This is the inaugural staging of the True Thailand Classic - the first ever event held in Thailand to be co-sanctioned between the Asian and European Tours. The tournament will be part of the Race to Dubai schedule for the next three years at least.
Black Mountain Golf Club, Hua Hin, Thailand
Par 72, 7,359 yards
Black Mountain was created by Phil Ryan of Pacific Coast Design and was rebuilt by Stig Notlöv and Swedish European Tour winner, Johan Edfors. It only opened in 2007 but it has quickly built up quite a reputation having already been voted "Best Championship Course in Thailand", "Best Course in Asia Pacific" and one of the "Top 100 outside the US", by Digest 2012-2013. And in 2010, Asian Tour players voted the Black Mountain Golf Club to be "The Host Venue of The Year".
A number of players are based at Black Mountain, including Swedish pair of Edfors and the soon to tie the knot (next week!), Rikard Karlberg, as well as the promising young Thai, Jazz Janewattananond. Thai veteran, Prayad Marksaeng, is from Hua Hin and plays Black Mountain regularly and last week's winner, Anirban Lahiri, describes the course as a track that he really likes and he's already finished fourth and third here from just three starts.
With the exception of Edfors, who helped rebuild the course, few, if any, will know this week's layout better than Marksaeng, who won here on the Asian Tour last year. Marksaeng was also second here in 2009 in the Black Mountain Masters and he finished eighth in the second and final edition of that event 12 months later.
The Thai veteran's record in his home land is simply incredible. Since 1996 he's played there 47 times and he's finished inside the top-ten on 27 occasions - winning five events. And that's just official events - he won twice there last year on the All Thailand Golf Tour and did so again just ten days ago when he took the relatively prestigious Singha Masters.
On the Asian Tour, Black Mountain was the venue for the Black Mountain Masters in both 2009 and 2010 and the Kings Cup last year. Edfors won here in 2009, Tetsuji Hiratsuka in 2010 and Marksaeng edged out Karlberg last year.
Hole by Hole guide
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 8:00 on Thursday
What Will it Take to Win The Thailand Classic?
No stats were produced for the inaugural edition of the Black Mountain Masters but in the second staging, five of the first six home ranked inside the top-seven for driving distance so length of the tee looks a big plus - although bombing it didn't appear essential last year. Marksaeng ranked just 33rd for DD and only 69th for driving accuracy but he topped the putting stats. It's very little to go on, but on that limited evidence, I fancy anyone that anyone that can hit it miles and putt well will be right in-the-mix come Sunday.
After last year's Kings Cup, Karlberg described the greens as really fast. And Lahiri said he thought that "the greens are the fastest out here in Asia." If that's the case, poor putters might struggle.
Is There an Angle In?
Both Bangladesh pro, Siddikur, and Janewattananond, have mentioned how strong and challenging the wind can be here and I thought the track looked quite exposed. Again, there's a lot of guesswork involved but players that play links golf well might enjoy this venue. The wind isn't forecast to blow too hard but there appears enough to prove troublesome.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
The last three co-sanctioned events have gone to Asian Tour players - Lahiri last week, Scott Hend in Hong Kong in October and David Lipsky at the European Masters in Switzerland in September so the gulf in class between the two tours appears to be shortening all the time and those that know this venue could enjoy a sizable advantage this week.
With Edfors and Marksaeng both winning here and Karlberg finishing runner-up, we already have lots of evidence to suggest prior knowledge of the track is a big advantage. The problem we have is gauging just how much that has been factored into the market.
No hole averages were published for the any of the three events staged at Black Mountain so quite where the scoring sections and tougher sections are on the course I've no idea, but I can see that all three course winners were up with the pace all the way.
Edfors was three clear after an opening 64 and was never headed in the inaugural Black Mountain Masters and the 2010 winner, Hiratsuka, was also in front after the first round. He dropped to fifth at halfway after a second round 71 and was second and trailing by one after round three. At the King's Cup last year, Marksaeng opened with a 68 to sit fifth and three behind and he trailed by the same number of strokes after rounds two and three.
It would be ridiculous to give such a small sample size too much credence what limited data there is, suggests it might be tough to come from too far off the pace.
Alex Noren decided to sit out last week's Malaysian Open despite the fact he'd played well at the venue before. After a very lengthy injury break, the Swede had played for three weeks in-a-row and felt he was in need of a rest after finishing runner-up to Rory McIlroy in Dubai.
Given the heavy Swedish connection with Black Mountain, Noren may well have been out here before and played the course but if he has I'm unaware of it. If the week off has refreshed him and if he holds his form than he has every right to be favourite but there are enough ifs and but for me to dismiss him readily. Something I couldn't do with his closest market rival, Marc Warren.
The Scotsman has been in a rich vein of form of late with a three week run that's seen him produce a second placed finish in Qatar, 13th in Dubai and 9th last week in Malaysia. If I'm right about the links-like wind affected course conditions last year's Made In Denmark winner may just go in a again but at just 14.5 I'm happy to pass him up before the off.
Thongchai Jaidee may well know the venue well and he finished fifth and seventh in the two editions of the Black Mountain Masters but he's not getting any younger and he appears to be out off form. He makes no appeal at all at around 20.019/1 but last week's winner is much harder to ignore.
Lahiri was most impressive over the weekend in Malaysia and as already mentioned, he already has two top-four finishes at the venue. This is what he had to say about the place after he'd finished third at the King's Cup last January, "I really like this track. This is where I got my first top-five on the Asian Tour way back in 2009. I always felt positive coming out here to Black Mountain. I think the greens are the fastest out here in Asia."
When interviewed after his win in Malaysia on Sunday he spoke of his fondness for both this venue and next week's in India and it wouldn't be much of a surprise if he didn't contend both this week and next. I'd have played him at 26.025/1 but at 22.021/1 I'm happy to let him go.
I was hoping for slightly bigger odds on big-hitting Aussie, Scott Hend, but anything around 30.029/1 is fair. The reining Hong Kong Open champ finished 28th in the first Black Mountain Masters and he finished third a year later, and he was 7th here in the Kings Cup last year, so we know he likes the course. He won the Chiangmai Golf Classic in Thailand in 2013 and he was fifth in the prestigious and competitive Thailand Golf Championship in December so this is clearly a part of the world where he feels comfortable.
His two big assets are his monstrously long game of the tee and his usually solid putting and after last week's 14th place in Malaysia I thought he was well worth chancing.
With a win ratio in Thailand of a shade better than one in ten, Thai veteran and Hua Hin resident, Prayad Marksaeng, is something of a no-brainer bet this week and I was relieved that he missed the cut in Malaysia last week to protect his price. He won the Singha Masters on the All Thailand Golf Tour the week before so we know he's in form and last week's blip is easily forgiven.
Scott Hend @ 32.031/1
Prayad Marksaeng @ 66/1 Sportsbook
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