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The PGA tour makes one of its few trips outside of the US this week, and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia is the destination.
This year marks the fifth edition of the CIMB Classic, but just the second year Kuala Lumpur G&CC plays host to the venue. Golf enthusiasts may be aware that the very same course plays host to the Maybank Malaysian Open on the European Tour (most recently won by Lee Westwood). The par-72 course was originally designed by the Nelson Haworth design team (who also designed Sheshan International – long-term host of the HSBC Champions) and plays to less than 7,000 yards, so pretty short by PGA tour standards.
As well as the obvious challenge posed by high temperatures and humidity in Kuala Lumpur, fairways are relatively narrow and the rough on the course was significant last year. Suffice to say, Ryan Moore’s driving skills certainly played a big part in his victory. As the man himself says: “Tee shots are very, very important….it’s very narrow. So for me, I’m a very good driver of the golf ball, so that’s a very good thing for me playing a golf course like [this] because it’s so important to be in the fairway to give yourself a chance to score”. The very fact that Louis Oosthuizen and Lee Westwood are recent victors of the Maybank Malaysian Open rubber-stamps this point, and I expect a good driver of the ball to emerge victorious this week.
Aside from driving, I do believe Kuala Lumpur G&CC rewards those with an attacking mentality as the course yielded birdies and eagles aplenty last year (with Ryan Moore himself bagging no less than nine eagles). Also worth looking at are players with previous track records in Asia as the top-2 on last year’s leaderboard had some prior form in the continent with Moore boasting a good record in the HSBC Champions tournament (at the aforementioned Sheshan International) and Gary Woodland having won the Omega Mission Hills World Cup back in 2011 with his partner Matt Kuchar.
Having once ranked as highly as 3rd in the OWGR, it was something of a shock to see Paul Casey plummet to the depths of 169th in 2013 (which was down in no small part to injury problems). However, the Englishman has bounced back over the last 16 months, winning last year’s Irish Open and more recently the KLM Open just last month. The 13-time European Tour winner makes his debut at Kuala Lumpur G&CC this week, but all the pointers are there that the course should suit – he’s an excellent driver of the ball, has a good record at the aforementioned Sheshan International and is a two-time winner in Asia. It’s always worth considering previous course winners, especially when they don’t appear amongst the favourites, and Seung-Yul Noh certainly warrants more than a cursory glance this week. His 2010 Maybank Malaysian Open victory came at the impressive age of 18 with very little experience under his belt. Since this time, Noh has become a PGA tour regular and notched his first title in the states earlier this year at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. Noh teed it up last week, not in Georgia, but in his native Korea at the Kolon Korea Open where he finished runner-up, so comes into this event in decent form.
It has been over five years since Stewart Cink’s last professional victory (the 2009 Open Championship), but I believe the veteran has more titles in him yet, and he’s shown flashes of brilliance in his first two starts of the new season (shooting a 64 in the opening round of the Frys.com Open, and a 63 in the third round of last week’s McGladrey Classic), so his game is definitely heading in the right direction. Cink teed it up here in Kuala Lumpur last year, making a solid debut in the shape of a tie for 11th (which could have been even better bar a closing 73), and there’s good reason to expect an improvement this time around.
Some players hold their form better than others, and two-time PGA tour winner Will MacKenzie has previously showed that he holds his better than most – posting six top-15 finishes in eight starts around the beginning of this year. Whilst his form tailed off towards the end of the season, he has started his 2014-15 campaign off with a bang, only losing out in a playoff in last week’s McGladrey Classic. Like Paul Casey, MacKenzie makes his Kuala Lumpur G&CC debut this week, and whilst he doesn’t have much in the way of Asian golf experiences to draw upon, his ball-striking was so good last week (ranking 1st in both GIR and Proximity to the Hole) that he has to be worth an outside punt this week.
With the west coast swing done and dusted, Sea Island, Georgia is the location of this week’s PGA tour event – the McGladrey
The Seaside Course at Sea Island Golf Club is the perennial host of this event and the par-70 layout plays to a yardage of 7,005 which makes it one of the shortest courses on the PGA tour. With this said, the course is not without its challenges as a coastal, wind-exposed layout that demands good scrambling skills.
Other than short-game skills, there isn’t a great deal that connects recent winners here from a performance attributes (or indeed - course form) point of view. However, there are a couple of other PGA tour events which could be useful predictors to success here. Heath Slocum, Ben Crane and Tommy Gainey all had recent course form down the coast at Harbour Town Golf Links (host of The Heritage), and Ben Crane and last year’s winner Chris Kirk both had form at Colonial Country Club (host of the Crowne Plaza Invitational) – another par-70 layout that rewards good shot-makers. It is the par-70 nature of the Seaside Course which is undoubtedly significant too with the two most recent winners, Chris Kirk and Tommy Gainey, ranking 3rd and 13th in Par 4 Birdie or Better Leaders in the years of their wins here.
Having won the first event of the 2012 PGA tour season (the Sony Open), Russell Henley is clearly capable of getting his season off to a strong start, and where better than his home state of Georgia. The 25-year-old enjoyed a very impressive 2013-14 season – winning the Honda Classic and progressing right to the FedEx Cup finale where he finished in the top-20 in the final standings. Henley didn’t play brilliantly here 12 months ago, but he has form from his college days where he won the individual honours and helped his Georgia team to victory in the 2010 SEC Men’s Golf Championship. Additionally, Henley loves par-70 layouts on which both of his PGA tour wins have come.
With even stronger local ties than Russell Henley, Harris English makes his home right here on Sea Island and thus knows this course better than most of the field. After a really strong start to his 2013-14 campaign (in which he won the OHL Classic) the 2013-14 season was pretty disappointing for English with only a single top-10 finish since March. However, the 25-year-old showed definite signs of form in last week’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, finishing in a tie for 16th on a course where he didn’t boast much in the way of form. English was also part of the winning Georgia team in the 2010 SEC Men’s Golf Championship and has previous top-10s to his name at both Harbour Town Golf Links and Colonial Country Club.
The third local player who gets the nod this week is Brian Harman, a player who notched his maiden PGA tour title in last season’s John Deere Classic. Harman, like Harris English, is a resident of Sea Island itself and has some solid course form to his name, having finished 27th on his tournament debut in 2012 and 10th last year. The 27-year-old is very solid with a wedge in hand (which never hurts on a 7,005 yard layout) and he finished in a tie for 7th in last season’s Heritage tournament at Harbour Town Golf Links.
Aside from those right at the top of the betting market, one of the most decorated players in the field is five-time PGA tour winner Carl Pettersson. The 37-year-old didn’t demonstrate his best golf for much of last season, but that said, he did seem to be rounding into form just as the season was winding to a close – posting a top-10 finish at the Deutsche Bank Championship (which was incidentally won by last year’s McGladrey Classic winner – Chris Kirk). Pettersson’s last victory came at Harbour Town Golf Links and his previous two PGA tour wins came on par-70 layouts.
Richard Sterne is something of a wildcard selection this week with limited PGA tour experience under his belt. However, the 33-year-old is an excellent wedge player with a tidy short game and, crucially, knows how to win, as a six-time victor on the European Tour. South Africans seem to like something about the Seaside Course with Tim Clark finishing runner-up here last year and both Louis Oosthuizen and Trevor Immelman finishing inside the top-5 in the 2011 event. Sterne has missed the cut in each of the last two weeks, but his game is certainly not in tatters at the moment having come close to winning on the web.com tour back in September and posting a top-10 in last month’s Dunhill Links Championship.
The PGA tour heads to Las Vegas this week for the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, held at TPC Summerlin.
Things are all a little clearer for the punter here as opposed to last week’s Frys.com Open which comprised a new host course, a bunch of PGA tour rookies, and nearly everyone in the field coming off the back of at least a month out of competitive action.
