After a couple of weeks in the Gulf, the Race to Dubai switches continent and returns to a Malaysian venue with a long history of hosting co-sanctioned events. Here's Steve Rawlings' detailed preview...
"The Hong Kong Open host course is another tree-lined track with small grainy greens and I'd suggest that's a good event to study."
This is only the third edition of the Maybank Championship. It doesn't directly replace the now defunct Malaysian Open but I suspect this event wouldn't exist if the Malaysian Open still did.
The Malaysian Golf Association was adamant that the Malaysian Open would be staged again in 2016, despite the withdrawal of the sponsors, Maybank, after the 2015 renewal, but it didn't. The event had been a fairly longstanding tournament, co-sanctioned by the European and Asian Tours since 1999, so many were keen to see it continue but despite assurances, the Malaysian Open disappeared from the schedule, to be seemingly replaced by the awkwardly named, Maybank Championship Malaysia. That name didn't read well, and Malaysia was sensibly dropped from the title last year.
The first staging was at the Royal Selangor Golf Club but we return to the Saujana Golf and Country Club again this time around.
The Palm Course, Saujana Golf and Country Club, Kuala Lumper, Malaysia
Par 72, 7,186 yards
Stroke Index in 2017 - 71.7
There are two courses at the Saujana Golf and Country Club - the Bunga Reya and the Palm Course - and the tournament is staged on the Palm Course, which is nicknamed The Cobra.
The Palm Course was designed by Ron Fream and built in 1986. It's set on an old palm oil plantation and it's a hilly track framed by tall Palm trees. The Bermuda fairways are fairly generous and fast and the Tifdwarf Bermuda greens are small, grainy, fast and tricky to read. Water is in play on seven holes.
In addition to last year's renewal, the Palm Course hosted the aforementioned Malaysian Open in 1997, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009 (winners listed below) so while it's a bit old now, we do have some additional form to look at.
Here's the hole-by-hole guide from the course's website if you want to take a more in-depth look.
Coverage on Sky Sports all four days - starting at 7:30 on Thursday morning. Live coverage over the weekend beginning at 2:30 on Saturday morning.
First Two Tournament Winners
2016 - Marcus Fraser -15 (Royal Selangor Golf Club)
2017 - Fabrizio Zanotti -19
Previous Malaysian Open winners at this venue
1997 - Lee Westwood (prior to being a Euro Tour event)
1999 - Gerry Norquist -8
2001 - Vijay Singh -14 (playoff)
2004 - Thongchai Jaidee -14
2005 - Thongchai Jaidee -21
2007 - Peter Hedblom -8
2009 - Anthony Kang -17
What Will it Take to Win the Maybank Championship?
Although the course is tree-lined the fairways are fairly generous. I thought Driving Accuracy might be a key stat last year but it really wasn't. Shubhankar Sharma, who finished tied for ninth, ranked second for DA but nobody else in the top-ten ranked inside the top-20 for that stat. Driving Distance wasn't a vital stat either and the winner, Zanotti, only ranked 50th for DD.
What happened after the drive was marginally more important, with three players in the top-ten ranking inside the top-ten for Greens In Regulation but understandably, given how small the greens are, the most important stat last year was Scrambling. Zanotti ranked number one and three of the first four home ranked inside the top-six for that stat. Zanotti ranked 30th for Putting Average but nobody did better out of the greenside bunkers and he also ranked first for Sand Saves. Saving pars was what won the Paraguayan the tournament.
Is There an Angle In?
The runner-up 12 months ago, David Lipsky, plays Fanling, the home of the Hong Kong Open, well and Danny Willett, who led with a round to go here last year, also has form around Fanling. The Hong Kong Open host course is another tree-lined track with small grainy greens and I'd suggest that's a good event to study.
I always take a good look at form at Crans-sur-Sierre in Switzerland before the Hong Kong Open so it makes sense to check form out there too and lo and behold, that works out even better than Hong Kong! Zanotti finished third at the European Masters after winning this last year, Lipsky won it in 2014 and 12 months later, Willett took the title in 2015. We may be heading for Malaysia but the place to start appears to be Switzerland.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Anthony Kang was one of the most unexpected winners on the European Tour in 2009 but European Tour winners, David Horsey, Jyoti Randhawa and Miles Tunnicliff, along with Prayad Marksaeng, who's won 20 times as a professional, finished tied for second and Alex Noren and Louis Oosthuizen both finished tied for seventh.
