We have a new event on the European Tour with the Maybank Championship Malaysia now added to the schedule. It's taken the place of the Maybank Malaysian Open on the calendar but will remain in Kuala Lumpur. A number of big names will line up at Royal Selangor GC which was last seen on the main stage in 2002.
The Northern Trust Open from Riviera is the second big event of the PGA Tour Calendar year with a number of marquee players claiming Riviera Country club is one of - if not their favourite - stop on Tour. It's a major-like set up that suits the bombers, and players like Dustin Johnson - 17.00 - and Bubba Watson thrive here. I've described this event as "a major within a major" in the past and I'll go with that theme again with the cream usually rising to the top of the boards.
The markets - Northern Trust Open
Along with Bubba and DJ, Jimmy Walker - 26.00 - and Keegan Bradley - 67.00 - rate the Northern Trust Open highly - as their favourite event even - while Bill Haas and Sergio Garcia are two more that love Riviera - the former a past champion here. Jordan Spieth - 6.50 - and Rory McIlroy - 8.50 - will tee it up together on the PGA Tour for the first time this year as they resume their battle for the no. 1 spot in the rankings
A decent field assembles for the inaugural Malaysian Championship with much of the desert swing contingent making the trip to Kuala Lumpur. Latest Dubai Desert Classic winner Danny Willett - 9.00 - surprisingly makes the field with his wife expecting, and he leads the market. Nearly man, Rafa Cabrera Bello - 23.00 - is in the form of his life showing a progressive 22-14-2-2 streak. Louis Oosthuizen has had a couple of out of character weeks but he's enjoyed success at the Malaysian Open in Kuala Lumpur and can't be discounted at 19.00.
The courses, features and trends
An old school treelined track circa 7,000 yards is how this week's Selangor venue for the Malaysian Championship (old and new course composite) has been described by a number of the pros. Mature trees and lush greenery are a feature. It seems from reputable official sources that many "tactical surprises" await and top course management, strategic skills and thinking will be required to score well after some recent remodelling: "the challenging course with several elevated greens has recently undergone extensive renovations and provides a tropical parkland setting with perhaps distracting views of the Petronas Twin Towers, which add to the demands of accurate golf shot execution". The leaderboard from 2002 shows mostly a trend of strategic plotters but the likes of bomber Ricardo Gonzalez also featured. In fact , 5 of the top 10 were also ranked in the top 10 for driving distance so rule out bombers at your peril.
Playing 7,322 yards to a par 71, Riviera is unique in that it employs a strain of Kikuyu grass. Steve Rintoul is the man with the plan behind PGA Tour scenes and last year he described the grass at Riviera as like "Bermuda on Steroids" and referenced the term "brillo pad". He talks about how they've tightened things up at Riviera and about "risk / reward scenarios". Fast, firm conditions with tough pin placements and long irons into undulating surfaces set at 12-13 on the stimp has been the theme at Riviera down the years. In 2014, William McGirt chatted about how he and other shorter hitters would have little chance if it wasn't playing so firm with lots of run and bounce. Aesthetically, Riviera is always in pristine condition with an Augusta like feel to it and like the Masters venue, there's room for some errant shots, despite the tree line.
Footnote: back the bigger hitters here
Top betting tips - Northern Trust Open
Bubba Watson - 19.00 or 4.75 - loves to shape a shot, both from the tee and into challenging pin positions and that's why he's a winner at both the Augusta and Riviera venues. Augusta and Riviera are also in the same boat in terms of players being able to get away with some wild drives.The tougher the better for Bubba and we are seeing what for me is an inflated price in some places following a 3rd round MC in a pro-am format at Pebble which he was probably never likely to enjoy. Bubba ranks 4th in ball striking in 2016.
Another man with nothing bad to say about Riviera CC is Sergio Garcia - 31.00 or 7.00 - and it's hard to find Sergio upbeat about much these days: "the kind of course that is asking you to hit the proper shots" is how the Spaniard describes the track and there are not many better ball strikers in the game than Sergio who just missed out on a playoff here in 2015. In three visits since 2012 the Spaniard has averaged 7th at Riviera CC. Garcia warmed up with a top 10 at another ball strikers paradise in Qatar.
Malaysian Championship tips
Soren Kjeldsen - 34.00 or 7.00 - is my main bet this week. He fits what is the apparent course profile perfectly and has been in fine form for a year now since winning the Irish Open on another track requiring supreme accuracy. Kjeldsen was also T2 at the British Masters in 2015 and has started 2016 with progressive T54 - T20 - T8 finishes on the desert swing. He rounded off in Dubai with a weekend 66-68. Soren has experience at Royal Selangor having totalled -5 for the 4 rounds back in the 2002 Malaysian Open.
Scott Hend - 71.00 or 15.00 - also looks big value here. I said don't rule out the big hitters and despite Scott topping the driving distance stats in Dubai, and destroying the par 5s, he was also 13th for driving accuracy. Hend has played most of his golf in this part of the world and is a multiple winner on the Asian circuit. Arguably his best result to date though came came at Hong Kong GC in Fanling in a European and Asian Tour co - sanctioned event. Fanling is a short, treelined track - arguably one of the tightest on the schedule, requiring strategic play. Hend comes fresh off a top 10 in Dubai.