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Friday, 14 December, 2018

Shubhankar Sharma should be Maybank Championship charmer

Indian youngster ready for further glory

Shubhankar Sharma was second on the greens in regulation statistics at Saujana last year
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Haotong Li upset Rory McIlroy's legion of fans in Dubai on Sunday, emerging triumphant in their duel, and the Chinese youngster is on the hunt for more silverware in the Maybank Championship.

Li is an 18-1 chance for victory in Kuala Lumpur this week, where world number 12 Henrik Stenson tops the market. Li finished fifth in the Maybank Championship last year, but Stenson has not teed up in a strokeplay event in Malaysia since 2005.

Palmer's top tip
Shubhankar Sharma 50-1

Henrik Stenson has started the season with eight under-par rounds, finishing eighth in Abu Dhabi and sixth in Dubai, but there is a general lack of sparkle about the 41-year-old Swede which makes him unattractive at short odds in Malaysia.

Stenson, who drove poorly in Abu Dhabi and had an ice-cold putter in Dubai, returns to this event after a 13-year absence and may need time to settle. Much preferred at the prices is a man who has already proved himself on the redesigned Palm Course at Saujana Country Club.

Shubhankar Sharma, a 21-year-old Indian who has made rapid strides up the world rankings in the last few weeks, finished ninth in the Maybank 12 months ago.

Sharma started 2017 languishing 517th in the rankings, yet he carded four under-par rounds at Saujana on a track which suits his precise style of play perfectly. Another European Tour top-ten finish came in the Hong Kong Open at the end of November at a similar venue, then his breakthrough came a fortnight later, when a brave frontrunning effort yielded a three-shot success in the Joburg Open.

Sharma was sensational in Joburg, fending off local man Erik van Rooyen and finishing six shots clear of those in third place, and subsequent outings have been solid. Form figures of 48-61 from Abu Dhabi and Dubai may not look impressive on paper, but Sharma was making his debut in both events, tackling world-class opposition who had much more course experience, and facing tracks which favoured sluggers.

Sharma could easily be developing into the greatest golfer India has ever produced and he should be supremely comfortable at Saujana. His first professional tournament outside India was in Malaysia, resulting in sixth place in the 2014 PGM Northport Glenmarie Championship on the Asian Development Tour, and he was third in Malaysia in the 2016 PGM Darul Aman Championship on the same circuit.

Next best
Joost Luiten 50-1

There is a passion and focus in comments this season from Joost Luiten, whose fifth and final European Tour victory came in September, 2016. It is time to claim another trophy and the determined Dutchman looks dangerous in this low-grade gathering in Malaysia. His European Tour breakthrough came in Malaysia – the 2011 Johor Open.

Luiten's desire to make an explosive start to this term was handicapped by sudden and severe toothache on the Saturday of the Abu Dhabi Championship, where he slumped to a two-over-par weekend, feeling dizzy throughout. He spent a total of nine hours in the dentist's chair, his third session of root canal treatment ending on the eve of the Dubai Desert Classic. With such poor preparation, there was no disgrace in missing the cut by a shot.

He is fit and healthy for Malaysia and ready to make amends. Luiten, who turned 32 earlier this month and is in his prime, played superbly in the Andalucia Masters at the end of October. He pushed the local hero, Sergio Garcia, all the way, finishing runner-up by a shot. Luiten's iron-play was magnificent and he ended up four shots clear of the man in third spot.

Those fireworks in Spain came on a Valderrama layout where accuracy is paramount and Luiten has the right tools to flourish on his Saujana debut. As well as that Johor Open triumph in the book, he has steady Maybank form figures of 49-17-20-22-15.

Other selections
Wade Ormsby 100-1
Jason Scrivener 70-1
Jazz Janewattananond 125-1
Gavin Green 80-1

The Hong Kong Open is a good guide to how players will handle the Maybank Championship – both are tight, fiddly tests in Asia where inaccuracy is severely punished and the greens are full of grain. Wade Ormsby is Hong Kong champion and the straight-hitting Australian could easily be a factor in Kuala Lumpur.

Ormsby made his European Tour breakthrough in Hong Kong at the age of 37 and broke into the top 100 of the world rankings for the first time this month. Self-belief has never been greater and two narrow missed cuts on unsuitable tracks in Abu Dhabi and Dubai do nothing to change that.

Ormsby finished 26th at Saujana when a European Tour rookie in 2004. He missed the cut by a shot on his only subsequent visit (2009), but that came straight after an unsuccessful and confidence-denting season on the Web.com Tour.

Jason Scrivener, third and tenth in his two starts in Hong Kong, is another accurate Aussie who should thrive on the Palm Course. The 28-year-old landed his maiden Australasian Tour victory with a six-shot romp in the NSW Open at the end of November and sixth place in Dubai last week, where he carded rounds of 70, 68, 68, 66 and topped the driving accuracy stats, was a fantastic effort on an unsuitable track.