Course winners Lee Westwood, Vijay Singh and Thongchai Jaidee need no introduction and the likes of Henrik Stenson, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Paul McGinley, Padraig Harrington, Thomas Levet, Alex Cejka and Shaun Micheel have all been placed here so it's a venue where the cream has risen to the top.
Zanotti was a [400.0] shot so given the last two course winners have been rank outsiders it may seem a bit daft to be advocating backing the better players but with the likes of Bernd Wiesberger, Alex Levy, Hao-Tong Li, Willett and Anirban Lahiri all in the top-six places last year, I suspect we might get a high-class winner this time around.
There was plenty of drama last year - Willett and Lipsky were both matched at [1.5] in-running and the halfway leader, Wiesberger, who eventually finished third, was matched at just [2.56] as early as Friday so the layers were smiling 12 months ago.
Zanotti had a very late tee-time last year but keep an eye on the weather because if rain is forecast an early start on Thursday can be a big plus in this part of the world.
Not only do the early starters get to play the course at its pristine best on day one, they also get to finish up their first rounds and avoid any afternoon weather delays - should there be any. Storms gather from nowhere in Malaysia, and usually in the afternoons, so we might get a stoppage or two.
In the now defunct Malaysian Open, the five winners between 2010 and 2014 were all drawn in the morning on day one and when Thongchai Jaidee won the Malaysian Open wire-to-wire in 2005, to successfully defend the title, five of the first six on the first round leaderboard had - had an early tee time on Thursday.
Looking at the hole averages form last year, I see that the last two holes (par four 17th and par five 18th) were two of the easiest on the layout so a birdie-birdie finish isn't out of the question and clubhouse leaders might just be more vulnerable than they usually are.
***Steve returns from holiday on Thursday, when he'll kick-off this week's in-play blog as usual. Comments below are from Paul Krishnamurty***
The class act in this line-up is Henrik Stenson, whose mere presence carries some significance. The world number 12 hasn't played in this event for 12 years and has made vast strides on the world stage since finishing third then. After non-challenging top-eight finishes in Abu Dhabi and Dubai to start the year, he seems to be quickly moving towards peak form. Those rock-solid credentials are reflected by odds of [9.0].
Likewise, there are no holes in the case for Alexander Levy at [16.0]. The Frenchman fared even better over the past fortnight, finishing seventh and fourth, and also finished fourth in this event last year. He has a great record in Asia and simply has to be there or thereabouts.
Another with tremendous form in Malaysia is Bernd Wiesberger at [19.5]. The Austrian was third in this last year and runner-up on his two previous cracks at the Malaysian Open. On the downside though, he didn't make much of an impact in the Gulf, nor towards the end of 2017 and just two wins in the last five years is something of a concern, given his general consistency.
Next best is last week's Dubai winner Haotong Li at [23.0]. Again, the Chinese youngster has rock-solid claims on last week's heroics in a much stronger field and he's already gone well at Saujana, finishing fifth last year. The sky appears to be the limit for this 22 year-old although winning back-to-back on different continents is a huge ask for anybody.
As outlined above, there's a strong chance that we'll see a high-class winner. Levy makes some appeal but I'd rather wait and see how his chances pans out in-running. At twice the odds, Kiradech Aphibarnrat catches the eye. He's a former Malaysian Open champion and always one to take very seriously in Asia. I'm not concerned by his lack of achievements during the Gulf Swing, as Kiradech has never been the most consistent.
My each-way selection Alexander Bjork is a must-bet at [75.0] and, with Steve in great form right now, I must follow him in with Scott Hend at [100.0]. As runner-up in the last two European Masters renewals at Crans and a former Hong Kong Open champion, the big-hitting Aussie looks to have the right course correlation credentials and has played most of his best golf in Asia.
Kiradech Aphibarnrat @ [34.0]
Alexander Bjork @ [75.0]
Scott Hend @ [100.0]
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter