 2013 and the Maybank Malaysian Open on the European Tour from 2010-15. Winners of the Malaysian Open have been as follows: 2010: Seung-yul Noh; 2011: Matteo Manassero; 2012: Louis Oosthuizen; 2013: Kiradech Aphibarnrat; 2014: Lee Westwood; 2015: Anirban Lahiri - a fair mix of long hitters and accurate types. The key on the West Course is to minimise costly mistakes which, with plenty of water in play, are numerous.
From a CIMB Classic perspective, all of the 8 renewals to date have been low-scoring affairs. The Mines Resort course wasn't as tight as the West Course and yielded winning scores of -18/266, -23/261, and -22/262. Ryan Moore's wins here in 2013 and 2014 were delivered with scores of -14/274 and -17/271 (rough was lighter in 2014). However extremely soft conditions (even for Malaysia) allied to some course revisions and no breeze whatsoever saw Justin Thomas capture his first PGA Tour win with a record-low score of -26/262. He backed that up with a -23/265 total in 2016. 2017 saw Pat Perez almost eclipse Justin Thomas when he shot -24/264 to capture his 3rd PGA Tour title.
Moore and Thomas topped the birdies column in their wins (24 and 25 for Moore, 30 and 29 for Thomas), with Justin also making 2 eagles on his way to his maiden Tour title in 2015. 2017 saw Perez fire 27 birdies which was second in the field to Danny Lee who shot an impressive 2 eagles and 27 birdies. TPC Kuala Lumpur is clearly a course where a hot putter is essential.
All winners of the CIMB have been ranked between 22-64 in the Official World Golf Ranking and all have had a liking for low-scoring resort golf. All CIMB winners have also had decent results on Florida-type courses and can score heavily on both par-4s and par-5s.
My selections are as follows:
Xander Schauffele 2pts EW 20/1 with £30 welcome bonus* for new customers, 18+, T&Cs apply (5 places, 1/4 odds)
Xander Schauffele will arrive in Malaysia with good memories from 12 months ago. Back then he'd just won the Tour Championship, capturing the Playoff Finale and his 2nd PGA Tour title of his rookie season. Incredible stuff! He started with a -7/65 on course debut here at TPC Kuala Lumpur and after playing with Justin Thomas he admitted to "copying everything he did around here" on a course set-up he stated fits his eye very well. Follow-up rounds of 65-65 put him 4 back of Pat Perez in the final group come Sunday, but a closing 72 led to an eventual 3rd place finish. 12 months on Xander must arrive with positive thoughts after a run of good results. The 24 year-old Californian has openly admitted recently that he arrived in 2018 with unrealistic expectations and goals and sure enough as soon as Tony Finau was announced by Jim Furyk as his final captain's pick, Schauffele arrived back at the top of leaderboards. 1st after 36 holes at the sopping wet Aronimink, Schauffele eventually finished just a shot shy of winner Keegan Bradley at -19/261. Onto East Lake when defending his title, Xander again showed maturity and form, staying in the top 10 throughout, eventually finishing 7th. So the form is definitely there, but the World Number 18 must be craving another victory as it's 54 weeks since his last. He's gone close in 2018 across some very big tournaments including Majors: 9th at Riviera preceded 2nd at The Players Championship, 6th at the U.S. Open and naturally 2nd at the Open Championship where he was Francesco Molinari's closest competitor deep into the back-nine. Closing rounds of 68-69 at East Lake generates momentum and Xander should be at least there or thereabouts this week in Malaysia.
Gary Woodland 2pts EW 22/1 with £/€20 risk-free bet** for new accounts, 18+, T&Cs apply (7 EW, 1/5 odds):
Gary Woodland is a must-back this week and fits the identikit profile of a CIMB winner down to a tee. The World Number 38 is playing some lovely stuff right now and his liking for TPC Kuala Lumpur is there for all to see: 2nd in 2013 where he lost in a play-off to Ryan Moore, he followed that up 12 months later with another runner-up position here sharing second place with Sergio Garcia and Kevin Na. "The golf course sets up good to my eye, you know. It's one I feel like I can attack. The par 5s are all gettable. You get four opportunities with four par 5s. So if I drive the ball in play, I have a pretty good chance to be successful out there," was how Gary described TPC Kuala Lumpur test back in 2014 and there's no doubt that Woodland can go low and loves soft, receptive conditions.
Form of 11(Tour Championship)-12(BMW Championship)-24(Dell Technologies)-48(Northern Trust)-6(PGA Championship) highlight a player who has been operating at a high level across the highest quality fields. Interestingly the putter has also been firing for him with Woodland 7th and 15th for Strokes Gained Putting across his last 2 outings, plus he hasn't been outside the top 16 for Putts per GIR in his 3 last outings. There are signs that his recruitment of coaches Phil Kenyon for his putting and Pete Cowen for his short game are starting to bare fruit. He can also shoot low scores when the putter fires - his win at TPC Scottsdale this year came at -18/266. 2017 contained 2nd at a soft El Camaleon which came at -19/265; 6th at Waialae came at -17/263; 4th at a soft Glen Abbey came at -19/269. You get the picture and don't forget that Woodland announced himself on the PGA Tour back in 2011 when he finished runner-up to Jhonattan Vegas by shooting -27/333 at the Bob Hope Classic when it was a 5-day tournament.
Cameron Smith 1.5pt EW 40/1 with £30 welcome bonus* for new customers, 18+, T&Cs apply (5 places, 1/4 odds)
Cameron Smith fits well this week at a course where he's already finished 5th twice in both 2014 and 2017. The World Number 32 has just had a best ever season, which with the wrap-around structure started brilliantly 12 months ago. 5th here at the CIMB Classic and 3rd at the CJ Cup in South Korea was then followed by 4th at the Australian Open at the Australian Club, then finally a win at the Royal Pines hosted Australian PGA Championship. This 4-tournament streak was all achieved with a cumulative 51-under par. 2018 has also been a huge success with 6th at Riviera, a Quarter-Final spot at the WGC-Dell Matchplay, 5th at Augusta, 3rd at Ridgewood and 3rd at TPC Boston. For anybody counting that's 6 top-5 finishes on the PGA Tour (7 top-10s) across some of the very biggest tournaments on the schedule. The only thing that's really missing is a 2nd PGA Tour victory and his first ever solo victory to boot. That first PGA Tour victory last year came when partnering Jonas Blixt at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans where they shot -27/261 for victory. Smith heavily outscored his Swedish partner across the 2 rounds of four ball action on Bermudagrass greens and his win at Royal Pines in December featured a -18/270 winning total. He can grind - 4th at the 2015 U.S. Open and 5th at this year's Masters highlights that much - but I still think he thrives on softer tests, where he can find the pre-requisite amount of fairways and greens to be aggressive into green complexes and then let his top-notch short game do the talking.
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