With 50 tournaments per year, the PGA Tour travels to a great number of locations with awe-inspiring aesthetics. Arguably, none of those venues are more picturesque than the tropical backdrop of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the site of this week’s CIMB Classic.
The exotic scenery itself makes the CIMB a worthy watch, but there is also going to be world-class golf played. A rich 78-man field is highlighted by recently-throned FedExCup Champion and PGA Tour Player of the Year Justin Thomas.
The 24-year-old PGA Champion has taken the past two CIMB Classics, and with his rapidly increasing profile, the average gambler would be lucky to find odds on Thomas that are tantamount to what they could get on picking the Golden State Warriors to win 50 games in the upcoming season.
High expectations bring high pressure, however, and PGA Tour stars such as Hideki Matsuyama, Xander Schauffele, and Paul Casey are certainly not going to sit back and do nothing while Thomas cruises his way around TPC Kuala Lumpur.
If Thomas is going to go back-to-back-to-back, an incredible feat at any event on Tour, he is going to have to earn it. Given his past 12 months, he is very likely up to that challenge.
CIMB CLASSIC HISTORY
Malaysia has been the home of the CIMB Classic since its 2010 inception, with the first three editions being played at The Mines Resort & Club, and then moved permanently to TPC Kuala Lumpur – a course with a great reputation for being one of the most scenic venues in Asia.
The first CIMB (2010) was won by Ben Crane, and has since been won by Bo Van Pelt, Nick Watney, Ryan Moore (twice), and Justin Thomas (twice).
While the CIMB Classic field is traditionally small, it is sanctioned by both the PGA and Asian Tours, which leads to a unique mix of great players from all over the planet.
As a no-cut event, the $7 million purse is spread out over all 78 players entered.
Tournament: CIMB Classic
Course: TPC Kuala Lumpur (West)
Where: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Distance: 7005 yards, par 72
Architect: E&G Parslow
Winning Share: $1,260,000
FedExCup Points: 500
The defending champion of the CIMB Classic is Justin Thomas, the recent winner of the 2017 FedExCup.
Starting the final round four strokes behind 54-hole leader Anirban Lahiri, Thomas successfully defended his 2015 title with a sizzling final-round 8-under 64 that included birdies on four of his five holes.
The bogey-free final round got Thomas to 23-under for the tournament, three strokes clear of Hideki Matsuyama and four strokes ahead of Lahiri and Derek Fathauer.
2016: Justin Thomas
2015: Justin Thomas
2014: Ryan Moore
2013: Ryan Moore
2012: Nick Watney
2011: Bo Van Pelt
2010: Ben Crane
Low Round: 61 (Nick Watney, Justin Thomas)
Lowest Final Score (The Mines Resort & Club): 261 (Bo Van Pelt, 2011)
Lowest Final Score (TPC Kuala Lumpur): 262 (Justin Thomas, 2015)
TV & ONLINE
Round 1 (Wednesday): 10:30 PM – 2:30 AM (Golf Channel)
Round 2 (Thursday): 10:30 PM – 2:30 AM (Golf Channel)
Round 3 (Friday): 11:00 PM – 3:00 AM (Golf Channel)
Round 4 (Saturday): 11:00 PM – 3:00 AM (Golf Channel)
Online: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram
STORYLINE 1: THOMAS SEEKS THREE-PEAT
Justin Thomas winning the 2015 CIMB Classic was a minor surprise, as he was just 22 years old and had yet to win on Tour. Some more erudite golf fans had Thomas on their radar from the promise he had shown mostly as an amateur, but he was not especially well-known, at least not yet.
When Thomas won the same tournament in 2016, more people were aware of who he was. He had put up a number of excellent results, but going into the tournament, his only Tour victory had been the previous year’s CIMB.
Nearly everyone had him pegged as an up-and-comer, and being ranked 35th in the world well-reflected that, but he was still more well-known for being close with Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler than for anything he had done as a professional, fair or not.
Now, going into this this year’s CIMB Classic, the two-time defending champion is not just one of the most accomplished and well-known golfers on the PGA Tour, he is one of the brightest young stars in sports.
In the past year, Thomas, now 24-years-old and ranked No. 4 in the world, has accumulated five victories, a major championship (PGA Championship), a FedExCup Championship, and to top all that off, a PGA Tour Player of the Year award.
To say that Thomas has arrived would be an enormous understatement. He now gets red carpet treatment everywhere he goes.
With tremendous recent form and an obvious affinity for TPC Kuala Lumpur, Thomas is the clear favorite in a field that is demonstrably weaker than the field at his most recent victory, the Dell Technologies Championship, a FedExCup Playoff event.
That being said, it will not be easy. There is a reason that so few players have three-peated at any event; the expectations are very high and everyone will be gunning for him.
Thomas has shown little trouble dealing with pressure in his young career, but it is still something he will be contending with.
A high finish in this event would not just be “nice” like it was the past two years, it is expected for a player of his caliber. That makes this year’s CIMB much different than the past two for Thomas.
STORYLINE 2: SCHAUFFELE’S SOPHOMORE CAMPAIGN
Speaking of rising profiles, a year ago at this time, hardly anyone knew who Xander Schauffele was. Then just 22 years old, he narrowly received his PGA Tour card via the Web.com Tour Finals after falling barely outside the top 25 on the Web.com Tour season money list.
As much as he probably would have loved to have played in Kuala Lumpur last year, he was the world’s 379th ranked golfer, and did not yet have the cache to make a CIMB-esque field.
One year later, he can play any event he wants, anywhere he wants.
