The PGA Tour’s annual return to Florida was something of a bloodbath, as the talented 140+ player field were largely defeated by PGA National, with the two members of the Sunday playoff, Luke List and tournament champion Justin Thomas, only reaching 8-under for the week.
This week, the Tour goes even further south, as Club de Golf Chapultepec in Mexico City plays host to 2018’s first World Golf Championship (WGC), the WGC-Mexico Championship.
Compared to standard events, the field in Mexico is going to be small, just 65 participants, but the field is also exclusive, as the players had to work their way into an invitation to this lucrative tournament with a $10 million purse.
This will be Chapultepec’s second year hosting the event, which had been previously held at Trump Doral in Florida. Illustrating how exclusive this tournament is,Tiger Woods has won the event seven times, but a lack of recent results kept the 18-time WGC Champion out of the field this week.
Among the many highly-ranked players that are set to tee up in Mexico City this week, includes six of the top seven players in the World Rankings.
1. DJ DEFENDS
Last year’s WGC-Mexico Championship, the first edition held in Mexico (it was called the WGC-Cadillac for the last six years), represented Dustin Johnson’s first tournament as the world’s No. 1 ranked golf, which he had acquired after winning his previous event, the Genesis Open.
DJ proved to be up to playing with the highly-coveted distinction, winning the tournament by a single stroke over European Tour star Tommy Fleetwood. He came into the final round one stroke behind Justin Thomas, and was hot out of the gate, exploding into a considerable lead at the turn.
After briefly losing the lead after a ridiculous back nine birdie binge from Jon Rahm, DJ stood strong over the closing holes and did what he needed to (par-par-par finish) in order to win the Mexico title.
It was his second career victory in the event (he also won two years earlier in 2015), and his fourth career WGC title. Winning another WGC event soon after (the Dell Match-Play), DJ now has five career WGCs which ranks second all-time (Tiger Woods, 18).
One year later, Johnson still ranks No. 1 in the world. Statistically, his 2018 season is off to a fantastic start, with a victory and three top-2 finishes in just four starts, but the nature of some of his recent Sundays has led to questions about his current mental state.
In the last WGC event, the WGC-HSBC Champions in late October, DJ held a seemingly insurmountable six-stroke advantage after 54-holes, but a final round 77 let Justin Rose capture the tournament title. In his next event, DJ won the Sentry Tournament of Champions in a landslide, but questions have emerged again after his last two events.
Johnson was a 54-hole co-leader at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, but had to settle for a T2 finish after he was shockingly outplayed on Sunday by little-known Ted Potter Jr. Most recently, at the Genesis Open, Johnson dug himself a big hole with a first-round 74, but vaulted back into contention with tremendous middle rounds. Again, though, Sunday got the best of DJ, as a mediocre final-round 73 dropped him into a share of 16th place.
It would be very surprising if DJ is not again in the mix this week, but he has just one tournament this season where he put four strong rounds together. He can’t afford a Sunday 75 in Mexico City if he wants to go back-to-back.
2. HEAT CHECK: JT and BUBBA
While Dustin Johnson is probably the man to watch in Mexico this week, the field also features two high-profile players who won their most recent start: Justin Thomas and Bubba Watson.
Thomas winning last week’s Honda Classic was no surprise, as the 24-year-old reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year has eight career victories, all coming in his last 31 starts, but after a surprisingly pedestrian recent string of play, he came into PGA National somewhat under-the-radar, despite being the highest ranked player (No. 4) in the field.
Thomas had won the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges back in October, but had not been in late contention at any of his four starts since, posting finishes of T22, T14, T17, and T9 respectively.
Thomas was excellent through three rounds in Mexico City last year, shooting 69-66-66 to hold the lead going into the final round, but got off to an awful start on Sunday, playing his front nine in 4-over. A 2-under back nine was better, but a T5 finish was disappointing considering the position he had started to begin the day.
As for Bubba Watson, nobody is sure what to make of his chances coming into the week. He had fallen precipitously down the world rankings in the previous two years, and was all the way down at No. 117 before he won the Genesis Open two weeks ago.
It was his first finish inside the top 30 in six starts in the season. The victory was obviously encouraging, and it qualified the long-hitting lefty into the WGC-Mexico field, but it remains to be seen if Bubba has gotten his game back on track, or if his Genesis victory was the result of playing a tournament he was extremely comfortable at, having also won at Riviera in 2016 and 2014.
He did play in Mexico City last year, but was irrelevant in the story, going even-par for the week, which was just good for a share of 38th place.
3. WHAT GIVES WITH RAHM?
Just 22 years old and playing the tournament for the first time, Jon Rahm used a 4-under stretch on the back nine on Sunday at last year’s WGC-Mexico to suddenly vault into the lead, but after bogeys on 16 and 17, he had to settle for a share of third.
Now ranked No. 2 in the world, Rahm got his current season off to a blazing start, both in the U.S. and in Europe, but suddenly and shockingly, Rahm is having late-round troubles.
When he won the CareerBuilder Challenge in January, Rahm was in a position where he could usurp Dustin Johnson’s No. 1 ranking with a victory the following week at the Farmers Insurance Open, a tournament where he was the defending champion. It started off well as Rahm was a 36-hole co-leader after rounds of 68 and 66, but he absolutely collapsed over the weekend, shooting rounds of 75 and 77 to drop into a share of 29th place.
