CIMB Classic Preview, Picks & Analysis
IT WAS at the CIMB Classic last year that Justin Thomas properly announced his arrival. Already a winner on the PGA Tour, the young American beat Hideki Matsuyama by three shots with rounds of 64, 66, 71 and 64 to finish on 23 under par. He had already won the tournament 12 months earlier, but last year's victory was the one that sparked a remarkable run.
Thomas won five times on the PGA Tour (more than anybody else), and put the icing on the cake with his sensational victory in the US PGA Championship. He shot a 59 on his way to winning the Sony Open and also threw in a 63 at the US Open at Erin Hills. Thomas is still only 24 years old and has already won six times on the PGA Tour.
At the Dell Technologies Championship, Thomas became just the fourth golfer to win five times, including a major, in a PGA Tour season since 1960 before his 25th birthday, joining Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, and Jordan Spieth. He then finished second in the Tour Championship, which was good enough to see him crowned FedEx Cup champion, which earned him a $10m bonus.
So all is good in the life of Justin Thomas, who is expected to continue his battle for supremacy with his best friend, Jordan Spieth. Thomas has no weaknesses - obviously. He hits the ball a mile and when he is really on song he seems to hole every putt he looks at.
He won the CIMB Classic in 2015 and 2016, it was won by Ryan Moore in 2013 and 2014, by Nick Watney in 2012, Bo Van Pelt in 2011 and Ben Crane in 2010.
Although this is the second event of the 2017-18 PGA Tour season, it is staged in Kuala Lumpur, and the players love it.
Matsuyama played poorly in the FedEx Cup Playoffs but he burst back to life in a losing cause during the Presidents Cup. The Japanese player was a four-time winner last season and early in the year he looked to be unbeatable. There are times when he seems to switch off and lose interest, but when he is in the mood he is a joy to watch. Like so many of today's top players, it almost goes without saying that Matsuyama regularly hits his driver in excess of 300 yards. At his best he seems to hit every iron shot to within 10 feet and seems to hole putts for fun.
He seems to have been around for years but, incredibly, is still only 25. Matsuyama has five PGA Tour wins to his credit and the only thing missing on his golfing CV is a major but he already has seven top-10 finishes to his credit at The Masters, US Open, The Open and US PGA. It is surely only a matter of time.
Thomas Pieters is determined to lay down an early marker in his bid to secure his place in Europe's Ryder Cup team. The Belgian is a hugely impressive golfer, but has made the mistake of simply not playing enough competitive golf in 2017. he has clearly decided to put that right and is desperate to to record his first victory on the PGA Tour.
Ian Poulter has had a busy, and relatively successful, few months. But victory remains elusive. It is difficult to believe that he came within a whisker of losing his PGA Tour card earlier this year. Since finishing second at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, the Englishman has consistently produced some of the best golf of his life. He has rededicated himself to golf and is now reaping the rewards.
And yet...golf fans love Poulter, but he got himself involved in a ridiculous row with a spectator at the British Masters during which he let fly with the f-word. He had been playing really well, but he has a tendency to blame everybody but himself when things start to go wrong, and he did himself no favours at Close House. The row has been well publicised and Poulter was forced to take to Twitter to apologise for both his language and his behaviour.
He has now got himself back up to 54th in the world rankings - if he can climb four places then he gets into all four majors in 2018, as well as all the WGC tournaments. And if he can do that, the chances are that he will be teeing up the ball for Europe's Ryder Cup team next year. Unfortunately, Paul Casey will not be doing so because he is no longer a member of the European Tour, and shows no inclination to rejoin.
Casey has earned millions of dollars on the PGA Tour in the past three years. Like Poulter, it is a long time since he last enjoyed a victory, but he is one of the best players in the world, as confirmed by his world ranking - he is now 14th. Casey is a brilliant ball striker and has discovered a new level of consistency in recent times. You can be certain that Thomas Bjorn, Europe's Ryder Cup captain, has been in touch with Casey and asked him to reconsider his stance in relation to the European Tour. There is not the slightest doubt that Bjorn's team would be better with Casey making up the numbers than without him.
And should be win the CIMB Classic the clamour for him to make that decision will only grow.
Each Win: Justin Thomas. Hard to bet against him
Each Way: Hideki Matsuyama. In brilliant form
Kevin Kisner. Ready to win again
Justin Thomas. Sensational year
Hideki Matsuyama. When he is in the mood he is unbeatable
Ian Poulter. Back to his best
Paul Casey. As consistent as anybody out there
Keegan Bradley, Playing well, still painfully slow though
Thomas Pieters. Has no weaknesses
Ollie Schniederjans. Fantastic young prospect
Jhonattan Vegas. Coming off an excellent season
Adam Hadwin. One of the most improved players on tour
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