The European Tour officials certainly liked a ‘double-header’ when designing this year’s schedule. There were two weeks in the Middle East, then two weeks in Australia, followed by two weeks back in the Middle East before a single week in Africa and now there are two weeks in Asia.
If anyone had played in all the European Tour events this year, they would have covered over 30,000 kilometres already.
For the fifth year in a row, the first European Tour event of the year in Asia is played in Malaysia. Previously, it was the Malaysian Open and, since 2016, it has been the Maybank Championship. There has been a European Tour event played in Malaysia since 1999.
The European Tour has sanctioned an event at Saujana G&CC in each of the last two years of the Maybank Championship, plus the Malaysian Opens in 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009. While that means that there is plenty of course history, particularly as there have also been Asian Development Tour events here, it is rather dated apart from the last two years.
The focus on the last two years is reinforced by the course renovations that took place in 2015, including the addition of two new holes being used in the tournament layout.
But the last two years haven’t provided many traditional angles to finding the winner. When Fabrizio Zanotti won in 2017, he ranked 31st for greens in regulation and 1st for scrambling; when Shubhankar Sharma won last year, he ranked 5th for greens in regulation and 54th in scrambling.
Sharma had finished 9th on this course the previous year before his win, but Zanotti was making his course debut. And neither player was in particularly good form: Sharma had finished 48th and 61st in his two starts in 2018, while Zanotti had missed all three previous cuts in 2017.
However, there is still enough information about the Maybank Championships and Malaysian Opens to identify three profitable angles.
Angles to consider
1. Previous success in Asia
As outlined above, this event or the Malaysian Open has been the first event of the year in Asia for the last five years. Before that, it had been the Avantha Masters in India and then Malaysia, but before the Avantha Masters, the Malaysian Open was traditionally the first Asian event on the European Tour schedule. Given that travelling and, more importantly, change of climate is always a factor for the European Tour players in this event, it is no surprise that strong form leading up to this event has not been particularly important.
A look at the winners of this event and the Malaysian Open reveals plenty of top-10 finishes in this region prior to the win in Malaysia. Sharma had recorded top-10 finishes in five different Asia countries before his win in 2018; Zanotti had recorded two top-10 finishes in Asia; Marcus Fraser had recorded 16 top-10 finishes in Asia, including a win in South Korea, before winning the 2016 Maybank Championship; Anirban Lahiri had recorded 33 top-10 finishes in Asia, including five wins, before winning the 2015 Malaysian Open; and Lee Westwood recorded 15 top-finishes in Asia, including six wins, before winning the 2014 Malaysian Open.
2. Previous success on this Tour
This, like the Malaysian Open before it, is a co-sanctioned event between the European and Asian PGA Tours. As such, the prize money is much higher than a regular Asian PGA Tour event and the Tour exemption from is far more lucrative, so the ability to win at Asian PGA Tour level is a necessary step before winning at this level. Similarly, the ability to win a co-sanctioned event in unfamiliar climates is greatly aided by previous success at European Tour level.
This is borne out when looking at the winners of this event and the Malaysian Open. Since 2003, every winner of the flagship Malaysian had won at least one on either the European or the Asian PGA Tour. The last person to make this their debut Tour win was Alastair Forsyth in 2002 and he needed a playoff to defeat Stephen Leaney who had already won three European Tour titles.
3. Par-4 scoring is key around Saujana
The par-3s are long – 193, 203, 200 and 194 yards, while the par-4s are much more varied – there are five under 400 yards, but the toughest hole is always the 493-yard 2nd hole. This makes the par-4s more important than usual in scoring terms and that has been reflected in the winners. Sharma ranked 2nd in par-4 scoring in 2018 (vs 4th for par-3 scoring and 12th for par-5 scoring) and Zanotti also ranked 2nd in par-4 scoring when winning in 2017 (he ranked 7th for par-3 scoring and 10th for par-5 scoring).
The above angles have been used to create a shortlist from which the following player has been selected.
While course form was clearly not important when he won in 2017 as he was making his debut, it was not such a hindrance that week as the course hadn’t been used for a Tour event for eight years and had undergone major renovation in 2015. Being a winner here two years ago can only help Zanotti as a previous top-10 finish here helped Sharma last year.
As has already been outlined, Zanotti has had previous success in Asia as well as on this course, and his win here in 2017 was his second European Tour win, having already won the 2014 BMW International Open. His par-4 scoring stats have been good this year and he has also played very well in 2019 with finishes of 32nd, 29th, 24th, 2nd and 11th against much stronger fields in the Middle East events.
Those finishes hide strong in-tournament performances – he had been 11th after rd1 of the Abu Dhabi Championship, 10th after rd2 of the Dubai Desert Classic, 4th after rd2 of the Saudi International, and he led by a shot with one round to play in the Oman Open. He would lose that event by a single shot after four-putting the 16th hole and so it is worth noting that both his European Tour wins came from off the pace: he was five shots back and in 8th place at the start of the final round of the 2014 BMW International Open and he was six shots back and in 9th place at the start of the final round of the 2017 Maybank Championship.
For all his obvious appeal this week, he may not be the most reliable player under pressure.
6pts Fabrizio Zanotti to finish in the top-five 13/2 (Paddy Power and Betfair Sportsbook)