MEXICO CITY – Early last week, Rory McIlroy couldn’t contain his enthusiasm that officials had finally put the “world” back in World Golf Championships with the move to Mexico City.
Of the 61 WGCs that have been played since the concept was launched in 1999, just 14 had ventured outside the friendly confines of the Lower 48. That was until the PGA Tour uprooted the annual stop at Doral for Club de Golf Chapultepec.
“I've been quite vocal in the fact that I think we've got the name ‘World Golf Championships’ in there and it's great to be able to take them around the world,” McIlroy said. “It's great to have one in South America. Yeah, I've been looking forward to this event for a while.”
That play for four days at the WGC-Mexico Championship followed a similar script, with more flags then a Benetton commercial atop the leaderboard, only added to the international appeal.
Among the top 15 finishers on Sunday, there was a threesome of Englishmen, a pair of Spaniards, a Belgian, a Paraguayan, a Northern Irishman and seven Americans.
It was a United Nations of golf, which was exactly what one would expect from a WGC, and what local officials had hoped for.
But Benjamin Salinas, the CEO of TV Azteca who led the move to bring the event to the world’s fourth-most populated city, wants more than a showcase event to add to his country’s sports portfolio. He wants something to build on.
Officials launched a Mexican branch of The First Tee last week and Salinas said he hopes to use the interest generated by the WGC to fill what he considers a gaping hole in his nation’s golf landscape.
“We are starting from scratch and it is a dream that we hope will grow. In Mexico we only have 200 golf courses, which is not very much considering we have 120 million people, and of course none of those are public,” Salinas said. “We have spoken about the first public golf course being close to Tijuana, with the help of the state government and businessmen who are ready to pay for it.”
Having the kind of finish tournament organizers dream about certainly helped increase the game’s exposure, with large and enthusiastic crowds filling Chapultepec.
There were, however, a few curious moves if the primary goal of golf in Mexico City is to grow the game, as opposed to catering to the well-to-do. A single-day pass for Sunday’s final round was $170, which is about 20 percent of the average household income ($843) in Mexico. Children were allowed free admission, but that was with a ticket-holding adult, which is a financial stretch for most families.
Even Tuesday’s First Tee clinic hosted by Jordan Spieth seemed to be dominated by young faces of the country club variety who were already interested golf, not would-be juniors who had never been exposed to the game.
Salinas’ commitment to the event is evident. The deal to move the WGC from Doral - where it had been a Tour staple since 1962 - to Mexico is for seven years and reportedly worth $12 million per year, although Salinas said in a recent interview with Golf.com that it would cost around $25 million per year to hold the championship.
All along, the Tour said the move to Mexico City was a financial decision and that’s at least partially true, but as fans filled the course to watch Dustin Johnson hold off Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood, it was clear the move to Mexico was much more than simply a business decision.
On Wednesday, Tour commissioner Jay Monahan spoke of the potential impact of having an event with a World Golf Championships field – let’s not forget there has been a Tour stop in Mexico (OHL Classic) since 2007 – could have on the potential growth of golf in Mexico.
“When the World Golf Championships were formed it was an opportunity to come together, bring the world's best players and take them to great markets around the world to showcase the game played at its highest level,” said Monahan, who brokered the deal with Salinas to move the WGC to Mexico. “Hopefully to inspire young people and future generations because this is one of the very few global games and we felt like that was our responsibility.”
To a man, players marveled at how well the event was run, particularly considering officials had just eight months to organize the logistics and prepare the golf course. And with the exception of a few players dealing with bouts of a stomach virus, the event exceeded most expectations.
However, that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement.
Shifting the championships’ place on the schedule so it’s played after the Genesis Open, which was the original plan according to various sources, would make it more appealing to players and restore the continuity of the Florida Swing.
Officials could also work to bring juniors from more limited backgrounds to the tournament to truly fulfill Salinas’ mission to grow the game in Mexico.
But as far as experiments go, putting the “world” back in World Golf Championship was an unqualified success.