Li Haotong chases back-to-back titles in Malaysia

Hideki Matsuyama goes for a hat-trick of wins at the Waste Management Phoenix Open
Hideki Matsuyama goes for a hat-trick of wins at the Waste Management Phoenix Open

JUST days after holding off the challenge of four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, China's Li Haotong will attempt to claim back-to-back wins in the Maybank Championship in Kuala Lumpur.

Li overturned a two-shot deficit with eight holes to play in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, holding his nerve to birdie the final two holes and finish a shot ahead of playing partner McIlroy.

That saw the 22-year-old climb from 60th in the world rankings to a career-high of 32nd, making him the first male Chinese player to break into the top 50.

"It gave me a lot of confidence and I am feeling great, especially (playing) against Rory on Sunday," said Li, who was fifth in this event last year, four shots behind winner Fabrizio Zanotti. "I think (having) nothing to lose and staying patient was key.

"I think my game is pretty solid and I'm putting very well. This week I will just try to save some energy for the week and hopefully play well and enjoy the pressure.

"Sometimes one week can change everything, I will try my best to play well this week and hopefully have a special week."

World number 12 Henrik Stenson is the highest ranked player in the field at Saujana Golf and Country Club as he plays his first stroke-play event in Malaysia since 2005, although the former Open champion was part of the victorious European team in the recent EurAsia Cup in Kuala Lumpur.

"I haven't been playing much in Malaysia for the past 10 years and now I've been here two times in a month so I'm back to being a local resident, I guess," joked Stenson, who was eighth in Abu Dhabi and sixth in Dubai.

"It's a nice place, obviously a little bit on the hot side for us northern Europeans but we'll get by that and hopefully have another good week here in the early part of the year.

"Two top-10s in the first two events and managed to get the win down here a few weeks ago so, all-in-all, a pleasing start, but still got some things to work on.

"I still feel like it's been a bit of a struggle. The long game has not been where I want it to be but putting has been pretty solid. I kept it together nicely, not making many mistakes despite that and I'm happy with that."

HIDEKI Matsuyama admits it will be "weird" to play alongside the two men he has beaten in play-offs for the Waste Management Phoenix Open crown as he seeks a hat-trick of titles.

World number five Matsuyama beat Rickie Fowler on the fourth extra hole at TPC Scottsdale in 2016 and repeated the feat against Webb Simpson 12 months ago.

And another victory for the 25-year-old Japanese star on Sunday would make him only the second player after Arnold Palmer (1961-63) to win the event for three straight years. Steve Stricker was the last man to win a PGA Tour event in such fashion at the John Deere Classic from 2009-11.

"I'm looking forward to playing with both Rickie and Webb," Matsuyama told a pre-tournament press conference. "It's going to kind of be weird to play with them on Thursday and Friday but hopefully we can all play together and play well to be there together on the back nine on Sunday.

"It's great to be back in Phoenix again. I love it here. Being able to win twice the last two years have been really memorable for me and quite an honour.

"I'm going to do my best this year to three-peat and if I was fortunate enough to do that, I think I would join the King, Arnold Palmer, as the only three-peat winner. That would be something."