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CIMB Classic Recap: Thomas Wins With 29 birdies

Len Hochberg

Hochberg covers golf for RotoWire. A veteran sports journalist, he contributes to Sports on Earth and was an editor and reporter at The Washington Post for many years.

Far, far away, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the football season and baseball playoffs, the PGA Tour staged a golf tournament called the CIMB Classic. It’s played in Malaysia, and for the reasons mentioned above, only the most ardent golf fans pay attention.

And so we watch. And what we see, other than the wondrous scenery surrounding TPC Kuala Lumpur a half a world away, is everything that makes watching a golf tournament unwatchable. The CIMB is played on an extremely short course with little penalty for missing fairways that lead to largely slow greens.

And so we get golf’s version of Coors Field.

Justin Thomas won the CIMB Classic for the second year in a row on Sunday, totaling a near-record 29 birdies over the 72 holes to cruise to a three-stroke win over Hideki Matsuyama. Thomas finished at 23-under par – and that was three shots worse than his winning total last year.

He’s a pinball wizard, there has to be a twist, a pinball wizard’s got such a supple wrist. How do you think he does it? I don’t know.”

Here’s how Thomas did it: He rolled out of bed after awakening at 4 in the morning Malaysia time to stream his alma mater, Alabama, playing Texas A&M. On a bad night’s sleep, the winner of a PGA Tour event shot a bogey-free 8-under 64.

Sheesh, TPC Kuala Lumpur almost makes TPC Deere Run look like the mighty brute Oakmont.

The all-time record for birdies in a 72-hole PGA Tour event is 32, and it’s been done twice, by Mark Calcavecchia in the 2001 Waste Management Phoenix Open and Paul Gow in the 2001 B.C. Open. No, 2001 was definitely not the Year of the Pitcher in golf.

In all seriousness, if there was anyone to pile up all those birdies, we’re glad it was Thomas. Here’s why. He has pledged $250 per birdie in his first three events of the season to Convoy of Hope, a disaster-response, nonprofit organization providing aid to those impacted by Hurricane Matthew. With one event to go, this week’s WGC-HSBC Champions in China, Thomas has made 51 birdies and one eagle, good for $13,000 in donations.

We applaud Thomas and encourage his fellow pros to do likewise, with the charity of their choice.

MONDAY BACKSPIN

Justin Thomas

A personal note: Thomas won the CIMB last year for his first career title, then I drafted him in the RotoWire league, and then he won his second career title on Sunday. So, selfishly, this CIMB sandwich has me feeling a bit empty. Thomas did have four T3s last season, including at The Players, among seven top-10s. So there’s significant value there, in DraftKings and other formats. He was 31st on tour in birdie-or-better (BOB) last season. But until he wins outside of the Malaysian bandbox, we can only be so impressed.

Hideki Matsuyama

Matsuyama is on the current short list for the dubious Best Golfer Without a Major designation. Probably him or Patrick Reed. Matsuyama’s game translates to all types of courses all around the world but maybe more so in Asia, where the lifestyles of foreign golfers might be disrupted. Matsuyama won the Japan Open two weeks ago, then followed up with a 20-under at the CIMB. Putting is generally considered the weakest part of Matsuyama’s game, and that’s what’s been holding him back in majors. Twenty-under on this course doesn’t mean anything, but top-seven showings the past two years at Augusta means the guy can putt when it matters. You have to figure a major win or more lies ahead for Matsuyama, still only 24.

Anirban Lahiri

Lahiri climbed the world rankings late last year, peaking in the upper 30s. But it’s been a steady descent since then, perhaps because he’s been playing in bigger tournaments against tougher competition. He entered the week 83rd in the OWGR, after finishing runner-up in something called the Venetian Macao Open a week ago. And he’ll like move up more after tying for third at the CIMB. But he began Sunday with a whopping four-stroke lead, then proceeded to shoot a quad-9 on the par-5 – shooting a 9 on this course is like an 11 elsewhere. To his credit, he held it together thereafter. But until he shows something against quality opposition, we’re not high on Lahiri.

Derek Fathauer

The former Web.com star turned in his best career PGA Tour cash with a T3 in Malaysia, in his 85th start. He previous best was a solo fourth at last year’s OHL Classic at Mayakoba. So clearly Fathauer excels in places beginning with “Ma.” (This year’s OHL is coming up next month!) Every golfer is prone to a very high finish, especially in a non-elite field, so right now we don’t view this as anything more for than that for Fathauer.

Keegan Bradley

Bradley tied for sixth, and the former top-20 golfer hadn’t had such a high finish since his T5 at the 2015 Shell Open. Bradley has really been affected by the anchored-putting ban, and it’s no surprise his good week turns up on a course where putting is not especially difficult. There are more stops on the PGA Tour schedule where great putting isn’t mandated for success, and that’s where Bradley can score an occasional top-10.

Russell Knox

Knox was in the final group on Sunday and plunged to a tie for 10th with a remarkably bad 2-over 74. It really was an aberration for the steady Scot. I’m still mostly pleased with his finish, as he cost me only $8,200 in DraftKings. Really, every time it’s not a brutally long course, I’m picking this guy. (“Oh, now you tell me” – D. Clarke, England.)

Ryo Ishikawa

Ishikawa has been around forever and he just turned 25. He missed most of last year with a back injury but has strung together a bunch of recent top-10s, albeit on the Japan Tour. He did it again while moving up in class, tying for 10th at the CIMB. At $7,500, he produced an even better DraftKings payoff than did Knox. Certainly when needing a longer shot to fill out your roster, Ishikawa is showing he merits consideration.

Ian Poulter

Poulter missed much of last season and the Ryder Cup with a foot injury. He returned to a 28th-place showing at the Venetian Macao Open but stepped up with a T17 in Malaysia. Again, a short and easy course. It’s hard to see Poulter contending for many more titles (outside of maybe the Match Play Championship, if he could qualify), but that doesn’t mean he could return to the level of being an important DraftKings chip.

Byeong-Hun An

An was the European Tour Rookie of the Year in 2015, and he reached the top-25 in the world in short order. But he’s had only one worldwide top-10 since May, and after his woeful showing in Malaysia (T39 thanks only to a Sunday rush), he bears watching, beginning with this week’s WGC-HSBC Champions. An has taken his PGA Tour card for this year, so he will be an option often, even in the biggest events. He could be a sleeper, or a snorer.

Patrick Reed

We didn’t expect much from Reed at the CIMB; it had to be a letdown in his first start since the exhilarating Ryder Cup. Further, Reed barely took a week off from July through September, and it was remarkable to us that he played at as high a level as he did for so long. But even with time off since Hazeltine, he was never in the mix this past week, closing with a 77 to tie for 51st. Reed is also playing in China this week, and we’re still not expecting much. He may need the longer December break to fully recharge.