In the second leg of the LPGA’s Asian Swing, Australia’s Minjee Lee continued her excellent run of form with a second win in four starts in the BMW Ladies Championship in South Korea; denying Alison Lee a breakthrough LPGA win in a playoff.
The tour moves on to Malaysia this week, for the inaugural edition of the Maybank Championship at Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club’s (TPC Kuala Lumpur) West Course.
Though this is the first staging of this tournament, the LPGA has been to Malaysia before, as recently as 2017.
The Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia ran for seven years from 2010-2017 and took place at the East Course here at Kuala Lumpur G&CC. We saw victories for players such as Inbee Park and Lexi Thompson over those eight events, before Cristie Kerr won what turned out to be the last renewal in 2017.
However, players are in for a different challenge at this longer and more renowned West Course for this new event.
Kuala Lumpur G&CC’s West Course was originally designed by the Nelson and Haworth design team and opened for play in 1991; then going through an extensive renovation at the hands of Parslow and Winter Golf Design, the results of which were on show in 2008.
While this is the first time that the LPGA’s best will be tested at the West Course this week, it has held various high profile events over the years. Most notably it hosted the CIMB Classic on the PGA Tour from 2013-2018 and the Malaysian Open on the DPWT/Asian Tour in 2006 and again from 2010-2015.
The course is a par 72 and will play to 6596 yards. It contains ten par 4s (332-435 yards), four par 5s (469-526 yards) and four par 3s (147-196 yards).
The attractive West Course at Kuala Lumpur G&CC is built on naturally hilly terrain and possesses elevation changes throughout. Many holes are tree-lined, densely so in places and water is another prominent feature; in-play on eleven holes, seven of which come over the back nine.
The undulating fairways are deceptively tough to find, with many relatively narrow and the ones that look a little more generous are well protected by strategically placed bunkers that tighten the landing area. Many of these fairway bunkers are high-lipped, therefore tricky to play out of and the two-and-a-half inch thick bermudagrass rough could also cause problems if inaccurate off the tee.
This will put pressure on approaches into the elevated bermudagrass greens, which are on the large side and relatively slow. However, many are angled and either long and narrow or wide and shallow; with the sloping greens abound with run-offs and false-fronts, you will be penalised if not hitting the correct spots.
The course is far from easy, though I do think strong ball-striking will be rewarded with countless birdie looks. The par 3s are a challenging bunch but the par 5s will all be within distance for most in two, whilst there are several shorter par 4s, two of which will be sub-280 yards and potentially drivable over the course of the week: the 14th will play as short as 245 yards and the 16th as short as 271 yards. Though with water in-play on both, they do come attached with risks.
§ SG: Approach
§ SG: Off-the-Tee and/or Driving Accuracy
§ SG: Putting (Bermudagrass)
§ Par 5 Scoring
We don’t have the benefit of evidence from this tour for what it will take to win here but I’m keen to favour those who excel in ball-striking this week; a route in that is strengthened by wins for the likes of Justin Thomas and Lee Westwood.
With greens that are already soft likely to be made even softer by conditions, I’m particularly inclined to favour the very best iron players in the field. Strong driving, whether that being in possessing the length to overpower certain holes or the accuracy to hit the right spots of these sloping fairways should also be a plus.
A proven ability on slowish bermudagrass greens will be an obvious advantage whilst players who are best able to master the par 5s will go a long way towards getting themselves well in contention here.
I’m not concentrating too much on comp events this week as this is a new event at a new course. Having said that, there are a couple of courses that I felt would at least offer somewhat of a similar test from tee to green.
These are Palos Verdes Golf Club, which hosted the Palos Verdes Championship last year and this year’s LA Open, along with the Evian Resort that hosts the Evian Championship, one of five majors in the women’s game. Both courses are tree-lined and hilly, with elevation changes a constant factor.
First and foremost, I just hope we get the event completed this week. The hot, humid conditions mean that thunderstorms are forecast everyday prior and during the event. This will bring about plenty of rain and with a lack of wind, scoring conditions should be favourable when players are out on the course.
We don’t quite have the field strength of last week’s BMW Ladies Championship but it’s still a strong group of players heading to Malaysia this week. World #2, Ruoning Yin is the highest ranked player in the field and is joined by five more from inside the top 10: #3 Jin Young Ko, #5 Celine Boutier, #6 Nelly Korda, #9 Lydia Ko and #10 Allisen Corpuz.
Leona Maguire and Cheyenne Knight make their first starts of the Asian Swing whilst there is a strong home presence. Which includes former #7 amateur, Natasha Oon, who has been lighting up the
Epson Tour this season, winning for the first time two starts ago and ranks 2nd on that tour’s money list, meaning we will see her on the big stage full-time next season.
Atthaya Thitikul is our 10/1 favourite this week, followed by Jin Young Ko and Nelly Korda at 12/1. Ruoning Yin was tempting at 18/1, though her approach play has gone off the boil over recent starts and she is passed over in favour of recent first-time LPGA winner, Hae Ran Ryu as my first selection this week.
