The Desert Swing might be the most prominent stretch of the European Tour’s early season schedule, but this week's Maybank Championship actually boasts a prize fund in excess of any of the three Middle Eastern events.
If the field lacks absolute superstars (as in world top ten talent), it is not wanting for depth; that pot of money has again persuaded many good players to add the Malaysian peninsula to the itinerary.
The country has been a constant on the European Tour since the start of co-sanctioning with the Asian Tour so there is plenty of history to look back on – and that comes in handy this week as the event moves to Saujana G&CC, a one-time regular host of the Malaysian Open.
In essence this tournament is an extension of that Open. From 1999 to 2016 it featured on the European Tour before last year morphing into the Maybank Championship Malaysia (and which this year has adopted less clumsy title).
It will be worth watching who wins these early season co-sanctioned events in Asia because back in 2014 European Tour regulars Lee Westwood, Alex Levy and Felipe Aguilar took the honours, but in both the last two terms 9 of 10 of them were claimed by Asian Tour specialists and the exception – Marcus Fraser – could easily be classed in that category.
The Course – Saujana G&CC
Saujana has hosted the European Tour six times for the Malaysian Open – and also presented the tournament before it was co-sanctioned (Lee Westwood won there in 1997 for example). It’s a par-72 playing this week to 7,186 yards. Designed by Ronald Fream it features Tifdwarf Bermuda grass greens and a lot of palm trees – indeed the tight track was carved out of an old palm plantation. A curiosity is that the layout includes two very similar par-4s. The 370-yard 4th and 373-yard 17th holes are both dogleg left and both have water inside the dogleg and running right up to the green.
Previous winners at Saujana G&CC
2009: Anthony Kang (USA)
2007: Peter Hedblom (Swe)
2005: Thongchai Jaidee (Tha)
2004: Thongchai Jaidee (Tha)
2001: Vijay Singh (Fij)
1999: Gerry Norquist (USA)
1997: Lee Westwood (Eng)
Top 10 in the 2016 Maybank Championship Malaysia (held at Royal Selangor)
1. Marcus Fraser (Aus)
T2. Soomin Lee (Kor), Miguel Tabuena (Phi)
T4. Jorge Campillo (Spa), Julien Quesne (Fra)
T6. Richard Bland (Eng), Pablo Larrazabal (Spa)
T8. Nathan Holman (Aus)
T9. Peter Uihlein (USA), Rahil Gangjee (Ind), Masahiro Kawamura (Jap)
It will be hot (and feel hotter). Thursday and Friday is predicted to be high 90s but give the impression of being well into three figures thanks to humidity; the wind is rarely going to exceed 10mph. Current forecasts (as of Monday morning) say that the weekend will be no contrast in temperature, but that what wind there is will drop and fail to move the rainclouds: there is a 70-90% chance of a wet weekend. The good news is thunder shouldn’t feature (although it might during practice).
The Leading Contenders
The World No. 26 has been coming to Malaysia since 2003 and although he has never teed it up at Saujana G&CC he does have a solid record in the country. He has three top six finishes in the Malaysian Open and was T19 in the 2014 CIMB Classic, (his last venture there). Not been seen on Tour since ending the 2016 season with a fine T3 in the DP World Tour Championship which he followed up with T4 in the Alfred Dunhill Championship a week later – a final round 74 there cost him the title. You have to go back to 2004 for a year in which he hasn’t recorded a top five finish in January or February.
The Spaniard has now made 27 consecutive cuts on the European Tour, comfortably ahead the next best current run (of 19, by Francesco Molinari). It’s easy, therefore, to be appreciative of his chances. The inevitable flipside question of such consistency is: when will he win again? He does own two top four finishes in the Malaysian Open, was T10 in the country at last year’s CIMB Classic and was also second in the Hong Kong Open in December (tight track, similar conditions). On the other hand he’s played the course twice: T68 on debut in 2007 with a last round 83 and T37 two years later.
Much like his recent record everywhere, the Austrian’s log book in Malaysia is a case of very, very, very good, but no win. He’s finished T2 on both his last two visits to the country and has been so consistent in recent regular European Tour events that his efforts in Qatar and Dubai (T37-T32) look positively poor. They’re not, of course. But before that he did tick seven top seven finishes in a row on the Tour (not counting WGC).
Back in 1997 the Englishman claimed the Malaysian Open title at Saujana G&CC, a tournament he also won in 2014. His record in this decade (2010-date) on the Asian Tour is stupendous: 11 starts, seven wins, never outside the top 13. A cynic would say that he’s a bit of a flat track bully, because in that same period he has just one win on the European Tour and one on the PGA, but no need for value judgements in game play. T8 in Abu Dhabi and then T23 in Dubai when up against the worst side of the draw.