The unflappable 23-year-old won twice in his rookies PGA Tour season, taking The Greenbrier Classic in July, and even more impressively, winning the Tour Championship just a few weeks ago.
Finishing No. 3 in the final FedExCup standings, Schauffele was an easy pick for PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. Now, at No. 32 in the world, Schauffele is one of the highest ranked players in the field, and he might be hotter than any golfer on the planet right now, save maybe Justin Thomas.
It would not be shocking if he gets in the way of Thomas’ three-peat, the same way he outdueled Thomas for victory in the final leg of the FedExCup playoffs.
Schauffele’s sophomore campaign begins this week in Malaysia.
STORYLINE 3: LAHIRI BACK FOR MORE
For the second consecutive tournament, India’s Anirban Lahiri is getting a shot at redemption.
Two weeks ago, he was playing in New Jersey as a member of the Presidents Cup International squad. Lahiri was a captain’s pick of Nick Price, despite having missed a late 4-foot putt at the previous Presidents Cup, which would have earned his team a point they desperately needed (they lost by one point).
Rewarding Price’s confidence in him, Lahiri posted a 1-1-1 record, one of just two players on the International side without a losing record (Louis Oosthuizen).
Lahiri played especially well in a late Saturday team match that prevented the Americans from clinching the cup before the final day, something that would have been very embarrassing for the already-dejected Internationals.
Now, the 31-year-old is looking to make it 2-for-2. In last year’s CIMB Classic, Lahiri blew a four-stroke 54-hole lead, which was mostly imputed to a quadruple-bogey 9 on the par-5 3rd hole.
He did well to finish at even-par for the day, but by then, Justin Thomas and Hideki Matsuyama had long passed him. It was a crushing loss, but one Lahiri is likely to have learned from. A win this week in Malaysia would be the first of his PGA Tour career.
STORYLINE 4: INTERNATIONAL FLAVOR
As a tournament that is sanctioned by both the PGA Tour and the Asian Tour, the CIMB Classic annually hosts a number of players that PGA fans would rarely, if ever, see otherwise. Here are a few of note this week:
China has failed to register much in the history of golf, which can be largely blamed on their government, but with 22-year-old Hao Tong Li, the world’s most populous country seems to have found a star.
Li had already won three times in Asia and once in Europe, but really did not become well-known to fans in U.S. until he put together an impressive final round in England to finish T3 at last season’s Open Championship.
This will be his first time at the CIMB.
Now 44 years old, Malaysia’s Danny Chia was a stud in the amateur world in the mid-90s, and won regularly on several Asia-based Tours.
Over the past decade, his play has dropped off dramatically, and he has done very little in PGA events, but as a Malysian, he will get a lot of fanfare at TPC Kuala Lumpur, although that was also true last year and he finished dead last in the 78-man field.
At 17-over for the week, he finished six strokes behind Soomin Lee for second-to-last place.
Like Chia, the 27-year-old Nicholas Fung is a native of Malaysia, which should make him popular with the local golf fans.
Fung has 13 career professional titles in various Asia-based Tours, and won his first Asian Tour title back in June at the Queen’s Cup, a tournament traditionally dominated by Thai golfers.
OTHER NOTABLES IN THE FIELD
This will be Casey’s first full season of his 40s, hitting that age on Friday of the Open Championship last July.
He has put together an extremely impressive recent string of strong results, finishing T13 or better in seven of his last eight tournaments, including one T4 and four T5s.
However, questions about his inability to close have to be getting exhausting. The paychecks that come with all these high finishes are very nice, but his reputation is going to continue to take a hit until he finally wins a PGA event, something he has not done since 2009.
This will be Casey’s fourth consecutive trip to Kuala Lumpur, but the course has puzzled him in his first three attempts, as a T21 in 2016 is his best finish to date.
Si Woo Kim
Of the three players in the field with the surname ‘Kim’, 22-year-old South Korean Si Woo is the most accomplished having won twice on Tour, including a win at the most recent THE PLAYERS Championship.
Outside of that tremendous victory in the PGA’s flagship event, however, Kim’s 2017 season had very few highlights, and for the most part, was downright terrible.
Scores of 6-under 66 in rounds two and four at last year’s CIMB led to his second-best result of the season: a T10.
In his most recent outing, Kim represented the international squad at the Presidents Cup and went 1-2-0, losing his Sunday Singles match against Daniel Berger.
Despite being in terrible recent form and basically running on fumes, Matsuyama pulled off one of the shockers of the Presidents Cup when he came out victorious in his Sunday singles match 3 & 1 over a red-hot Justin Thomas.
He was an enormous liability for the Internationals in team play, however, and is also coming off a poor FedExCup playoff run despite entering them at No. 1 in the standings.
All that being said, Matsuyama still is coming off an incredible season where he won three times, and he was the runner-up at this tournament last year.
Perhaps after getting some much-needed rest this past week, he will again flash that form that got him to No. 3 in the current Official World Golf Rankings.
The ostentatious Englishman Poulter did well at last year’s CIMB, finishing T17 despite coming off a long injury playoff that truncated his 2016 season.
The finish sparked his best PGA season in years, as he made the cut in 16 of 20 events, with over $2 million in earnings, and finished in the top three of two tournaments: a T2 at THE PLAYERS and a T3 at the RBC Canadian Open.
Fresh off his surprising demolition of Jordan Spieth on Sunday at the Presidents Cup, the notoriously streaky Vegas may be back on the rise, which could be a scary sign for the field.
This will be the Venezuelan’s third try at Kuala Lumpur, most recently finishing T45 at last year’s event.