WGC MEXICO: Founded in 1325, the ancient city of Tenochtitlan was the crown jewel of Aztec civilization, and before falling to the Spanish in the 16th century it was a place known in part for its hostility to outsiders and macabre rituals, including human sacrifice. Fortunately for the 72 golfers who will be teeing it up this week within shouting distance of the Palace of Montezuma, the people of modern-day Mexico City are much more welcoming than their forbearers, and the year’s first WGC event appears to have found a permanent home South of the Border.
Club de Golf Chapultepec, which has hosted this tournament is each of the past two years and will do so until at least 2024, is somewhat unique in the world of championship golf, in that it’s an old-school design that is quirky by modern standards (and maybe by any standards…), featuring narrow, tree-lined fairways, tee shots that look as if there’s less room than there actually is, and small, difficult green complexes. The primary thing that sets Chapultepec apart, however, is the dramatic elevation change and the altitude– at 7,500 feet, the ball will fly 10-15% farther than usual this week, so there will be some guesswork with the irons. Golf is never an exact science, but between the elevation, the knobby, tricky areas around the greens, and the grasses (kikuyu in the fairways and rough, bent/poa mix on the greens), it’s especially inexact at Chapultepec. Some imagination will be required this week.
Like all WGC events, this tournament will be four rounds without a cut, so players who are capable of producing super-low numbers can overcome a mediocre round or two. Last year, for instance, Justin Thomas found himself in the bottom-half of the field through two rounds, but a 3rd-round 62 vaulted him right back into contention, and he ended up in a 2-man playoff with eventual champion Phil Mickelson. Thomas (11.5) heads BETDAQ’s Win Market this week– no surprise, considering his recent form– while Mickelson checks in at nearly 40/1, which is pretty decent value for a guy who has made a career out of closing the deal and is just two weeks removed from a victory at Pebble Beach. But as is always the case in tournaments of this nature, there’s no shortage of viable contenders, and the tail end of the market features some interesting possibilities, as well.
Here’s what I’m thinking this week:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Jon Rahm (18.0)- After a disappointing second half of 2018, Rahm has come out guns a-blazing this season, with top-10 finishes in each of his past six starts, including a victory at the limited-field Hero World Challenge in December. His stats paint a picture of a player clicking on all cylinders: not only is Rahm a great ball-striker, ranking 6th in Tour in strokes gained off the tee and 18th in strokes gained tee-to-green, he’s been brilliant around the greens as well, ranking 2nd in scrambling from 20-30 yards and 1st in scrambling from the fringe. Scrambling stats have been a good indicator of success at Chapultepec, and Rahm has spoken of his love for the course, saying last year, “I love it. I love being able to take it over corners, take some risk. It’s traditional golf, much like Colonial.” Rahm has posted back-to-back top-5s at Colonial, and though his record isn’t quite as good in this event, it’s not too shabby either, with a 3rd-place showing in 2017 and a T20 last year. Given his current form and his comfort with the course, he’s one of the clear favorites this week and is worth a bet at a price like 18.0.
Jordan Spieth (52.0)- For a guy who’s “slumping”, Spieth looks… I dunno… pretty good? I mean, he’s been inside the top-10 following the opening round in each of his past three starts, and last week his name sat atop the leaderboard on a rain-aborted Thursday at Riviera after a bogey-free 64. Yes, he came unraveled on Sunday, but it’s clear that Spieth is getting closer, and in comments he made last week he suggested that the setup this week, at Chapultepec, would be more conducive to him playing well on account of the “free-flowing full high-ball swings” that the course demands. He has a solid, if unspectacular, record in this event since it moved to Mexico, finding the top-15 in both 2017 and 2018 and shooting par or better in 7 of his 8 career rounds at Chapultepec. Say what you want about Spieth, but the guy has a nose for the finish line– he’s a cool customer when in contention on Sunday, and maybe the best clutch-putt-maker in the world (his recent struggles from short range notwithstanding). And that price– 50/1? When’s the last time you could get Spieth at pre-tourney odds of 50/1? Slump or no slump– and again, it’s all relative, as we’re talking about a guy who has posted Round 1 scores of 65-66-64 in his past three starts– I’m not passing on that price.
Haotong Li (90.0)- Li failed to crack the top-15 in ten PGA Tour starts last season, and his worst performance of the year came in this event, when he shot 73-79-73-73 (+14) to finish 63rd. But there’s reason for optimism: he actually really likes the course, saying last year, “It (Chapultepec) quite fit my eyes. Have a lot of 3-iron off the tee and also a lot of short iron in second shots.” Plus, Li has been in brilliant form of late, with a T12 at the Dubai Desert Classic followed by a runner-up showing in his last event, the Saudi International, where he nearly caught eventual champion Dustin Johnson after a third-round 62. With momentum on his side and more experience under his belt at a course he professes to like, I look for Li to improve drastically upon last year’s performance. He’s won a few big tournaments around the world and he’s fresh off a Sunday showdown with DJ, so who’s to say he can’t kick down the door this week? At a price like 90.0, he’s worth a shot.