Winning ways of the Maybank Championship

…event that’s special in so many ways

By SHIV DAS

While the world’s top 50 players were not at the just-ended 2019 Maybank Championship, it was still “a celebration of champions” at the Saujana Golf and Country Club (SGCC).

Australia’s Scott Hend, 45 — who walked away with the eye-catching Tiger Trophy and US$500,000 (RM2.04 million) — is now ranked 134th in the world, although he was 59th at his best.

It was John Eu of GlobalOne, promoter of the event sanctioned by the European and Asian Tours, who saw it as a rah-rah take on an event he had put together — a blend of senior stars (Ernie Els, who finished tied seventh; Pádraig Harrington, tied 30th; and Thomas Bjørn, missed cut, to name three) and a host of young, talented players eager and unafraid to do battle, no matter who they went up against.

He did his math, saying the full field of 156 players drawn from 39 countries in Europe, Asia, South Africa and Australia had, nevertheless, accumulated a total of some 400 wins among them.

Eu reeled out the numbers: “The European Tour had about 230 winners, the Asian and Japan Tours another 40 or 50 each. Bring in South Africa and Australia…and don’t forget the local Professional Golf of Malaysia (PGM) Tour, the 10 players who qualified…it’s a celebration of champions.”

Hend, who walked away with the Tiger Trophy and RM2m, is now ranked 134th in the world

He also saw it as a global phenomenon in all sports, the millennials born after 1991, “that seem to be the new breed of athletes — fearless, able and willing to go up against the best”.

A breather a couple of days before the tournament in the Golfer’s Terrace at SGCC provided Eu with a parade of pros walking by.

He spotted a young man wearing a trilby hat. “That’s Tapio Pulkkanen, watch out for him.” Aged 28 and from Finland, he’s now ranked 298th in the world. “Go to YouTube and watch him hit a golf ball, it’s effortless, just like Els.”

Recognition lit up Eu’s face again as he identified another young player. It was Min Woo Lee, 21, the younger brother of Minjee Lee, the Australian currently World No 2 in the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

A top-ranked amateur before he turned pro, he had a top 10 in his debut event in Dubai and is currently ranked 286th in the world. (However, it was not meant to be their tournament this time. Pulkkanen missed the cut, but he was off to India for the Hero Indian Open to try and make amends. Min Woo was tied 57th.)

Eu also singled out Kurt Kitayama, 26, an American professional who turned pro in 2015 and who played on the Web.com Tour in 2016 and 2017, ranked 1,174th in the world at the time, but has taken off since then and is now ranked 104th.

In 2018, he sought his fortune on the Asian Tour after winning an Asian Development Tour event, the PGM Darulaman Championship.

Some good finishes on the Asian Tour were capped with third place in the European Tour Qualifying School that opened the door to the 2019 European Tour and, in just the second event of the season, saw him win the AfrAsia Bank Mauritius Open by two strokes.

In March, he won the Oman Open — making it his second European Tour success. (At SGCC, he was tied 41st.)

“The different nationalities represented in the Championship this year is unmatched anywhere else in the world,” reckoned Eu.

Golf is exploding in the region with more and more youngsters entering the arena, inspired by the success of those who had blazed the trail for them. Malaysia’s Gavin Kyle Green, for instance, was there to inspire lots of Malaysians.

The country’s PGM Tour is the most vibrant in Asia. “I take my hat off to Tun Ahmad Sarji Abdul Hamid (founder and chairman of the Tour). It’s successful because the Tour is being run transparently and with full accountability and integrity.”

With Malayan Banking Bhd (Maybank) having a large footprint, there was a possibility of the Championship being moved around. “The biggest golfing destination arguably in Asia or the region is Thailand, but Bangkok has yet to host a men’s Tour event.”

A model parading eye-catching creations by Maybank’s Women Eco-Weavers in the region

This year’s line-up saw five top Asean players, with Angelo Que of the Philippines ending up tied 25th and Danny Masrin of Indonesia tied 36th, as best finishers in the category.

There were 12 Malaysians, but it was Nicholas Fung and Green who provided plenty to shout about. Fung was tied 15th and Green tied 30th — the others, sadly, missing the cut.

There was more to the Championship than just golf. Showcasing lifestyle pursuits such as the Viper Challenge (an obstacle course for super fit athletes) and having Malaysia’s Diana Chan (2017 winner) and Singapore’s Sashi Cheliah (2018 winner) of MasterChef Australia put on cooking demos, showed how times were changing.

“We cannot just sell golf,” said Eu, who’s very much alive to today’s demands and trotted out other activities that attracted non-golfers who were just out for fun. These included “Get in the Yoga Zone”, “Art Craft” workshops and even a chance to try out “beam”, an electric scooter to whizz around.

There was the MaybankHeart booth at The Village where former top Malaysian pro Shaaban Hussin met with fans and promoted his academy for up-and-coming players and youngsters keen on taking up the sport. He also has an annual competition, the Shaaban Hussin Cup, to encourage them.

He lost a leg in a motorcycle accident in 2016 — but, like a true professional, he’s risen above his disability to be a great role model.

Meanwhile, what was touted as “fashion with an eco-friendly touch” saw models creating a buzz in The Village when they paraded eye-catching creations by Maybank’s Women Eco-Weavers in the region, aimed at promoting economic and financial independence among women.

Promoted, too, was Maybank’s KataKatha initiative to showcase the region’s traditional arts “flash mob” style, models appearing suddenly and disappearing quickly in the guest marquees during the four days of the golf competition.

As an added intriguing touch, the famed Ryder Cup was displayed at The Village for the first time for two hours on the final day of the tournament.

It was promotion all the way to gather worldwide interest in the long-playing biennial Europe versus America clash on both sides of the Atlantic, and “escorted” by former Team Europe captain Bjørn and present captain Harrington, who played in the Championship.

Those who got hold of a copy of the Maybank Championship souvenir programme would have read with more than passing interest what Prime Minister (PM) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had to say.

For him, it rekindled fond memories of the 1980s — then PM the first time around (1981-2003) — “when there was a need for a golf course to meet the demands of the business community to pursue their love for the game”. (As history has it, the “Look East Policy” he initiated saw the build-up of a large Japanese business presence in the country.)

He said: “Today, I am pleased to see SGCC become an internationally acclaimed golf course that is not only popular with golfers of varying handicap levels, but also among leading golfers from around the world.”

International events such as the Maybank Championship helped promote the image of the country through extensive media coverage. In addition, he congratulated all the volunteers, staff, club management and sponsors who had worked tirelessly to make the event a success.