WGC Mexico Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
Post by Sports Writer Derek Clements
THE strongest field of the year so far will assemble at Chapultepec Golf Club for the WGC-Mexico Championship, with US Open champion Dustin Johnson needing another good week to retain his place at the top of the world rankings.
But all eyes will be on Rory McIlroy, who is due to make his return from injury. The Northern Irishman's last competitive round was at the South African Open in January, when he finished second to surprise winner Graeme Storm. McIlroy looked to be in fabulous form but it was later revealed that he had suffered a rib injury while testing new clubs. He was last seen playing 18 holes with Donald Trump, which seems a rather odd way to prepare for your comeback.
McIlroy had a busy early-season planned as he prepared for The Masters, but his latest injury has thrown those plans into disarray. Despite winning the FedEx Cup in 2016, McIlroy had a pretty unsatisfactory year. He judges himself by his play in the majors and failed to seriously contend at all. He needs to win the Green Jacket to secure a career Grand Slam, and will be the first to admit that the longer he goes without winning at Augusta, the harder it will be to do so.
An enforced layoff is the last thing he wanted or needed, and it will be fascinating to see how he performs in Mexico City.
Speaking of the American president, this tournament has traditionally been known as the WGC-Cadillac Championship played at Trump's Blue Monster at Doral. The PGA Tour announced last year that it would not host tournaments at any course owned by him after he criticised Mexican immigrants. Naturally enough, the decision was taken to move this event to Mexico and give it a new title. It was probably exactly the right thing to do, but Mexico is hardly a country you would describe as a golfing hotbed. Will the crowds turn up in force? Who knows?
The course is a brute, featuring two par fives that exceed 600 yards in length, and a couple of par fours of more than 500 yards.
The tournament was won last year by Adam Scott as the Australian enjoyed a sublime start to the season, and he is in great form once again. It has been won seven times by Tiger Woods. Ernie Els won in 2010, Nick Watney in 2011, Justin Rose in 2012, Woods in 2013, Patrick Reed in 2014 and Johnson in 2015, all of which tells you that this week's winner is going to be one of the sport's big names.
Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Sergio Garcia, Reed, Johnson, McIlroy, Henrik Stenson - how do you go about picking a winner from that lot? Throw in Phil Mickelson, Russell Knox, Paul Casey, Danny Willett, Jimmy Walker, Daniel Berger and a host of Europeans, including Jon Rahm, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Tyrrell Hatton, Alex Noren, Lee Westwood, Thomas Pieters and Americans Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar, and you get a sense of the quality of this field.
Many golf fans will hope that Johnson can hold onto the top ranking for a while. Remember that this is a man who took a break from the game to address a series of personal issues - at that time, we wondered if we would ever see him on the golf course again. Remember Anthony Kim?
It is to his eternal credit that the Dustinator has cleaned up his act. He is now a father and it has clearly changed his outlook on life. He has always been a fabulous ball striker, but he has now become a wonderful wedge player and a terrific putter. Best of all, he takes a couple of quick practice swings and just gets on with that. Contrast that with Day, the man he replaced at the top of the rankings. Before each and every shot, the Australian goes through an interminable pre-shot routine that involves him standing behind the ball, closing his eyes, visualising the shot and finally standing over the ball, only to step away and repeat the entire process time after time. It is not pretty to watch and it is not going to attract new followers to this wonderful game.
McIlroy plays the game with the same free spirit as Johnson. It is what we need to see more off. Imagine the impact on playing numbers if, say, Keegan Bradley or Kevin Na ever became the world's best golfer. It does not bear thinking about, it really doesn't.
So who is going to win in Mexico? It may be a golfer whose name has not yet been mentioned. Emiliano Grillo is from Argentina and has already won on the PGA Tour and come close to repeating the feat on a couple of occasions. Many smart judges tip Grillo for big things and the next stage in his progress must be a WGC tournament. He will feel at home in Mexico.
Look out, too, for another big week from Pieters, who already has a runner-up finish to his credit on the PGA Tour this season. I am utterly convinced that the giant Belgian will claim a maiden victory with the big boys in 2017. It is impossible to underestimate how much confidence he gained from his fabulous performance in a losing cause for Europe in the Ryder Cup. It proved to him that he has the game to beat anybody on his day. He is also one of the few players in the game who can keep up with Johnson from the tee.
But my gut feeling is that Rickie Fowler, full of confidence after his outstanding performance at the Honda Classic, will win again. He has had a frustrating time but the truth is that there was never very much wrong with his game in the first place.
To Win: Rickie Fowler. Why not back-to-back wins?
Each Way: Thomas Pieters. Taken to America like a native
Each Way: Dustin Johnson. Will be there or thereabouts
Rickie Fowler. Looking like a winner
Thomas Pieters. Has the lot
Dustin Johnson. In sublime form
Jordan Spieth. Can win anywhere
Rory McIlroy. Heart rules the head here
Tyrrell Hatton. Will win at this level soon
Adam Scott. Will make a stout defence
Paul Casey. Beautiful ball striker
Emiliano Grillo. Improving all the time
Jon Rahm. Look out for another big week from the Spaniard
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