Phoenix Open tournament preview


Complete a team of big-priced runners with talented youngsters Jazz Janewattananond and Gavin Green. Janewattananond, who bravely emerged from European Tour Q-School, finished fourth in the Singapore Open the week before last and booked an Open spot in the process. The tidy Thai made an emotional Asian Tour breakthrough last February, then played in the Maybank the following week. Exhaustion is likely to have caused his missed cut.

Green, a local boy who lifted multiple trophies at Saujana in his amateur days, won the Asian Tour Order of Merit last year and is becoming one of the leading lights of his continent. He earned two points from a possible three in the EurAsia Cup in the middle of last month, then followed up with eighth place in Singapore.

Green has just recruited an experienced caddie – Scotsman Mark Crane, who previously carried for Paul Casey and Chris Wood, has replaced Green's father – and the 24-year-old looks to be going places. Bursting with effortless power, Green will be hitting long-irons off many of the par-fours at Saujana, something he says he enjoys.

Others to note
Jeunghun Wang
The Korean ace has bounced back to form this year, dropping only four shots in total through the 144 holes of the Abu Dhabi Championship and Desert Classic, finishing 15th and sixth.

Phachara Khongwatmai
The Thai teenager is another Asian dangerman. He won the 2015 Rahman Putra Championship in Kuala Lumpur on the Asian Development Tour, was 20th at Saujana last year, and was second in the Indonesian Masters just before Christmas.

Gaganjeet Bhullar
The accurate Indian has won eight times on the Asian Tour and craves a place on the European Tour. This is an excellent opportunity on a layout which suits.

Richie Ramsay
The straight-hitting Scot is thrilled with his form and tied for sixth spot in Dubai on Sunday. Could be a contender in Kuala Lumpur if he can handle the intense heat.

Alexander Bjork
The Swede was runner-up in the Hong Kong Open in November and appreciates a test of accuracy. Finished in the logjam for sixth place in Dubai last week.

Bernd Wiesberger
The giant Austrian made nine birdies in a row in round two of this event last year, eventually finishing third. Course-proven, but no value given how tentative he is over short putts.

Staking plan
S Sharma
2pts each-way 50-1 general
J Luiten
2pts each-way 50-1 Coral
W Ormsby
1pt each-way 100-1 Coral
J Scrivener
1pt each-way 70-1 BoyleSports
J Janewattananond
0.5pt each-way 125-1 Betfred, SkyBet
G Green
0.5pt each-way 80-1 Coral


Saujana Golf and Country Club

THE LOWDOWN

Course Palm Course, Saujana Golf and Country Club, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Prize money €3m (€403,388 to the winner)

Length 7,186 yards

Par 72

Field 156

Course winners taking part Lee Westwood, Thongchai Jaidee (twice), Anthony Kang, Fabrizio Zanotti

Course records – 72 holes 267 Thongchai Jaidee (2005) 18 holes 62 Seung-yul Noh, Raphael Jacquelin (2009 with preferred lies, so unofficial), 64 Tse-peng Chang (1999), Thongchai Jaidee (2004 and 2005), Henrik Stenson (2005), Thomas Bjorn (2005)

When to bet By 11.40pm Wednesday

Where to watch Live on Sky Sports from 7.30am Thursday

Time difference Malaysia is eight hours ahead of the UK and Ireland

Last week – Dubai Desert Classic 1 H Li (110-1), 2 R McIlroy (5-1), 3 T Hatton (25-1), 4 A Levy (55-1), 5 C Paisley (80-1)

Course overview Saujana Country Club, which opened in 1986, hosted the Malaysian Open on the European Tour six times (1999, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2009). From 1962 to 1998 it was an Asian Tour event, with Saujana the venue three times (1988, 1997, 1998). The Maybank Championship was created in 2016, replacing the Malaysian Open on the schedule, with Royal Selangor Golf Club the venue. Saujana took over last year. Carved out of a former palm and rubber plantation and set among rolling hills and lakes, Saujana has two championship courses – the Palm Course and the Bunga Raya Course – both designed by Ronald Fream. The Palm, as for all the most significant events, will be used this week. It was upgraded and lengthened prior to last year, and is nicknamed The Cobra by locals who consider it one of the toughest tracks in the world. With five par-fours of under 400 yards, though, and two par-fives on each nine, the European Tour's finest find it a fairly straightforward assignment. Tight, palm-lined, undulating fairways, and fast, tricky greens, provide a decent test of precision and touch. The back nine traditionally plays easier than the front

Story of last year Fabrizio Zanotti fired a final-round 63 with preferred lies, closing with an eagle to deliver a one-shot success over David Lipsky

Weather forecast Baking conditions and no wind are set to make this a testing week physically for the competitors. A threat of short thunderstorms throughout

Type of player suited to challenge Saujana demands straight driving along tight, tree-lined fairways, and the touch of an angel on undulating greens. Asian players will be more comfortable in the oppressive heat

Key attribute Accuracy


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Sharma was sensational in Joburg, fending off local man Erik van Rooyen and finishing six shots clear of those in third place
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