Asia’s best set to challenge Johnson at WGC-Mexico Championship
Mexico City, February 26: A casual observer likely would not have realized the history made solely from the moment alone. A stoic Dustin Johnson, with a short tap-in and a quiet fist pump. It appeared, on the surface, like any other win under his belt.
But when Johnson raised the venerable Gene Sarazen Cup in 2017—its classic, yet intricate blue-and-gold design glistening under the Mexico City sun—he etched his name in the history books. With his victory in the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship, he became just the fifth player in the storied history of the game to win his first tournament as the world’s No. 1-ranked player.
Johnson is back this week to defend his crown at Club de Golf Chapultepec. With a diverse field from across the globe set to challenge him, will history repeat itself or give way to a new victor?
“Obviously it’s a big tournament,” he said of last year’s event. “Most of the best players in the world are here.”
It could be an Asian who stakes his claim to that big tournament. With seven players from five different Asian countries in the field, the group is primed to appear at the top of the Sunday leaderboards.
One player who won’t have a shot at the title, however, is Hideki Matsuyama. Despite being slated to participate in the weeks leading up to the event, Matsuyama will no longer play, likely as a result of the nagging wrist injury that has plagued him since he withdrew midway through the Waste Management Phoenix Open in early February.
“The pain in my left-thumb area started on 13th hole yesterday,” he said at the time. “I did some treatment last night, but the pain was still there this morning when I practiced. I decided that it was not worth forcing myself to continue to play and worsen the injury, so I was disappointed that I had to withdraw. As much as I wanted to continue to play and with the three-peat in mind, the pain was just too much.”
With the absence of Matsuyama—ranked No. 5 in the world—Asia will be without a PGA TOUR player in the Mexico Championship field. But others are ready to shine in his place.
Kiradech Aphibarnrat (Thailand), Gavin Kyle Green (Malaysia), Haotong Li (China), Shubhankar Sharma (India) and Japan’s Yuta Ikeda, Satoshi Kodaira and Yusaku Miyazato will all be on hand to take their shot at the championship. With a roster like that, the scales could tip in favor of the Asian entrants in Mexico City.
Li brings the most PGA TOUR experience to Mexico, having competed on the PGA TOUR Series-China in 2014 before moving on to the Web.com Tour. He’s made the cut in all three PGA TOUR events he’s played this season, including at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions last October. In his most recent appearance at the Genesis Open in February, he aced the par-3 sixth hole with a 6-iron from 189 yards, en route to a T53 finish.
Sharma also enters riding a bit of momentum, as the 21-year-old captured the Maybank Championship in February while also winning the Sunshine Tour’s Joburg Open in December 2017.
“Probably one of the biggest differences between the Asian players and the American [and] European players up until now has been actually the physical difference,” Matsuyama said earlier this year. “But of late, a lot of the Asian players are training better, getting stronger physically, also in stature.
“Hopefully I can continue to train hard and to narrow that gap between the European and American players, and all of Asia,” he added. “I hope the other Asian players are working hard, too.”
An Asian golfer has never won the Mexico Championship. Matsuyama looked like a contender to change that, as he responsible for Asia’s only two victories in the World Golf Championships, winning the Bridgestone Invitational in 2017 and the HSBC Champions in 2016. It will be up to players like Li and Sharma to change that now.
In all, 65 players from 19 different countries will navigate the narrow, tree-lined Club de Golf Chapultepec as they vie for the first World Golf Championships tournament of the calendar year, including 38 from outside the United States. England claimed the first World Golf Championships event of the season in a stunner, when Justin Rose rallied Sunday from eight shots back of Johnson to win the HSBC Champions last October in Shanghai.
At 2,225 meters above sea level, players in the Mexico Championship are already standing high before play even begins. Time will tell if it will be one of Asia’s best standing higher than the rest at the end.