Thursday, March 1, 2018

PGA Tour Preview: South of the Border

By Kevin Krest

Last Week

As predicted, breezy conditions, a firm golf course, and the Bear Trap all conspired to result in a winning score at the Honda Classic of 8-under par, rather high by PGA Tour standards. Justin Thomas, my "Who's Hot" subject from last week, defeated long-hitting Luke List on the first playoff hole for his seventh win in his last 31 events. The defending FedEx Cup champion and player of the year rebounded from a 2-over par 72 in the second round with a 5-under 65 in round three to vault into contention. That 72 included 17 pars and a double bogey at the 16th hole, the middle of the dreaded Bear Trap.

Tiger Woods was 8-over par for the week on the stretch of holes that includes the par 3 15th, par 4 16th, and par 3 17th, all guarded by water. Woods finished the tournament in 12th place at even par. Had he navigated the Bear Trap in even par, there would have been a third player in the playoff. The former world No. 1 showed more flashes of brilliance, leading the field in proximity to the hole. If he gets the putter working, watch out at Augusta.

This Week

World Golf Championships (WGC) - Mexico Championship
Mexico City
Club de Golf Chapultepec - Par 71

History

This event began in 1999 and until 2006 it was played on a variety of courses in the United States and Europe. In 2007, it found a home at Trump National Doral and stayed there through the 2016 tournament. Following Donald Trump's election to President of the United States, the PGA Tour announced that it would be moved to Mexico. The official line was that the Tour wanted to expand the reach of the game, but it was still considered a controversial move.

That aside, the real story of this tournament is the domination by Tiger Woods. From its inaugural event until 2013, Woods won seven times, including six of the first eight. It was cancelled in 2001 due to the 9/11 attacks, so Tiger racked up a 50% winning rate in that time frame. It's a significant statistic considering the strength of the WGC fields. There have only been two non-major winners to win this event, Nick Watney in 2011 and Patrick Reed in 2014. Other than Tiger Woods, the only other multiple winners have been Ernie Els and Dustin Johnson, who has chalked up wins in two of the last three years.

2018 Field

The WGC events each have their own qualifying requirements. For the WGC Mexico Championship, the following players are eligible for the tournament, which accounts for an interesting field comprised of well-known regulars, as well as lesser-known international contestants.

1. Top 50 players from the Official World Golf Rankings two weeks prior to event
2. Top 50 players from the Official World Golf Rankings one week prior to event
3. Top 30 players from final prior season PGA Tour FedEx Cup points list
4. Top 10 players from current season PGA Tour FedEx Cup points list week before event
5. Top 20 players from final prior season European Tour Race to Dubai points list
6. Top 10 players from current season European Tour Race to Dubai points list week before event
7. Top 2 players from final prior season Asian Tour money list
8. Top 2 players from final prior season Japan Golf Tour money list
9. Top 2 players from final prior season PGA Tour of Australasia money list
10. Top 2 players from final prior season Sunshine Tour money list
11. Top 50 players from the Official World Golf Rankings two weeks prior to event
12. Top 50 players from the Official World Golf Rankings one week prior to event
13. Top 30 players from final prior season PGA Tour FedEx Cup points list
14. Top 10 players from current season PGA Tour FedEx Cup points list week before event
15. Top 20 players from final prior season European Tour Race to Dubai points list
16. Top 10 players from current season European Tour Race to Dubai points list week before event
17. Top 2 players from final prior season Asian Tour money list
18. Top 2 players from final prior season Japan Golf Tour money list
19. Top 2 players from final prior season PGA Tour of Australasia money list
20. Top 2 players from final prior season Sunshine Tour money list

* Nineteen of the top 27 finishers from last year's tournament are in the field

* Nine of the top 10, 15 of the top 20, and 23 of the top 50 in FedEx Cup points

* Seven of the top 10, 16 of the top 20, and 45 of the top 50 in the World Golf ranking

* Nineteen countries represented

* Four colleges have three or more former players represented: Arizona State (5), Georgia (4), Oklahoma State (3), Texas (3)

Oldest Player

Phil Mickelson (47)

Youngest Player

Shubankar Sharma (21)

Major Champions (11)

Phil Mickelson (5), Jordan Speith (3), Bubba Watson (2), Justin Thomas, Webb Simpson, Charl Schwartzel, Dustin Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Jason Dufner

Total Tour Victories

177 (Phil Mickelson, 42)

Total Major Victories

18 (Phil Mickelson, 5)

Who's Hot

I don't generally like to put a player in this segment in back-to-back weeks, but it's hard not to acknowledge that Justin Thomas is on quite a roll. He found a way to win last week after struggling early, notching his second victory of the season. Thomas finished in fifth place in this tournament last year, so there is little to suggest that he won't be able to contend again at a course that favors the big hitters. Thomas is starting to put up a Tiger Woods kind of winning percentage, a scary thought for the rest of the field.

Who's Not

Patrick Reed has missed four cuts in eight official events in the 2017-2018 season, including his last two events. He has yet to record a top-10 finish and is clearly struggling with his game. With no cut this week in a limited field event, he may have a chance to work on getting his competitive mojo back in synch. Although he's still ranked at 26 in the Official World Golf rankings, that number will soon begin to fall as his strong finishes from two years ago begin to fall off his point total.

What to Look For

Looking at the players that finished high on leaderboard last year, we can expect big hitters to contend, especially with the elevation factor in Mexico City. Dustin Johnson stands a good chance to win a third time in four years, considering the way he's been playing this season. As mentioned previously, Justin Thomas will most likely be a factor. I look for Phil Mickelson to again be in the mix, as well as big hitting Jon Rahm, who has taken a couple of weeks off after playing four tournaments in a row. Without a cut, anyone can get hot on Saturday and get back in contention, no matter how poorly they play the first two rounds. With just a five weeks until the Masters, the top players will be trying to position their games to be ready for the season's first major.

Kevin Krest is the author of the entertaining PK Frazier series of sports suspense novels and the co-host of the weekly "The Cold Hard Truth: On Sports" broadcast. His books can be found on Amazon.com.

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