His T14 in the 2015 Malaysian Open reads much better when you’re aware that he opened with a 77 that left him dawdling at T122. Rounds of 66-67 got him to T13 after 54 holes before an understandably becalmed 71 saw him end the week T14. T29 on debut in the CIMB Classic late last year added to his education and was blown away by last week’s Friday winds. Five top 20s in seven starts still reads well; they were good top 20s every one.
Twelve months ago, in the first running of this event, Jaidee posted 66-69 to sit T7, ready to contend. Unfortunately he had to withdraw with a virus that eventually had him spending three days in hospital. It was just the fourth time in 29 starts he hadn’t played a weekend in Malaysia. Moreover he has some form at Saujana: victories in 2004 and 2005, T7 in 2001. He stuttered with two missed cuts in Abu Dhabi and Qatar, but bounced back with a promising T15 in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
He may have no experience of Saujana G&CC but the Indian will be more than happy to return to Malaysia. Back in 2015 he lifted the Malaysian Open trophy, his first European Tour victory, and towards the end of 2016 he threatened to win a first PGA title when leading after 54 holes of the CIMB Classic before a final round 72 failed to convert the opportunity. Warmed up nicely at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic with T19.
After a spectacular start to the Desert Swing – T4 in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and T9 in the CommercialBank Qatar Masters; contending for the victory in both – there was perhaps a natural fall off in Dubai when he missed out on the weekend in the Desert Classic. It might even be a good thing for him and he’ll be keen to return to Malaysia where he has six top five finishes including victory in the 2013 Malaysian Open and T3 at the same year’s CIMB Classic. Missed the cut in this event 12 months ago.
There was a wonderful progression about the Englishman’s route to victory in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship as his results ran: T37-T22-T14-T9-T3-WIN. Talk about an upward curve. Unfortunately two MCs have followed, but it would seem only a matter of time before he’s back on track. Maybe not in Malaysia however, where he seems to find one destructive round every visit. On debut in 2012 he opened with a 76, in 2014 there was a 77; both times he missed the cut. He was T73 in 2015 with a 79 and an 80. And although he was T11 in 2013 (a three round event), even last year’s T15 had to contend with a second round 74.
The Englishman still has just the two top ten finishes since he was T3 in the BMW PGA Championship last May, but his stellar work in the first five months of 2016 means he remains the top-ranked player in the field (now 15th in the world). One of those top tens was in the Hong Kong Open in December, a possible pointer for this week and he has strong form in the country: three top six performances in six outings and even last year in this event he was T3 at halfway before a weekend of 73-75 scuppered his challenge (T45).
The Next Rung
A rookie on the course, but will be happy to return to Malaysia having posted T16 in the 2015 Malaysian Open and T9 in this event 12 months ago. Moreover his T5 in the Omega Dubai Deser Classic last week absolutely backed up his T7 in the BMW South African Open. Recovered from injury and looking hungry to make up for lost time.
After opening the season with T5 in the Hong Kong Open the American added to his coffers with three cuts made on the Desert Swing and whilst none of the results was better than T39, it adds to his reputation for consistency. Moreover this week is more his game: tight and in Asia. Finished T3 in the 2012 Malaysian Open.
The Spaniard makes the early season return to Malaysia for a seventh year on the run and with good reason: he’s posted a top 30 every time. That run includes three top eights and he was T6 in last year’s Championship. Missed the weekend in Dubai but was T2 in Abu Dhabi and T8 last time in Asia, at the Hong Kong Open.
Only twice in 19 visits has the Australian failed to make the cut in Malaysia, he’s also 3-for-4 at Saujana G&CC, and he did win this tournament 12 months ago. If that’s good news you might worry that despite a neat T10 in the Hong Kong Open to start the season with a bang he decided not to show during the Desert Swing. Maybe think again because he stayed in Australia and finished T3 in the Victorian PGA Championship. Low grade, for sure, but a nice warm up for the defense.
No-one played better in the morning high wind of Friday’s play at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic that the Aussie, who carded a 4-under 68 and the cursed his luck when the afternoon starters got fortunate. It’s worth remembering as it puts his eventual T42 in a better light. Hend had a superb 2016 but has appeared to labor a bit over the last few months. Missed the cut in this event last year and also on his only appearance at the course, in 2009.
