MEXICO CITY – The opening round of the WGC-Mexico Championship definitely had a “world” flair, with five different countries represented among the top 10, but it wasn’t exactly the star power we’ve come to expect from a World Golf Championship.
There was your leader Louis Oosthuizen (South Africa), followed by Chris Paisley (England), Xander Schauffele (United States) and Shubhankar Sharma (India) tied for second; while Rafa Cabrera Bello (Spain) and Kiradech Aphibarnrat (Thailand) were knotted at 5 under and in fifth place.
Missing from that United Nations lineup was world No. 1 and defending champion Dustin Johnson, No. 3 and the PGA Tour’s most recent winner Justin Thomas, No. 4 Jordan Spieth and No. 5 Justin Rose.
In fact, there were just two players from the top 10 in the World Ranking, No. 2 Jon Rahm (seventh) and No. 7 Rickie Fowler (tied for eighth), among the top 10 when play finally concluded in fading light after a 30-minute lightning delay.
“Any player here can have a good day and shoot a good round,” said Oosthuizen, who was bogey-free on Thursday for a 7-under 64.
These are world-class events and by definition a collection of the globe’s best and brightest, but history shows that these WGC soirees go to chalk more times than not. The last six winners of this event, which moved to Mexico from Doral last year, include Johnson (who has won twice), Adam Scott, Patrick Reed, Tiger Woods (a seven-time champion) and Rose.
Instead, Thursday at Chapultepec Golf Club delivered a mixed bag of compelling, if not little-known, players and just as many out-of-character performances.
Johnson, for example, had two bogeys and a double-bogey and played the par 5s, which he feasted on last year on his way to victory, in 1 under par.
“I had some really good holes, I had some really bad holes. I felt like I was just struggling all day, just grinding,” said Johnson, who finished with a 2-under 69 and is tied for 13th. “When I did have good looks, I made them, which definitely kept my score at least respectable. The way I hit it, I probably should not have shot 2 under.”
Consider Paisley, who describes himself on his Twitter account as a “diminutive golfer from Newcastle, the anti-DJ. The Englishman, who began this year ranked 289th in the world and is playing his first WGC and first PGA Tour event this week, ranks 35th in the field in driving distance.
“I was delighted with the score, and obviously it's the biggest tournament I've played in by a long stretch,” said Paisley, who finished first, fifth and fifth in his first three starts on the European Tour this year. “To play as well as I did and shoot a great score against the world's best players and to be right up there, I'm just delighted.”
Thomas, who is fresh off his eighth Tour victory last week at the Honda Classic, couldn’t say the same thing. He posted more bogeys (three) than birdies (two) for just his third over-par round (72) of the year and is tied for 39th in the 64-man field.
“It's probably the worst I've ever felt over the ball in my life. It's a helpless feeling just because it's a course that you feel like you can score, make a lot of birdies on,” Thomas said. “I really kind of started on Tuesday, wasn't swinging it very well, and then yesterday I just was hitting it awful. It's just one of those days where kind of everything wasn't going my way and not playing well definitely added to that.”
Sharma, who like Paisley is making his first Tour start and at this point last year was plying his trade on the Asian Tour, had no such problems with his swing or Chapultepec and was a perfect 6-for-6 in scrambling on his way to a 65.
There were moments of normality early on Thursday when Bubba Watson, who won his last start at the Genesis Open and already has a WGC on his resume (2015 HSBC Champions), moved to 7 under for a two-stroke lead following three consecutive birdies at the turn, but the left-hander’s unraveling was as sudden as it was spectacular when he played Nos. 3, 4 and 5 in 4 over par to plunge down the leaderboard.
To be fair, Oosthuizen is hardly a journeyman and he’s certainly comfortable on the biggest stages (see Open Championship, 2010); and Rahm, who finished third here last year in his debut and can overtake Johnson this week as world No. 1 depending on a variety of scenarios, has emerged as a bona fide world-beater. It’s just that since their inception, the World Golf Championship events have largely been the domain of the game’s most recognizable players, a dependable catalyst that produces predictably impressive contenders and champions.
The billboards around Chapultepec understandably include the likes of Johnson, Spieth, Fowler and Thomas. By comparison, neither Paisley nor Sharma even have pictures or bios to go along with their scorecards.
But then, while it might be billboards that sell tickets and generate interest, it’s the names on the leaderboard that count once the competition has started, whether that lineup includes a superstar cast or not.