PGA Tour golf is winding down for the 2018 calendar year, but it cannot end before El Camaleon gets to dish out punishment. The golfing jewel of the tropical paradise of Playa del Carmen, Mexico will be front stage this week for the annual Mayakoba Golf Classic.
Typically an event with a weak-ish field, the inclusion of some big names, in particular Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth, and Tony Finau, is giving this year’s event an enormous bump in interest.
There are a number of great storylines to keep close tabs on in Mexico this week, but here are four of the ones we like best:
1. KIZZIRE DEFENDS
Coming into last year’s Mayakoba Golf Classic, Patton Kizzire was ranked No. 236 in the world, and was known mostly for being very tall (6’5”). His previous season was an even split between made and missed cuts (14 a piece), but he was arriving in Mexico with some momentum, having finished 10th two weeks prior at the Sanderson Farms Champion, and solo-fourth the previous week at the Shriners Hospitals For Children Open.
Kizzire opened at El Camaleon with a 9-under 62, easily giving him the 18-hole lead. It was not quite as easy going on day two, as a 1-under 70 brought the field back. Bad weather necessitated a 36-hole marathon with Kizzire, and the incredibly popular Rickie Fowler tied at the top, but having never quite been in that position before, Kizzire was considered a heavy underdog.
In a jam-packed 36-hole Sunday, Kizzire refused to be intimidated by the highest-ranked player in the field. Opening with a bogey, he could have collapsed, but instead composed himself and got in front of Fowler by the end of 54 holes, holding a one-stroke advantage with 18 holes to go.
Again, Kizzie could not be intimidated. He birdied three of his first five holes to increase his advantage to three strokes, and four with six to go.
Fowler made a late charge with birdies on Nos. 13, 16, and 17, but needing to gain one more stroke on the 18th to extend the match to a 37th hole on Sunday, he parred, and handed Kizzire his first career victory.
Kizzire proved to be more than a one-hit wonder, when – just three starts later, he notched win No. 2, this time at the Sony Open at Waialae. The two victories kept him atop the FedExCup Standings well into the season.
Then, the proverbial wheels fell off. His short game became a total disaster, and in 21 starts after the Sony victory, he missed 10 cuts, placed better than T30 just twice, and a 12th place finish at the WGC-Mexico in March was his only top-20. He was barely able to hang on in the playoffs and, despite two wins, was the 30th player into the 30-man Tour Championship.
Now, with Kizzire’s first career championship defense set to tee off on Thursday, he is garnering next to no attention. He has played two events in the new season, posting a respectable T23 at the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges, but then put forth an abysmal performance at the WGC-HSBC Champions in China, finishing 66th in the 77-man field after a 76-80 weekend. His final round in Shanghai comprised six bogeys, a double, and a triple.
As of late, Kizzire might not look much like the player that had seemed to break through early in the 2018 season, but coming back to somewhere he once tasted great success could help him find winning form again. If he gets close to the lead on the weekend, his competition would be wise to not assume he will falter.
2. FOWLER BACK IN MEXICO
Not a lot of players could finish T4 in a competitive event by shooting a blistering final-round bogey-free 8-under 63, and still end up the subject of enormous criticism, but that was the reality of Rickie Fowler’s final round at last week’s Shriners Hospitals For Children Open.
Rickie’s Sunday was impressive, but expectations are high for the world No. 9, and Bryson DeChambeau winning the event engendered a lot of comparisons that did not reflect well on Fowler.
Most notably, the Shriners victory was the 25-year-old DeChambeau’s fourth victory in his last 12 events, which ties Fowler’s win total in 214 career events. DeChambeau has five wins for his career, actually eclipsing Rickie in just a small portion of the time.
That has always been the big knock on Fowler; he is highly-ranked, very highly-regarded, and unanimously beloved, but many do not believe his accomplishments are commensurate to his lofty status.
