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A week after backing Haotong Li in Abu Dhabi at 100/1 where he promptly missed the cut, the talented 22 year-old frustrated many punters including me last week when he held off former OWGR No.1 Rory McIlroy and grabbed his second European Tour title in impressive style. It transpires that the 22 year-old had picked up a bug in Abu Dhabi before he teed off on the Thursday, which goes some way to explaining his effort there after a fine performance at the EurAsia Cup, however a week later and having shaken it off he clearly fulfilled his promise.
With Andy Sullivan making bogey on the 72nd hole which took him out of a full each-way payout to the log-jam that was a 6th place finish, the Dubai Desert Classic proved to be a frustrating week to say the least, however we’re straight back on the saddle with a chance to get back on track at this week’s event in Malaysia.
The Malaysian capital city is our next stop as the Saujana G&CC in Kuala Lumpur hosts the third Maybank Championship this week after the tournament made its bow 2 years 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 on the schedule, the same sponsor and also played on another track in Kuala Lumpur – the differences are subtle but important nonetheless.
The highest-ranked player and bookies favourite this week is Henrik Stenson and he rates an 8/1 chance at the time of writing. A number of players who had a decent week in Dubai also travel over to Kuala Lumpur including Alex Levy (4th), Chris Paisley (5th) and Dylan Frittelli, Richie Ramsay, Jeunghun Wang, Alexander Bjork, Andy Sullivan, David Lipsky and Chris Hanson who all finished in the tie for 6th alongside Stenson.
Over on the PGA Tour, Steve Bamford previews the Waste Management Phoenix Open – you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Course Overview. The Palm course at Saujana G&CC, which hosted the event last year but not in 2016, 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, had been updated prior to last year’s event 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.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 2017: Fabrizio Zanotti, 225/1; 2016: Marcus Fraser, 175/1.
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 90s Fahrenheit which will quickly sap energy. With thunderstorms in the lead up to the event and more possible for the first couple of days at least, the track is likely to be soft and receptive with light winds encouraging a low winning score.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
The 2016 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, plus of course there are last year’s stats to peruse:
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 years prior to that, putting on these Bermuda greens had 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. Last year followed a similar pattern with the top-6 finishers all ranking inside the 30 best putters on the week, however eventual winner Fabrizio Zanotti was the least effective of all of those in that respect. With another low score expected, players are going to need to have their putter working very nicely this week to contend I’d suggest.
Incoming Form: In terms of incoming form of the winners, last year’s victor Fabrizio Zanotti hadn’t made the weekend on his three starts that year prior to converting here at Saujana. 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.
Course Form: In terms of prior course form, that’s throwing us few clues either. Zanotti was making his course debut last year whereas Kang had played here at Saujana five times prior to victory but finishes of MC/42/41/67/MC hardly inspires. Peter Hedblom also 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.
For me this week will be all about risk-reward golf: aggressive types who are able to take advantage of the soft conditions are likely to make hay with target golf in benign conditions the order of the day. Scoring on the par 5s will be of critical importance this week, however the eventual winner is also likely to get close to -10 for the par 4s over the course of the week too so the ability to make birdies across the whole course is key. To emphasise this point, Bernd Wiesberger made nine birdies on the trot here at one point last year, which would have been a European Tour record were it not for the preferred lies in place, which suggest that the Cobra’s bite isn’t as bad as its name would suggest.
My selections are as follows:
Alexander Levy 2.5pts EW 16/1 with Coral
A soft course and an in-form Alexander Levy fit like a glove and I think the Frenchman has a very real chance of securing his 5th European Tour title this week. Those of you who read my column regularly will know that I backed the likeable 27 year-old at last year’s Volvo China Open and he rewarded my support with a 25/1 success courtesy of a continuation of the form that he’d found with his irons the week before at the Shenzhen International. The smile on his face wasn’t quite so broad when we backed him again at the Porsche European Open where he missed a tiddler in the play-off to allow Jordan Smith to capture his first European Tour title, however after understandably taking that defeat quite badly, the signs are that his game’s in the right kind of shape to win once again.
Going back to that China Open triumph where he beat Dylan Frittelli in the play-off, Levy followed up his 80.6% GIR performance the week before with a field-leading 86.1% and a strong enough week on and around the greens to see him over the line. After forming part of the victorious European Team at the EurAsia Cup in this part of the world to kick off of his 2018 campaign – which included a singles victory over Kiradech Aphibarnrat – Alex has recorded big personal best performances at both Abu Dhabi (7th) and last week at the Dubai Desert Classic (4th), driven largely by GIR performances of 7th in the field (80.6%) and 6th (77.8%) respectively. On that evidence alone it would be prudent to shortlist the Frenchman at the very least, however when you couple that with the fact that he finished 4th here on debut 12 months ago, it’s understandable that his price is very much on the short side this week.