His immediate response to the stunning defeat of Rory McIlroy in the BMW South African Open play-off was an understandable MC in Abu Dhabi, but he proved the touch remains with solid weeks in Qatar and Dubai (T21-T39). Not finished inside the top 60 in his last six visits to Malaysia, but was T11 at Saujana in 2007.
Back in 2009, the last time the Tour visited Saujana, the Frenchman scorched home in just 62 swings to post T16. If that sounds familiar it might be because just last week he was doing something similar in Dubai, in this case a round three 66 vaulting him up the leaderboard. He could only manage T13 after a Sunday 73, but he’s dropped a couple of hints.
The Frenchman has five top 20 finishes in Malaysia and within them are peppered near misses: T2 in the 2011 Malaysian Open, T2 heading into the final round of the same year’s Johor Open, ditto the 2013 Malaysian Open and T5 in the 2015 edition. No top ten finish in 19 starts a bit of a worry though.
The Swede is a solid performer in Asia, indeed it’s where he made his breakthrough initially, but in Malaysia itself he’s not quite got it together despite a T5 in the 2014 Malaysian Open. Had a clunky time of it since a hot spell in May/June last year with only one top 15 (T12 defending in Italy) in 15 starts. Withdrew last week in Dubai.
The Frenchman is thought by some to be suspect in wind never mind high wind so his 70 in the worst of the second round gales in Dubai was a good effort and his mediocre Desert Swing was more or less typical of him. In Asia he’s a stronger performer. A winner in China, T3 in the 2013 Thailand Golf Championship and T24 in this event last year having been T2 after 18 holes.
Opened the season with a missed cut in Qatar before a reasonable T39 in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. He’ll be of interest to many because of his success in China (2014 China Masters and 2016 China Open wins), but beware: in five starts on the Asian Tour he had played four rounds just once and a best of T45.
Back in 2011 the Italian claimed the Malaysian Open on tournament debut and he was T7 on defense 12 months later; the tight nature of the layouts suit his game. He’s another who played in the poor conditions in round two at Dubai, so his result (T54) is a little deceptive.
There’s not much doubt that since his breakthrough win in the 2016 Shenzhen International he has struggled – T10 at the KLM Open is his only top 25 finish in that spell. But he will come into the reckoning because he led this event after 54 holes 12 months ago thanks to rounds of 66-68-64 before derailed by a final lap of 73.
Not the greatest Desert Swing (T49-MC-MC), but the Frenchman is a horses for courses type and the tree-lined Saujana might be a nice fit. He’s 6-for-6 in Malaysia, with T5 in the 2014 Malaysian Open and T4 in this event last year. Visually the course is quite Spanish, not unlike Aloha CC where he won the 2012 Open de Andalucia.
The Spaniard finished T4 alongside Quesne and he’s on a sneaky good run. He ended the season with T9 at the DP World Tour Championship, added T10 in Hong Kong, then made the weekend every week of the Desert Swing whilst leading at halfway in Qatar and then going T23 in Dubai.
An interesting start to the year for the Philippino. Carded a second round 65 in the Sony Open, then last seen finishing T3 in the Myanmar Open two weeks ago. Add in the fact that he finished T2 in this event 12 months ago and he makes a live outsider.
It was tempting to think his Hong Kong Open win was a total one-off, but he’s backed it up quite nicely going 2-for-3 through the Desert Swing. 3-for-4 in Malaysia with a best of T15 in the 2013 Selangor Masters.
One of world golf’s enigmas. Made the President’s Cup team back in 2011, a five-time winner in Japan in 2015, a three-time victor there last season, but can he transfer it? On the whole no, but it would be foolhardy to think he can’t.
Remains largely unknown despite besting Jordan Spieth in the 2016 Singapore Open, an event he put up a good defense of three weeks ago (T2). Largely untested outside of Japan and Korea, but was T31 in this event 12 months ago. His best is clearly rather good.
Who’s On The Team?
Lee Westwood’s record in this part of the world just cannot be ignored and, for consistency, Bernd Wiesberger might be a boring pick, but he makes a lot of sense.
Thongchai Jaidee and Anirban Lahiri can put up a strong fight for the Asian Tour regulars, as can Jeunghun Wang who might benefit from missing the weekend in Dubai.
Finally Pablo Larrazabal’s recent form and record in Malaysia are nicely eye-catching.
One To Fade
Tommy Fleetwood fights the greens at the best of times, but 33.50 putts per round since winning in Abu Dhabi isn’t going to work and the grainy surfaces won’t help. That habit of throwing in a bad lap is the clincher.