Is Mickelson the man for Malaysia?

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Led by World No 3 Phil Mickelson, the field for this week’s CIMB Classic at the Kuala Lumpur Country Club West Course in Malaysia has never been stronger.

That’s because this long-time Asian Tour event is now co-sanctioned by the US PGA Tour and as from this year has become a fully fledged PGA Tour event with FedEx Cup points at stake, a two-year Tour exemption and tee-off invitations next year to the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, the Masters, The Players Championship and the PGA Championship for any CIMB Classic winner who may not otherwise be exempt for those coveted events.

What this means is that a good few of the lesser-ranked PGA Tour regulars and the dozen or more so Asian Tour players in this week’s field will have a lot more to play for than the handsome first prize of $1.3 million.

And they won’t have to worry about being cut after the first two rounds in an event featuring a limited field of just 78 players.

Most of the local contingent which features burly Kiradech Aphibarnrat, the 24-year-old Thai who won this year’s Malaysian Open at the Kuala Lumpur CC – and, through that door, was able to join European Tour – will have a major advantage in that, like Aphibarnrat, they will have played the Kaula Lumpur course before and know better than the raiding Americans its vagaries and the way in which it can be affected by the local conditions.

At just on 7 000 yards, the West course is not a particularly long one, though big hitters like American major winner Bubba Watson could have a great advantage in a tight contest coming down the par-five 18th hole on the final day. For this contest the hole has been stretched to all of 634 yards.

The grass used on the greens is seashore paspalum, which is a salt-water tolerant strand which those Americans who have played in the OHL Classic at Mayakoba and the Puerto Rico Open will know. Kiawah Island, where the 2012 PGA Championship was staged, also features a similar surface, but for the bulk of the Americans, seashore paspalm will be anything but the ordinary – and especially if the weather plays up, which is possible.

As it was on Tuesday, local weathermen were forecasting a fair chance of rain and thunder-storms throughout the week with temperatures rising into the upper 80s heading into the weekend.

They also indicated that the light winds wouldn’t do much to bring relief to an environment where the high humidity can take a toll on those Westerners who are unused to it.

Local knowledge or not, Mickelson, who has shown a strong affinity to East Asia and seems to have the kind of personality that thrives on overseas competition – his last two victories have both come in Scotland (at the Scottish Open and at the Open Championship a week later) – is being seen as a strong pre-tournament favourite.

At 8/1 as against the next best odds of 14/1 being offered for Sergio Garcia and the 16/1 for American major winner Keegan Bradley and fast-rising Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama, the four-timer major winner Mickelson is the clear-cut favourite.

And this in a field packed with half-a-dozen former major winners, which, along with himself, includes Bradley, Watson and Ernie Els, and as many as 46 US PGA Tour winners, including Bill Haas, who won the FedEx Cup two years ago, the in-form Jimmy Walker, who won his first US PGA tournament as recently as two weeks ago, and Nick Watney, who won this event at a different course last year before it officially became part of the US Tour.

Although up against a big array of Tour-hardened US antagonists, Kiradech Aphibarnrat is one of the local favourites, who should not be underestimated. He has yet to win on the European Tour, but he has shown that he is unfazed by the fame of his rivals and can live with the best.

He could be doubly dangerous on a course which will bring back some golden memories of the win here earlier this year that catapulted him into the European Tour – and it might well give him hope that he can use the same pathway to make it in to the US PGA Tour as well.

THE BOOKMAKERS’ TOP 20

Here were the top 20 favourites being quoted by Sky Bet on Tuesday morning. For all the bookmakers odds you should go to Oddschecker.com.

Phil Mickelson 8/1
Sergio Garcia 14/1
Keegan Bradley 16/1
Hideki Matsuyama 16/1
Nick Watney 18/1
Ernie Els 20/1
Bo Van Pelt 25/1
Jimmy Walker 28/1
Bubba Watson 28/1
Ryan Moore 30/1
Graham DeLaet 33/1
Bill Haas 35/1
Rickie Fowler 35/1
Billy Horschel 40/1
Charles Howell III 40/1
Roberto Castro 40/1
Brendon de Jonge 40/’1
Charley Hoffman 40/1
Jeff Overton 50/1
Chris Kirk 50/1

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