A soft course is pretty much a given in this part of the world courtesy of the regular downpours that the course receives in its tropical climate; more of the same is expected this week with rain forecast every day up until Saturday at least and that should result in the target golf conditions upon which Levy thrives. It’s no surprise that 2 of his 4 wins on the European Tour have come in weather-reduced events as conditions which result in suspensions, delays and ultimately reductions in holes played are often part and parcel of the kind of sopping wet course that plays to his strengths.
Of course there are some tough competitors to overcome here, not least in the shape of favourite Henrik Stenson, however with a new putter (inspired by a new putting coach) producing back-to-back putting averages in the 1.6s over the past fortnight, plus 46 birdies and an eagle recorded over his last 8 competitive rounds, this feels like the right time to make a decent investment on the amiable Frenchman. RESULT: T55
Hao-tong Li 2.5pts EW 20/1 with Stan James
Whilst last week’s result was disappointing, not only because I’d backed Haotong Li the week before in Abu Dhabi where he missed the cut but also the final hole bogey from Andy Sullivan that cost me a skinny profit overall, it was nevertheless exciting to see such an outstanding performance from a young man who’s destined for the bigger stage in world golf. It would have been easy for me to ignore Li and look for a player who’s twice the price or more for some ‘value’ this week – Jeunghun Wang and Thomas Detry both interest at the 40/1 type bracket – however when push comes to shove I suspect that there’s far more chance of Li going back-to-back given his birdie-making prowess and the red-hot putter that we saw last week.
Of course many punters will baulk at a price that’s been slashed dramatically from the 100/1 we saw in Abu Dhabi and the 110/1 that was available early on last week about the Chinese 22 year-old, however fact is that these hungry young players can and do produce back-to-back victories. Think Thomas Pieters in 2015 who grabbed personal back-to-back wins. Think Jeunghun Wang in 2016, another youngster with the world at his feet. Think Tyrrell Hatton last year – he’s only 26 remember – who grabbed two huge events in consecutive weeks in the shape of the Dunhill Links and Italian Open. Stranger things can and do happen, that’s for sure.
30 birdies last week, a putting average of under 1.5 putts per GIR and outscoring – and staring down – a 4-time Major Champion and former OWGR number 1 can do nothing but skyrocket a player’s confidence and I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to see him go back-to-back this week on a course where he finished 5th 12 months ago. Soft, scoreable conditions would seem to be a perfect match for someone who’s coming off of an event which produced a 41.7% birdie or better conversion rate and, to top it all, he’s already produced personal back-to-back victories twice in his short career back in 2014 when he plied his trade on the OneAsia and PGA Tour China circuits. RESULT: MC
Scott Hend 1pt EW 80/1 with Coral
With decent punts on two of the shorter-priced players in this week’s field, I’ll finish with another player who’ll relish the soft conditions in the shape of Scott Hend who’s available at a very backable price given that he has 8 worldwide victories to his name since 2012.
Despite being renowned as one of golf’s longest hitters – he currently ranks 5th for Driving Distance on the European Tour for the season-to-date with an average of over 315 yards from off the tee – there’s actually a little bit more to his game than pure power as is evident by his 2014 victory at the quirky, tree-lined Fanling course in Hong Kong as well as twice having been runner-up at the equally quirky course at Crans in the Swiss Alps. For me, Hend is at his best when he can utilise his power to maximise his Greens In Regulation statistics and the small greens here at Saujana should prove reasonably easy to hit for a player like Scott who’ll be attacking most putting surfaces with the shortest of irons or wedges, be that from the rough or the fairway.
Bermudagrass greens are the Australian’s best putting surface as was evidenced last week once again when he ranked 7th for putting average in Dubai (1.61 putts per GIR). Couple that with the impressive 81.9% GIR that he produced in Abu Dhabi the week before and we have a contending performance just waiting to burst from this proven winner if he can tie it all together. 29th last year doesn’t tell the whole story as rounds of 74 and 75 were balanced by far more impressive efforts of 66 and 67 – clearly he needs to produce something along the lines of those better rounds for all 4 days to feature here in what’s sure to be a low-scoring event, however with his biggest birdie haul for over 6 months achieved last week in Dubai, don’t be surprised to see him in the mix this week. RESULT: MC
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Odds and bookmaker offers correct at 17:05GMT 29.1.18 but naturally subject to fluctuation.