View across the water of No.15 at TPC Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia is home to the oldest rainforest on the planet, it boasts the highest sky bridge in the world, and this week the “Wild East” hosts a stellar line-up of global golf stars for the CIMB Classic as the PGA Tour makes its first of three stops this month in Asia. Two-time defending champion and World No. 4 Justin Thomas headlines an elite 78-man field at TPC Kuala Lumpur that includes 10 major champions, 15 players in the top-50 in the OWGR, and 18 winners from the previous season.
TPC Kuala Lumpur’s West Course is a par-72, 7,005-yard track designed by architect Robin Nelson in the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s sprawling city center. Set among the Bukit Kiara hillsides and abandoned rock quarries, the West Course is designed to give players sensational views of the holes and surrounding scenery, and countless shot options into the greens. Featuring notable elevation changes, undulating hills, and numerous doglegs, this is a layout for the true shot-maker with imagination and unrelenting attention to detail. Danger lurks everywhere with 90 bunkers and water that comes into play on 13 holes, however pristine playing conditions and Paspalum greens make the West Course ideal for scoring. Birdies and eagles will be flying all over the place this week.
With four par-5s and only two par-4s over 450 yards, everyone in the field will be competitive off the tee and see plenty of scoring opportunities. Still, long hitters will have the distinct advantage of hitting a lot of wedges into the greens, and that could result in tournament and course records being destroyed. Key metrics in predicting the winner include Bogey Avoidance, Par 5 Scoring, Par 4 Scoring, and Driving Distance.
Power off the tee on the par-5, 503-yard 3rd hole is required for any player thinking about reaching the green in two. Aggressive drives will be rewarded if they’re accurate, but they’ll also be penalized for even the slightest error. Finding any of the punishing fairway bunkers will result in a very difficult mid-iron shot into the green. The green is well bunkered and undulating, putting a premium on precise approaches to the correct side. Approaches that find the greenside bunkers will be left with the always tough, long bunker explosion shot.
Lakeside view of No.11 at TPC Kuala Lumpur
The 11th hole is a strategically and physically demanding, risk-reward 226-yard, par-3 that requires a full water carry to the long but narrow, and heavily undulating green. A swale divides the green in half with bunkers protecting the front and back. Tough front pin positions will yield plenty of birdies for players who leave their shots under the hole, but will also bring the water perilously into play off the tee.
No. 15 is a 199-yard, par-3 with an amphitheater green setting protected by a lake and extensive bunkering on the left, and a deep pot bunker on the right. The wide, undulating green makes long putts difficult to judge and holing putts will require great imagination. Aggressiveness to different hole locations can be disastrous, and short-siding yourself anywhere is a kiss of death. Most players will aim for the center of the green and try to just get out with a par. Misses to the right will have a simple chip to any right-side pin positions, but will leave a very demanding longer chip for pins tucked on the left.
Caddy+ view of the long par 5 18th at Kuala Lumpur
The 634-yard, par-5 18th is the longest hole on the course and provides a stern test from tee to green with nine bunkers peppering the entire length of the fairway. Players looking to attack this hole off the tee and go for the green in two will need a long, accurate drive between the first two bunkers. That will open up the option of a long approach into the green, bypassing the remaining fairway bunkers. For players who lay up, extreme care must be taken to avoid four strategically placed bunkers that can quickly turn No.18 into a bogey hole. Two deep bunkers guard the large, elevated, undulating green, and pin positions must be respected. Back-left pin positions are located on a raised tier making lengthy putts and chips off the green very challenging, while final day pin positions will be tucked away in the back right, bringing the viciously deep right-side pot bunker into play.
Players To Watch
Justin Thomas can become just the 18th player in history to win the same event back-to-back-to-back, and in the process join luminaries like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan, and Tiger Woods to have recorded the hat-trick. There’s no need to overthink this one. Thomas has destroyed TPC Kuala Lumpur in his previous two visits, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t dominate here again. Leave Justin out of your line-up at your own peril. Thomas to finish top-5.
Hideki Matsuyama has been a green-hitting machine at TPC Kuala Lumpur the past two years, finishing second here last year and fifth in 2015. In these two events, Hideki’s also an incredible 42-under par, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering he’s one of the best ball strikers on Tour and the conditions on the West Course are made for low scores. However, the last few times we’ve seen Matsuyama he’s been underwhelming to downright awful. Coming into the FedEx Cup Playoffs, Matsuyama was the highest-ranked player in the field but didn’t finish inside the top-20 at any of the events. More recently at the Presidents Cup Hideki was spraying shots all over Liberty Hill and looked like nothing resembling the No. 3 ranked player in the World. TPC Kuala Lumpur is course Matsuyama should flourish on, and he’ll start dialing it in sooner or later, but something’s definitely not right with Hideki these days. Steer away from Matsuyama this week and look for him to finish outside the top-15.
Brendan Steele has no problem going low or making birdies at TPC Kuala Lumpur. Two years ago at CIMB Steele was 20-under after just 54 holes, and last year he recorded only four bogies the entire tournament. Steele can run over this course with his power and he’s coming in with a hot putter after his victory last week at the Safeway Open. Brendan’s confidence has to be at an all-time high, and I expect him to pick up where he left off at Safeway, bomb, gouge, and devour the par-5s, and make it two straight wins to start the new season.