TPC Summerlin, a 7,255 yard par-71 consistently ranks amongst the easiest courses on the PGA tour which is best demonstrated by Webb Simpson’s winning total of 24-under-par. Course form can be relied upon to a large degree with each of the last four winners having finished in the top-15 in a previous appearance before winning here. I’m going slightly beyond merely form at TPC Summerlin itself, and looking at ‘desert form’.
This line of thinking comes from noticing the results of recent Shriners winners in both the Humana Challenge and the Phoenix Open – two others events held on desert-based courses. Webb Simpson had a top-5 finish in the Humana Challenge and two top-10s to his name in the Phoenix Open ahead of his win here 12 months ago; 2012 winner Ryan Moore had two Humana Challenge top-10s and one in Phoenix to his name ahead of his victory and Kevin Na boasted no less than three top-5s in Phoenix and a top-10 in the Humana Challenge before his win here three years ago.
The names of recent winners here tells us quite clearly that there’s no easy formula in terms of favouring big hitters, or short, accurate types. Putting prowess is never going to hurt where low-scoring is involved, but history would suggest that Birdie Average is the performance stat most worth studying here. To back this up – each of the last three winners ranked inside the top-20 on tour in Birdie Average in the years of their wins here.
Having suffered a pretty disappointing 2013-14 season, it’s no great surprise to see Martin Laird some way down the Birdie Average stat. However, we know from past years that an in-form Martin Laird is something of a birdie-machine, and his performance in last week’s Frys.com Open would suggest that he may be recapturing the sort of form that saw him inside the top-50 in the world for extended periods of his PGA tour career. Having won this event in 2009, he came back twelve months later and nearly defended his title, only losing out in a playoff to Jonathan Byrd. During this time, he has posted rounds of 62 and 63 (twice) here, and his performance last week should give him the confidence he needs to contend here once again.
One player still searching for that elusive maiden PGA tour title is Cameron Tringale. The California native comes off the back of his best season on the PGA tour, finishing 37th on the money list, and the fact he made it all the way to the FedEx Cup finale, coupled with his Frys.com Open appearance last week means that he is fresher than most ahead of the trip to TPC Summerlin. The 27-year-old has sufficient desert form having finished in a tie for 12th in last season’s Phoenix Open and having finished 11th here back in 2010. Although his Birdie Average may not leap off the page, he ranked 8th on tour in Total Birdies last season.
Looking to add to his sole PGA tour victory in 2011, Brendan Steele made a solid start to his 2014-15 season with a tie for 21st at Silverado. Steele is another born-and-bred Californian, and he certainly seems very comfortable in the desert having claimed no less than three top-6 finishes in the Phoenix Open as well as a pair of top-20s right here in Las Vegas. Steele ranked just outside the top-50 on tour in Birdie Average last year and on paper all elements of his game stacked up well last week, so I expect another strong showing from the 27-year-old.
If we’re looking for someone who is going to made birdies in abundance this week, Bryce Molder could be just the man for the job having led the field in birdies made (23 in total) last week at Silverado. Like Steele, Molder is a one-time PGA tour winner, with his win also coming in 2011 but over at CordeValle, the previous host of the Frys.com Open. Molder has an excellent record in the Phoenix Open, and whilst his record at TPC Summerlin is a little more variable, he did finish in the top-10 here three years ago.
Chancing web.com graduates wouldn’t have been the most profitable strategy here 12 months ago with only Chesson Hadley gracing the top-10, but I’m going to chance Tony Finau this week who turned in an excellent PGA tour debut in last week’s Frys.com Open. The 25-year-old didn’t get overawed by the occasion, shooting the joint lowest weekend total (8-under-par) at Silverado and I see no reason why he shouldn’t carry his form over to this week. After all, we know that Finau is a birdie machine with his sole web.com victory coming with a winning total of 22-under-par, and he also tied for 2nd in birdies made on his way to last week’s tie for 12th.
