MEXICO CITY – Leaving Trump National Doral was bittersweet for many PGA Tour types.
Although the Blue Monster had fallen out of favor in some circles following one too many facelifts, the annual South Florida stop was more than just another week on the road. For many, it was the unofficial start to the season and a staple on the schedule since 1962.
Those mixed feelings were somewhat mitigated by the event’s shift to Mexico City last year, a move that finally put the “World” back in World Golf Championship. The WGCs might have brought together the game’s best from across the globe, but they did so with a distinctly American lineup since the concept’s inception in the late 1990s.
Until the WGC-HSBC Champions in China was added to the rotation, the events had with a few exceptions been played in the U.S., which made the move to Mexico both encouraging and overdue.
The best version of professional golf being played in a region that had been void of top-caliber events checked off all the right boxes and was exactly what Benjamin Salinas, the CEO of Grupo Salinas, had in mind.
“In Mexico, golf has been an elite sport, and if you wanted to play golf you had to be a member of a private club, and that’s unacceptable,” Salinas said on Wednesday at Chapultepec Golf Club.
For Salinas, whose family runs TV Azteca and retailer Grupo Elektra, bringing the world’s best to Mexico is a matter of pride. Giving children, who have never been exposed to the game, a chance to experience and understand golf has always been the primary goal.
“We want more golfers, of course, but it’s more important the values that the game has,” he said. “We feel it starting to grow and this [the WGC] is an eye-opener.”
Officials recently opened a First Tee program just outside Mexico City, which was no small feat in a country that doesn’t adhere to the same non-profit notions as in the U.S., and Salinas has an ambitious goal to open a private golf course in every state in Mexico.
Perhaps exposing the game to the globe’s underdeveloped corners wasn’t in the original WGC mission statement, but Mexico now stands as the standard and a potential model for future international events.
That Salinas’ ambitious dream is unfolding in real time despite less-than-ideal conditions is both avoidable and misguided.
This week’s field at Chapultepec features 45 of the top 50 players in the Official World Golf Ranking, which is hardly reason for concern, but the no-shows are conspicuous. Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson and Jason Day all passed on the event, while Hideki Matsuyama and Brooks Koepka are out with injuries. It’s always easy in these situations to question the player, but this is more about the schedule than it is an issue of individual motivation.
McIlroy is fresh off three consecutive starts dating back to Pebble Beach, Stenson is in the field next week in Tampa, and Day is a former champion at Bay Hill and will pick up his schedule there. All three will also play the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Texas, in three weeks. Put another way, something had to give, and Mexico’s golf showcase, which is currently wedged between two Florida swing events, is the loser in this scenario.
Even Jordan Spieth, who tied for 12th here last year, was on the fence about playing this WGC as late as two weeks ago in Los Angeles.
“I love the golf course. I just didn’t know what was going to be best for me to be prepared for the Masters,” Speith said. “Ultimately, this tournament was one I thought could be fantastic for that. I was just trying to figure out where I was going to tee it up and get those reps."
The dramatic makeover of the Tour schedule beginning with the 2018-19 season will feature the WGC-Mexico Championship moving to the back end of the West Coast swing, but with fields in California and Arizona enjoying a renaissance in recent years, a post-Los Angeles date likely won't be a dramatic improvement over the event’s current date.
As the Tour schedule compacts to prepare for a pre-football season finale in 2019 and beyond, finding prime real-estate will be a challenge, but Mexico should be first in line for an upgrade, particularly with officials like Salinas talking in terms of a 20- or 30-year commitment.
The championship deserves better. Salinas deserves better. And the opportunity to truly grow the game on an international stage certainly deserves better.