At the Waste Management Phoenix Open the following week, Rahm again was in contention after three strong rounds, but again, was unable to take advantage of his chances on Sunday, and dropped to T11 after a final-round 72.
Then, making it three weeks in a row, Rahm opened up with a 67-67-70 at Pebble Beach, but again was awful on Sunday, posting a 4-over 76 and dropping from T5 to T29.
It is a troubling trend for the young Spaniard who had looked so unflappable in his career thus far, but he is unlikely to stay down long. After taking the last two weeks off, Rahm should be well-rested this week.
4. CAN ROSE GO BACK-TO-BACK AT WGC?
Justin Rose appeared to have taken his playoff loss at last year’s Masters hard, because he was basically AWOL from then until the end of the major season.
After missing the cut at the PGA Championship, however, the 37-year-old former U.S. Open champion Rose has had his A game, finishing in the top 10 of all four FedExCup Playoff events, and has notched one win a piece on the PGA Tour, the European Tour, and the Asian Tour.
The PGA Tour victory was the most recent WGC event, the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, where Rose overcame an 8-stroke final-round deficit to capture the title.
In his only PGA start since that WGC triumph, Rose finished T8 at the Farmers Insurance Open in late January. He limped to the finish line in that one, however, as he was just three strokes out of the lead going into Sunday, but a 2-over 74 dropped him back, and he finished four strokes out of the Jason Day/Alex Noren playoff.
Rose was nothing special in Mexico City last year, finishing T38 at even-par, but he has a history of playing well in WGC events, as his two wins are tied for 4th all-time. He won this event in 2012, but that was at Trump National Doral.
5. PHIL’S RECENT FRENZY
He still has not won since the 2013 Open Championship, but few golfers, if any, are in better recent form than Phil Mickelson, who has been in serious contention in his last three tournaments, posting finishes of T5, T2, and T6.
Perhaps more impressively is that those three high results came in three consecutive calendar weeks, showing that the 47-year-old still has the energy to be consistently competitive.
Mickelson took off last week’s Honda Classic, probably a sage move since he had played in five-consecutive weeks, but is back in the field in Mexico, where he finished T7 last year.
Phil got within three strokes of Dustin Johnson’s lead after six holes on Sunday, but a bogey-double bogey stretch on 7 and 8 was something of a deathblow, as a 3-under back nine was only good enough to get him back to even par for the day, and he finished four strokes behind DJ.
In the current season, Phil’s accuracy and putting has been strong, as he ranks seventh on Tour in strokes gained: approach-the-green and fifth in strokes gained: putting. He also ranks an impressive fifth in birdie average, and 11th in scoring average.
6. A GOOD LUCK SHARMA?
Of the eight players making their WGC debuts this week, the most interesting might be India’s Shubhankar Sharma, a 21-year-old who has made a lot of buzz in Europe and Asia.
This week will mark Sharma’s WGC debut as well, but in recent months he has shown he belongs on the big stage, having won twice on the European Tour: at the Joberg Open in December, and the Maybank Championship just three weeks ago.
The field in Mexico is considerably stronger than the fields he recent subjugated, which should provide a good test to see where his game truly is. Professional golf has been slow to catch on in India, and some good results for Sharma could be enormous on a global level.
Right now, he looks perhaps destined to become the best player in the history of the world’s second most-populous country.
7. FLEET(WOOD) OF FOOT
Coming into last year’s WGC-Mexico Championship, England’s Tommy Fleetwood was not especially well known in the U.S., but that has changed dramatically over the past 12 months.
The 27-year-old was runner-up to Dustin Johnson at the tournament last year, shooting a final-round 66 to finish a single stroke from the title. Fleetwood would then go on to contend at the U.S. Open, playing in the final Sunday grouping and finishing in solo-fourth place.
He was even better in Europe, where he had two victories and took the year-long Race to Dubai title.
This will be Fleetwood’s third consecutive week playing a PGA Tour event. He made his 2018 PGA debut two weeks ago with a T37 finish at the Genesis Open, but was much better at PGA National last week for the Honda Classic, taking a late Sunday lead before a few back-nine hiccups resulted in a finish of solo-fourth.
He has a 2018 European Tour victory, finishing atop a strong field at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship just one month ago.
8. MEXICO’S FINAL ANCER?
Despite all the big names in the field, including the above-mentioned players along with Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, and Sergio Garcia, the man with the most fan-fare this week could be 26-year-old Abraham Ancer, who is the only Mexican native in the field.
Ancer is the world’s highest-ranked golfer from Mexico, but at No. 260, that largely speaks to the lack of quality players from this week’s host country.
Ancer earned his 2018 PGA Tour card with a fantastic 2017 on the Web.com Tour, where three runner-up finishes placed him 3rd on the tour’s money list.
In ten 2018 season PGA Tour events, Ancer has made six cuts, with a high finish of T9 at last November’s Mayakoba Classic. He also played well at Torrey Pines last month at the Farmers Insurance Open finishing the difficult course at 4-under-par for the week, which was good for a T20.