Hae Ran Ryu
Ryu is playing her rookie season on the LPGA this year, after leading the way in the LPGA Q-School at the end of 2022. She spent all of her early years as a professional at home in Korea on the KLPGA, where she won five times from 2019-2022.
She has been a revelation on tour this season, missing just three cuts in twenty-one starts. Eleven of those starts have resulted in a top 20, six in a top 10 and just three starts ago she recorded her first LPGA win in the Arkansas Championship, with a commanding three-stroke victory over Linnea Strom.
Ryu has played well in the first two events of the Asian Swing, finishing 21st in China two weeks ago before a 16thplace finish in Korea. On both occasions we’ve seen her typical strengths come to the fore, as she’s been one of the best ball-strikers, ranking 2nd in greens-in-regulation in each tournament and no worse than 18th in either approach or off-the-tee.
These assets have been replicated season long, as she ranks 3rd in GIR, 9th in approach and 29th OTT. Additionally, she’s a solid 31st in driving accuracy and scores well enough on the par 5s, ranking 41st.
An 18th on her only try at Palos Verdes earlier this year is proof that Ryu can handle the quirks of a course such as this and I’m taking her to pick up a second LPGA title in pretty swift fashion this week.
Megan Khang made her first start since the Solheim Cup and first stroke play start in seven weeks in last week’s BMW Ladies Championship, finishing 34th. I’m hoping any cobwebs will have been shaken off there and like Ryu, think she can follow up on a recent first LPGA win quickly, this week in Malaysia.
Khang has been knocking on the door for several years now but this can be seen as a breakthrough year for the American. She started the year solidly if a little subdued but really found her stride as major season kicked into full gear.
A 3rd-place finish in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship was her best ever major finish and she added another top 10 two starts later in the Evian Championship. Promising efforts of 30th and 28th in the UK followed, before finally earning her first professional win in the CPKC Women’s Open three starts ago. Impressively seeing off prolific winner, Jin Young Ko in a playoff.
Khang then teed it up the following week in the Portland Classic finishing 6th and that was her last stroke play start before last week’s effort in Korea. However in between that was an excellent Solheim Cup experience, where she was the star of the US team, going through the event undefeated and earning 3.5 points from a possible 4.
She’s the 3rd-best tee-to-green player on the LPGA this season, owing especially to her strength in approach, ranking 4th. Her strong ball-striking profile is completed by rankings of 8th in GIR, 13th in driving accuracy and 24th OTT; a skillset that should see her to a good showing here.
A 3rd at Palos Verdes and two top 10s in the Evian Championship are a further boost to Khang’s chances of performing here and with her approach play looking in fine shape last week, she may not be finished winning in 2023.
It’s been almost five months since Rose Zhang burst onto the professional scene with a win on her first prol start in the Mizuho Americas Open. The following whirlwind period saw her play in each of the remaining four majors, finishing inside the top 10 in three of them and also had her appearing in the Solheim Cup for the first time.
Though bare results haven’t been quite as impressive over most recent starts, her ball-striking has largely remained strong and this looks a good place for her to get in the mix at the top of the leaderboard again. Especially if her top 10 in this year’s Evian Championship indeed proves a good pointer.
The former star amateur hit the ball superbly two weeks ago in the Buick LPGA Shanghai, ranking 3rd in approach and 8th OTT, though was let down by the putter. This quality of ball-striking has been displayed right throughout her rookie season, as she ranks 15th in approach, 16th in GIR, 22nd in approach and 25th in driving accuracy.
Conversely, as the quality of her ball-striking faltered last week, she did produce her 2nd-best putting performance of the season. If she can maintain that whilst returning to the high standard of ball-striking that we’ve become accustomed to seeing, Zhang will be a big danger.
I’m going to finish off with the high class approach play of Andrea Lee. She had been starting to find her feet this season after a slow start and though she looked off it when returning from a five-week absence in China two weeks ago, she was much better in Korea last week and can build on that here.
After being one of the breakout stars of last year, as she won on the LPGA for the first time in the Portland Classic, Lee initially struggled at the start of 2023, missing four of her first eight cuts this year and finishing no better than 51st in full-field events.
Her form started to turn around when she finished 21st in the Mizuho Americas Open, as she followed that with six top 20s in her next nine starts and prior to her debut Solheim Cup appearance, she had reeled off consecutive finishes of 9-9-13-10-11.
As mentioned, Lee struggled when returning in Shanghai, finishing 68th and looking subpar across the board. However that was easy to forgive with the absence. She was considerably better last week, finishing 34th and returned to the approach quality we’ve seen throughout much of the last two years, ranking 9th in that field.
This was more like it for a player who ranks 10th in approach for the season, as well as 23rd in GIR; all of which is part of an all-round precise ball-striking game, as she ranks 7th in driving accuracy.
A 5th-place finish at Palos Verdes is a positive, as was her 15th on debut in last year’s Evian and if the rust has been removed in the last two weeks, Lee can go well at Kuala Lumpur G&CC this week.