MEXICO CITY – Golf in Mexico City is buzzing this week.
Hundreds of fans, many of them children, leaned against the ropes behind the 18th green as Rory McIlroy finished up a practice round at Chapultepec Golf Club. They screamed his name and shrieked when McIlroy walked their way to sign their programs, flags and hats. Until Wednesday, odds are they had only seen him on television.
Golf in Miami has gone silent this week.
For 55 years consecutive years, Doral was a staple of the Florida swing, even when it became a World Golf Championship in 2007. Donald Trump bought the resort in 2012 and promised to make it “one of the great places anywhere in the world for golf.” The PGA Tour signed a deal that would keep it at Doral through 2023, unless a new sponsor didn’t want to be there.
And that’s why it’s no longer there.
In the middle of his presidential campaign, Trump lost business to Mexico, of all places. It was more about finances than politics for the PGA Tour, which couldn’t find a sponsor that wanted to be at Trump Doral.
The Mexico Championship, which starts Thursday with the strongest field of the year, is now sponsored by Grupo Salinas.
“I really like Doral. I like what Gil Hanse did with the course. I like going there,” Phil Mickelson said. “But as a World Golf Championship event, it’s not a bad thing to move it to a different part of the world outside the United States. To bring the best players in the world here to Mexico City I think is a really good thing. It’s going to be a fun event. It’s been a very well-run event. The people have been terrific, so I think it’s a good thing in the long run.”
Mickelson is among four players at the Mexico Championship who played in the first edition of this tournament at Valderrama in 1999, the year the World Golf Championships began. This is the one WGC event that was designated to travel, and it once did — Spain for two years, Ireland in 2002 and 2004 and England in 2006. And then when Doral was lacking a title sponsor, it morphed into a WGC.
Lee Westwood was at Valderrama that year. He echoed the thoughts of McIlroy, Adam Scott and others who believe the “world” in WGC is there for a reason. And he never felt he was playing a WGC event in Miami, no matter how much Spanish he heard in the gallery.
“It felt like a PGA Tour event,” he said.
The Mexico Championship has a different feel in so many ways, starting with the thin air of a club at nearly 7,800 feet.
Dustin Johnson, who makes his debut as the No. 1 player in the world, has been crunching numbers on his TrackMan to get a sense of how far the ball is going. His brother and caddie, Austin Johnson, keeps the yardage of how far each club goes in the air. Next to the driver was 345 yards.
On the range, Johnson hit a pitching wedge and laughed when the number popped up — 181 yards.
He played the back nine Tuesday and found the 11th hole so tight off the tee that he couldn’t figure out where to hit driver. So he hit 2-iron off the tee, and 2-iron onto the green. The hole measures 622 yards.
And then there was Jordan Spieth, who went out for nine holes Monday afternoon and after his first two approach shots went over the back of the green, he smiled and said, “Whoa. Ball go far.”
These are good, and they’ll figure it out.
There is excitement in the thin air out of a new course, an entirely different environment and the landscape of all no matter what country it is played. Six of the top 10 players in the world already have won this year.
McIlroy is playing for the first time since Jan. 15 because of a rib injury, and he still is in range of No. 1 in the world.
For all the interest in the top players, most of the talk is the location.
“I’ve been traveling the world for 20-plus years and never been to Mexico,” Henrik Stenson of Sweden said. “Everyone seems to be very excited to have the event here. I could tell on the fans out on the golf course. I just came off now, played the back nine and there’s a lot of requests for autographs and selfies and I think everyone’s very excited for the week ahead, so that’s good.”
Scott’s first exposure to golf was on television in Australia. He still recalls the first time he saw it in person. He was 10 and went to a tournament on the Gold Coast to see Greg Norman, Bernhard Langer, Curtis Strange, Nick Faldo and other stars.
“And it was a real buzz for me to actually see them,” he said. “Although I was 10 and I was playing other sports, I would watch these guys on the telly a fair bit. And to see them in person made a big difference to me.”