Even without Tiger, golf’s elite make a point at WGC-Mexico Championship

Golf

MEXICO CITY — There was Jon Rahm with an ace and Rory McIlroy with a couple of 400-yard (elevated-aided) drives and Patrick Reed putting aside all the distractions.

There was Bryson DeChambeau playing his best golf since emerging from the weight room a different player and Eric Van Rooyen threatening to steal the title.

And Justin Thomas atop the leaderboard.

Club de Golf Chapultepec was a wild place on Saturday, and it wasn’t just the abundance of birdies and high-flying golf balls in the thin air of Mexico City. A pretty stout group of players is in contention at the WGC-Mexico Championship with one round to play.

“It’s a World Golf Championship, you would expect to compete against the best in the world,” said Rahm, who aced the 17th hole from 158 yards — with a gap wedge. “I know Rory was up there, JT, Bryson … so there’s a lot of great players up there. I’m just really happy that after the first two days, I’m going to have a legitimate chance [on Sunday] without needing to shoot 59 or something like that.”

Rahm put those thoughts in play on Saturday when he started with four straight birdies and six in the first seven holes. A three-putt bogey at the eighth derailed those dreams, but the third-ranked player in the world played the back nine with three birdies and the ace to shoot 61.

It is the kind of stuff dreamed up 20 years ago when the World Golf Championship events were first launched, the idea being to bring the best in the world together more frequently in limited field events that would be on a level just below the major championships.

With all the recent chatter about the proposed Premier Golf League — which would have 48-player fields with big-money events in 18 tournaments– the WGCs has virtually provided the same results, although on a less-frequent basis and with a larger field. And the biggest difference — as part of the PGA Tour and European Tour structure.

Sure, Tiger Woods isn’t here, and neither are seven other players — including No. 2 Brooks Koepka — among the top 50 in the world.

But it makes for a nice Sunday with the likes of Thomas, Reed, Rahm, McIlroy and DeChambeau chasing the title.

Reed, of course, seems to thrive on controversy. It would be just like him to prevail in a week when not one, but two people called him out for the rules violation at the Hero World Challenge that just won’t go away. Both Koepka and former CBS television analyst Peter Kostis made it clear their views, and Reed was left to answer the questions again.

The talking has been better with this clubs, as he’s shot scores of 69-63-67 to head into Sunday tied with van Rooyen and one shot back of Thomas. Rahm, McIlroy and DeChambeau are four shots back of Thomas.

Van Rooyen is the outlier in the group at the top, a South African who played college golf at the University of Minnesota and has just a single top-10 finish and has played most of his career in Europe. He qualified by being among the top 50 in the world two weeks ago, but slipped to 52nd this week. He needs to get back into the top 50 after next week to qualify for the Players Championship.

“I certainly am (an underdog) compared to some of the resumes of some of the other people I’m playing with,” van Rooyen said. You’ve just got to go play golf, man. You can’t overthink this kind of stuff. At the end of the day, there’s 18 holes in front of you, and you’ve got to navigate it the best you can. I can’t control what Justin Thomas does. He’s a phenomenal player. I can’t control what Patrick Reed does or the guys behind us. Jon Rahm just went out and shot 61. Who’s to say one of us is going to win. All I know is I’m going to focus on myself and do my thing.”

Now in its fourth year in Mexico after having moved from Doral in Miami, the WGC-Mexico Championship still vexes players at some 7,700 feet of altitude, which makes the 7,355-yard Chapultepec course play more like 6,500 yards. And while there have been plenty of birdies, the poa annua greens, undulating fairways and general mind games of a ball traveling so far produce just enough doubt to keep it interesting.

And then there is McIlroy, who hit two drives in excess of 400 yards on Saturday on his way to shooting 68. That’s a bit different from last weekend in Los Angeles, where cool temperatures at Riviera meant a different story.

“I was hitting little 7-irons from 155 yards at Riviera last week,” he said. “It’s very different. Even when you get a shot into the wind here, it doesn’t affect it that much because into the wind the ball stays in the air longer and has a chance to fly further … If I know that this week my wedge goes 170, then that’s what I do, and I just have to trust that that’s what it goes. My 9-iron goes 180, my 8-iron goes 200 … as long as you trust those numbers and know it is going to go that distance, it doesn’t really matter what club you’re using.”

McIlroy, who is playing his second tournament since returning to No. 1 in the world, has a bit of unfinished business — if he chooses to look at it that way. He couldn’t haul down Dustin Johnson last year at this tournament, and a week ago he let go a good chance to win at Riviera.

Same for Thomas, who missed the cut last week. A two-time winner this season on the PGA Tour, Thomas followed a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions with a missed cut at the Sony Open. Then after finishing third at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, he missed the cut in the Genesis Invitational.

Now he’s in position to win again — a victory that would be the 13th of his PGA Tour career.

“I feel like I’m playing well, seeing the lines well with my putter,” Thomas said. “My speed has been good and I feel like that’s why I’ve made some of those putts, but anything can happen out here. Low rounds are out there.”

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