The 29-year old Fowler has many, many high finishes on Tour, but is still looking for that major No. 1. He turns 30 in less than 30 days, so it’s already been clinched that he will not win one major title in his 20s. His shortcomings are magnified further due to his close relationship with Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, two 25-year-old wunderkinds who in 151 and 119 starts, respectively, have combined for 20 PGA Tour victories and 4 major championships.
As for this week, Rickie comes to El Camaleon as the highest-ranked player in the field for the second consecutive year. He finished runner-up in last year’s edition, but was shockingly outdueled on Sunday by Patton Kizzire, the world No. 236, who had never landed in the winner’s circle in a PGA Tour event before.
Fowler is the odds-on favorite at this year’s Mayakoba. Will anything other than a win be considered good enough?
3. CAN SPIETH STOP LEAKING OIL?
This is normally a time of year that Jordan Spieth, an 11-time Tour winner and three-time major champion, takes off. Typically, Spieth uses October and November to wind down after a hectic, overwhelmingly successful PGA Tour season, but things are different this year.
Spieth had – by far, his worst season on Tour in 2018. He failed to notch a single victory, had no runner-ups, just five top 10s, earned a fraction of his normal prodigious income, and did not reach the Tour Championship for the first time in his career. He suffered from putting yips for a significant portion of the season, and by the time he got his flatstick resembling something of the past, the rest of his game started to suffer too. Now, instead of relaxing in a tropical paradise, Spieth is in, well, a tropical paradise, but far from relaxing.
Now No. 14 in the world rankings, Spieth was one of the biggest names in the field at last week’s Shriners Hospitals For Children Open in Las Vegas, the first time he had played that event.
An opening-round 66 had him in contention early, and a Friday 68 kept him in the conversation, but he eroded over the weekend, shooting rounds of 71 and 72 to drop all the way into a tie for 55th – a very disappointing result given that it was as weak a field as he will face all season.
Spieth hit just 48% of his fairways, which ranked 74th in the field, and his final round – in which he played the three par 5s in 2-over par, included five bogeys and a double.
The young Texan is so talented and so accomplished that it is considered to be just a matter of time before his game starts clicking again, but at least for this week, there is not a lot of reason to be confident in him. His presence is a boon for the tournament, but Spieth would be happier if he was decompressing, like he usually is doing in the fall.
4. MEXICO’S “ANCER”
Mexico boasts star athletes in a number of worldwide sports, particularly in soccer, baseball, and boxing, but men’s golf has been lagging slowly behind.
It has been over 35 years since the last Mexican national won a PGA Tour event, and they have appeared on very few leaderboards in recent years. Given that the Mayakoba Golf Classic takes place in Mexico, it would be tremendous for local fans to see one of their own explode into contention, but despite a decent number of them gaining exemptions to this event, it just has not happened in recent years. However, there is now one player that gives the country optimism: Abraham Ancer.
Ancer, a diminutive 27-year-old from Reynosa, who played his college golf at the University of Oklahoma, has been one of the hottest players on the PGA Tour in recent months.
After top-5 finishes in the second half of the 2018 season at the Quicken Loans National and the RBC Canadian Open, Ancer greatly increased his exposure and profile when he vaulted into the 54-hole lead at the Dell Technologies Championship in September, the second leg of the FedExCup Playoffs.
Ancer has stayed hot in the new season, finishing T5 at the CIMB Classic, and at last week’s Shriners Hospitals For Children Open, he posted three rounds of 66 on his way to a T4 result. He has been doing his best work off the tees and with his putter.
With his recent hot stretch of play, Ancer gave Mexico something they had not had in a long time: a male golfer in the top 100 of the world rankings. Ancer reached a career-high 98th as of this week.
Ancer should be a popular man among the Mexican crowds in Playa del Carmen this week. It is a new kind of pressure for Ancer to deal with, but what should help calm his nerves is his experience at El Camaleon. He has played the event three times, placing ninth last year, and five of his past eight rounds have been sub-70, including two 65s.