Easy pickings in Malaysia
Our golf expert Ben Coley previews the CIMB Classic and fancies Ernie Els and Bill Haas along with two others at bigger prices.
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The PGA Tour returns to Asia for the fourth renewal of the CIMB Classic, which for the first time takes its place on the schedule as a fully-fledged event, complete with riches which include a spot at Augusta for next year's Masters tournament.
That change in incentives should in theory increase the likelihood of a top-quality winner come Sunday, although in Ben Crane, Bo Van Pelt and Nick Watney this event can already boast a very strong roll-of-honour and one which itself demonstrates how difficult the Asia-based players find it to compete when the main event strides into town.
But the most significant change for us punters this year is probably the move from The Mines to Kuala Lumpur Golf & County Club, a venue familiar to most of us having helped stage several renewals of the European Tour's Malaysia Open.
The sub-7000 yard par-72 is lush and undulating, with water in play on several holes, but scoring should be low. Kiradech Aphibarnrat carded -13 for three rounds here in March and something in the region of Louis Oosthuizen's -17 total a year earlier should be on the agenda despite a limited field of 78 in what's a no-cut tournament.
Presidents Cup team-mates Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley hold sway at the head of the betting but while the USA's defeat of a decent International side features in the reasoning for my first selection, I'm looking further down the list to Bill Haas.
Haas is one of those players who tends not to feature in conversations about the best young(ish) American golfers - perhaps because he's younger than he looks at 31 but more likely because his solid all-round game is one which has no standout strengths. He drives it long and straight, he hits a lot of greens and he makes his share of putts but it's a game which doesn't carry quite the power of Dustin Johnson's nor quite the touch of Brandt Snedeker's.
What it does, though, is produce results on all sorts of golf courses, from the lights-out shooting of the multi-course Humana Challenge to the pressure-packed endurance test that is East Lake and the TOUR Championship. Since the start of 2010, Haas has five PGA Tour wins and two further play-off defeats yet he very rarely goes off a price which reflects just how frequently he contends.
I think that's the case this week and while it's hard to be certain as to whether the course will prove a perfect fit, the opportunity to attack four par-fives will certainly favour him and, as mentioned, his is a game which works anywhere.
Haas has played the last two renewals of this event, finishing 26th and 16th, and I'm hopeful he can progress further now and really contend for what would be a second title of 2013.
The timing looks perfect. As mentioned, Haas was a part of that victorious US Presidents Cup side and it may be no coincidence that Webb Simpson rediscovered the winning touch last week having played his part in it. I'm sure we all recall the aftermath of Europe's latest Ryder Cup success, when the likes of Ian Poulter, Rory McIlroy, Peter Hanson and Martin Kaymer went on to win individual titles.
The Presidents Cup was arguably of more importance to Haas than any other member of the US side, as his father Jay was one of the vice captains. "That's stuff I'll be able to tell my son about years from now," Haas said. "Webb's a guy that's going to be out there a bunch of years, and to be able to do that with my dad there as an assistant captain was great."
As touched upon in that quote, the aforementioned Simpson happens to be a close friend of Haas. Both attended Wake Forest and indeed that snippet comes from an interview they conducted together just last week when the pair reunited in North Carolina for a fundraising pro-am.
Clearly, it preceded a fine week for Simpson who had this to say about his friend: "It was really cool to play with Bill and to have Jay as an assistant captain. Bill and I had never played in a team event like that.
"And he played great all week, and I was able to help him a hole, or two but I was just watching Bill play great golf."
Simpson made a point of highlighting how close the Wake Forest alumni are to each other so Haas doesn't need to look far for inspiration as he prepares for a late-season run which includes the opportunity to represent his county in the World Cup, but before that he can add to his trophy haul here.
One factor we'll hear talked about all week is jet lag and it's hard to know what impact it'll have on players. Some will cope, some won't, but it's certainly an advantage to be acclimatised already and that's partly why Ernie Els makes the staking plan.
Els played in the Macau Open last week and while he'll probably have expected to win that low-key event, rounds of 71-65-69-67 mean he's tuned up for this event nicely and, crucially, is fully acclimatised.
That immediately gives him an edge on most of the field and unlike many of his opponents here he's fully accustomed to playing golf in Asia. In China he has a win and five further top-six finishes from just eight starts, in Korea he has three top-10 finishes in four, he's been runner-up three times in Singapore and was fifth at The Mines on his sole start in this event.
Els had been struggling with a hectic schedule on the PGA Tour but rediscovered something at the Dunhill Links, when the relaxed environment offered a welcome change from the FedEx Cup Playoffs, and while his short-range putting left something to be desired at the Presidents Cup he looked to be striking the ball beautifully.
Last week in Macau he averaged fewer than 27 putts per round and while that can be a misleading statistic, it does at least show he made his fair share from close range. Either way, his putting issues tend to be exaggerated and it wasn't that long ago he was carding 22 birdies and an eagle to win the BMW International Open in Germany.
Ultimately, Els looked close to the most likely winner of this event to me and anything upwards of 20/1 is more than fair considering that edge he has playing in this part of the world.
There's not much to tie together the three Americans who won this event at The Mines and even if there was, the switch in course would render it pretty much redundant. However, reading through past interviews one common theme does occur, that being how much they relished the opportunity to be in Malaysia and embraced the culture.
Certainly, it's going to help a player if they do that rather than find fault with hotels, cuisine or anything else, and that leads me to the affable Roberto Castro who I'm sure has been thoroughly looking forward to this opportunity.
Castro is known to be one of the more intelligent members of the PGA Tour and has diverse (and excellent) taste in music, while his Twitter account shows that he takes a keen interest in politics too. This of course doesn't guarantee a love for travel, but as a man with Italian heritage I'm willing to conclude he's going to really enjoy his time in the Far East.
If that's the case, then he could also enjoy success on a golf course which should suit a game not dissimilar to that of Haas, who he chased home at Congressional earlier this year. Castro is superb from tee-to-green and just needs the putter to warm up to contend, as it did when he jumped inside the top-10 on his first appearance in the TOUR Championship last time.
Qualifying for East Lake ensured Castro, who was educated in Georgia, a spot in next year's Masters, and I'm sure his new goals will include getting a first PGA Tour win. He's certainly playing well enough having registered a top-25 in all four FedEx Cup Playoff events and at 50/1 I'm willing to chance that first win comes here.
Finally, Sang-moon Bae looks worth a small play to gain what would be a second PGA Tour title following his success in the Byron Nelson earlier this season.
In truth, Bae hasn't gone on from that but his last strokeplay start ended in victory in the Shinhan Donghae Open and, like Els, he's now been back in Asia for some time and will be fully acclimatised.
Korean counterparts Charlie Wi and Seung-yul Noh have both won at this course on the European Tour while the Korean contingent have also enjoyed success at the venue when the LPGA Tour has visited, and when at his best I've little doubt Bae has the game to win at Kuala Lumpur.
We saw Korea's Jin Jeong win in Perth last week and with a bunch of victories in Asia already to his name, Bae looks overpriced at 100/1.
Of the remainder, Rickie Fowler kick-started his career with a first professional victory in Asia and has Japanese heritage so watch for him going well, while Seuk-hyun Baek has been playing superbly consistent golf and could register what would be a sixth top-10 in seven starts even in this better company - 8/1 about him doing so is certainly worth considering.