LAST_UPDATETue, 22 May 2018 11pm

CIMB Classics: Keep An Eye On The Asians

CIMB Classics: Keep An Eye On The AsiansCIMB Classics: Keep An Eye On The AsiansKUALA LUMPUR: The Americans have won the first three editions of the CIMB Classic played at the Mines Resort and Golf Club.

Ben Crane won in 2010, followed by Bo Van Pelt and Nick Watney.

But with FedEx ranking points on offer for the first time and a new venue, all eyes will be on whether the Asians can turn the tables on the Americans when this prestigious event tees off at the Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club (KLGCC) on Thursday.

Asia’s young stars will face a severe test when they compete in the US$7mil (RM22.4mil) showpiece sanctioned by the Asian Tour and PGA Tour.

No fewer than 20 players from the world’s top-50, including Major champions Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Ernie Els, will headline the 78-man field.

The region’s rising talents – including current Asian Tour No. 1 Kiradech Aphibarnrat of Thailand; India’s Gaganjeet Bhullar and Anirban Lahiri; South Korea’s Baek Seuk-hyun; and Bangladeshi Siddikur – are determined to do the continent proud this week, especially knowing that mouth-watering rewards are in store.

As Asia’s first official FedEx Cup tournament, the winner of this year’s CIMB Classic will not only take home the top prize of US$1.26mil (RM4.03mil) but also a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour and a place at the 2014 Masters.

All these should whet the appetite of Asia’s stars but can they keep pace with their PGA Tour counterparts?

Bhullar, one of the most exciting players in Asia, will have Spanish stalwart Sergio Garcia and flamboyant Rickie Fowler of the United States for company in the opening round.

The India golfer is targeting another top finish this week, after ending his campaign last season as the best placed Asian player in joint 10th position.

“I’ve got a good pairing on Thursday and Friday ... with Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler. So, obviously, I think it’s going to be a fun and interesting first two days.

“This is definitely one of my favourite courses on the Asian Tour. I’ve played well here and I just want to try and give my 100% this week,” said Bhullar.

One man who already does hold a title at the golf course is burly Thai golfer Aphibarnrat.

He won the Malaysian Open title on the European Tour here earlier in March and his familiarity with the course puts him as a contender, especially as he is playing without jet-lag issues.

Aphibarnrat is ranked at the top of the Asian Tour Order of Merit and the 24-year-old knows a good week here will probably see him prevailing on the money list, apart from a career breakthrough.

“I know the course well ... I’ve played here 20 or 30 times as a kid and I always play well here,” said Aphibarnrat, who believes that the humid conditions in Malaysia will be an advantage to Asian golfers.

“Asian players know the weather and the golf course but, then, the PGA Tour players are at a different level.

“But I think the Asian guys have improved a lot and it should be a good fight for the title.”

Aphibarnrat has been paired with defending champion Watney and Mickelson for the opening round.

“It will be great to play with Phil and Nick. Phil is very nice and I’m looking forward to starting with him,” he said.

Els, who has been playing regularly in Asia for the last few years, admitted that the Asian golfers “are bridging the gap”.

“I think a lot of them are getting close. A lot of them are not mentally scared anymore. If I look at guys like Scotty (Adam Scott), Thongchai (Jaidee), who has been around for a while, and Anirban Lahiri, he looks like he’s not scared,” said South African Els.

“It takes a while for guys to play against calibre golfers. I think there are a few of them coming through now. It’s wonderful to see a few of the Asians breaking through.”

Els would like nothing better than ending his year on a high.

“I’d really like to have a strong week. I’ve got only two weeks left of the year and then I’ll have a nice holiday,” he said.

-The Star