The 2014-15 PGA tour season gets underway this week with the Frys.com Open in Napa Valley, California.
The host course moves from CordeValle to Silverado’s North Course – making this the first PGA tour event it has hosted in 34 years. Since that time, Johnny Miller has got his hands on the course and made several changes, including lengthening the course to 7,203 yards.
Being the first event of a new season with a number of players making their PGA tour debuts and many coming off the back of pretty lengthy layoffs, it’s a hard enough event for punters to get a hold on without a complete dearth of course form, so it’s time to delve deep and figure out who should like this week’s layout.
Reading interview transcripts with re-designer Johnny Miller, a few things come to light. Firstly (as backed up by the course flyover) the course will reward the ability to shape the ball both ways as there are several doglegs in opposite directions. Secondly, players’ short games are likely to come under scrutiny this week if Miller’s words are to be believed. In his words: “this is a tough golf course. These greens are as tough as Augusta at high speeds.”
Miller makes further reference to Augusta National, claiming that he was influenced by the Georgia course when re-bunkering the North Course here at Silverado. He goes as far as to say the course “looks like Augusta National” which could provide an interesting point of reference for who may take a liking to the layout.
One player who certainly does like Augusta National is Brandt Snedeker who has a couple of excellent Masters finishes to his name. This is, in part, down to his ability to putt well on fast greens. Further evidence of this can be found in his 2012 Tour Championship win at East Lake which holds arguably the fastest Bermuda greens on the PGA tour. The 2013-14 season may have been slightly disappointing for the 33-year-old being his first winless season since 2010, but can be largely chalked down to injury problems and I fully expect him to bounce back this season. California has also been a happy hunting ground for Snedeker, with two of his six PGA tour wins coming in the Golden State.
Often in contention, but as yet without a PGA tour win, Russell Knox has been one of the most impressive British exports to the PGA tour outside of the big names in recent times. The Scotsman narrowly missed out on victory in this year’s Honda Classic and turned in a solid top-10 finish at Harbour Town Golf Links – another course that rewards the ability to shape the ball off the tee. Knox has a solid bank of West Coast form to his name and saved his best until the very end of last season, shooting a blistering 62 in the final round of the BMW Championship at Cherry Hills. Let’s hope he can pick up where he left off.
Perennially underrated by the oddsmakers, Kevin Streelman boasts something that few players in this field can lay claim to – a PGA tour win in each of the last two seasons. Streelman is comfortable on tracks that demand the ability to work the ball off the tee which is proven by his wins at Innisbrook and TPC River Highlands and further backed up by strong performances at Harbour Town and TPC Sawgrass. The 35-year-old is also adept on speedy greens. One of the best references for who copes well on fast putting surfaces is last year’s HANDA World Cup of Golf, and Streelman ranked 5th in Putting Average on this occasion.
I’m slightly torn as to how big an advantage length off the tee will be this week. Articles I’ve read certainly suggest accuracy off the tee should not be underestimated, but at the same time the Par 5 holes could provide real scoring opportunities for those who can really bomb it. Either way, a course of 7,203 yards means that shorter hitters like Heath Slocum are very much part of the discussion, and the 40-year-old seems to save his best golf for the latter part of the year with two of his four PGA tour wins coming in what used to be known as the ‘fall series’. Slocum is an excellent scrambler (ranking 24th in this attribute last season) and it may be worth noting his top-20 finish on his penultimate visit to Augusta National.
My rank outsider for this week is Michael Thompson. As a previous PGA tour winner and a major championship runner-up, Thompson clearly has talent in abundance, it’s just a case of catching him on the right week. There are several pointers which make me think he’s worth an each-way punt this week. To name a few: he plays classic courses well (Muirfield Village and Colonial Country Club are sites of recent strong finishes), his US Open runner-up finish came in the state of California, and he is one of the best putters on the PGA tour.