Mar
3
2017
Friday at the WGC-Mexico Championship: Impressed and success!
By Stephanie Wei under WGC

Regardless of the result or nearly anything that happens this weekend in Mexico City — short of a bunch of golfers getting mugged and robbed, which isn’t likely, anyway, considering the security and most aren’t known to be the most adventurous in the world — the WGC-Mexico Championship is already a huge success. Golf claps for the PGA Tour, the Championship committee and our generous and gracious hosts! Let me tell you, no expense has been spared.

Sure, it was nice to have the fluidity of the Florida swing, but even before President Trump ruined Doral with a redesign that turned the Blue Monster into a modern beast that was annoyingly difficult, along with the longtime previous sponsor (Cadillac) contract’s running up after last year, making anything with Trump’s name attached a difficult and troublesome sell due to the inevitable political hotbed that even ex-Commissioner Tim Finchem found it “difficult.” And mind you, Finchem was such an astute businessman that the Tour was barely impacted during the years of the economic downturn. I mean, he was so good at his job he could probably get a company like BMW to sponsor a venue at a local muni.

(Don’t even try to tell me you can separate golf and politics when the President didn’t fully divest from his companies, including his massive presence in the golf industry. It always comes from the top, and hey, just following suit.)

But the call for the WORLD Golf Championships to be hosted at more internationally diverse venues was long overdue. Prior to this year, three of four WGCs were held stateside, with the only international venue in Shanghai, which is fine and all, but not if they’re supposed to be WORLD Golf Championships.

The Tour had insisted the decision to take the WGC from Trump Doral to Mexico City had nothing to do with politics. Grupo Salinas stepped in and threw stupid money at the Tour to move the event to Mexico City. The company didn’t even want to blemish the name of the tournament and opted to go with beautiful simplicity, unveiling it as the WGC-Mexico Championship. Call it kismet or whatever you want and timing is everything, and regardless, it’s hard to not take note that the WGC at Trump Doral, a longtime venue on the PGA Tour, was being moved to Mexico City, of all places. Rory McIlroy pointed it out shortly after the deal was announced last spring, cracking a joke about jumping over the wall and pointing out the irony of the situation.

“Since it was announced that this tournament was coming to Mexico City, I was excited about it,” said McIlroy in his pre-tournament press conference. “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. Obviously here it’s great to have one in Mexico here.

“I’ve been looking forward to this event for a while. It’s good to see a little bit of the golf course today. I didn’t expect the ball to go as far as it was going. It’s obviously quite an altitude here, but it’s cool. It’s a different golf course than what we normally play week in and week out. It’s a little — it’s very strategic, you’ve got to think about where you’re positioning your ball off the tee. The greens are very small, quite undulating. It’s a really old-school sort of test.”

Sure, there have been a few casualties due to our precious weak stomachs, not to mention the high altitude. Henrik Stenson withdrew mid-round on Thursday due to a stomach virus and Rory McIlroy, who shot four-under 68 in the first round, was up for most of Wednesday night “just worshiping the porcelain bowl.” Phil Mickelson’s caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay fell ill and only lasted three holes before Phil’s brother Tim Mickelson, the former men’s golf coach at ASU and now manager to rising star Jon Rahm, came to the rescue and filled in.

Not that anyone cares, but there have been several casualties in the media. I arrived into town Monday evening and came down with a bad case of altitude sickness and then had an upset stomach that left me bedridden until today. (I’m fairly certain it was not thinking about the ice in the fridge of my Airbnb — I’m guessing tap water was used for the ice because that’s the only thing that makes sense. FYI: Mexico City is home to some of the best restaurants in the world and is well known for its scrumptious cuisine.) That said, it’s probably a REALLY good idea Jason Day skipped out with his double ear infection and flu. I don’t think his body would’ve reacted well to the altitude and he probably would’ve had some sort of stomach virus. I say this with love because the only person with a worse immune system and more sensitive/prone to sickness than me is Day.

I was honestly about as devastated as you can be over falling ill for three entire days (I mean, I didn’t even have the energy to read Rory McIlroy’s pre-tourney presser), but I was pleasantly surprised at how organized the event is, especially since it’s the first year at this venue. I won’t go into specifics, but the Mexico Championship is better organized and run than a fair number of long-time regular Tour stops — even Mickelson’s manager Steve Loy noted that. The PGA Tour Championship team deserves a massive shout-out for a job well done. I used to cover 30-35 events a year, so it’s not hard to recognize the little things that make a massive difference.

The volunteers seemed like veterans and we weren’t subjected to ill-timed cries for, “Quiet, please,” or power trips. The fans were also great — their etiquette was better than most and they were polite and gracious. It was also a nice break from drunks yelling, GET IN THE HOLE!, or your garden variety of stupid shit you hear at almost every golf tournament.

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The kids were adorable and genuinely super excited for the tournament and every single player, but McIlroy received the largest, most enthusiastic reception. I mean, when McIlroy made the autograph rounds, the kids nearly mauled each other and broke through the metal barriers! Usually, at tournaments, you see adults running over kids trying to get autographs. It was a nice that it was a kids-only autograph area.

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Hilarious moment: Phil Mickelson greeting very excited fans (but mellow compared to Rory), yelling his name and trying to speak Spanish. “No es necessario!” said Phil, before gesturing toward his ear. He got the point across. The kids immediately simmered down. Well behaved!

The golf course is immaculate and gorgeous. I love the old-school look. Add the element of adjusting for the super high altitude — guys are hitting it REALLY long. I’m sure you haven’t heard that enough times!

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Security? Comfort? The sponsor and Mexico City have certainly rolled out the red carpet. Remember, I noted the tremendous wall surrounding the golf course. Well, the facilities inside the well-guarded gated grounds are immaculate and beautiful — they make Doral look like an extension of the Miami airport runway. Oh, wait…(and that’s been a crack since before the current owner bought the place). I am still laughing at some misinformed comments and reactions I received last week. Let’s take a look at the police presence in front of the Player hotel.

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A local journo told me that the last time he saw such a large police presence was when President Obama came to town. Players and their entourages are receiving a police escort from the fancy hotels in Polanco, a very ritzy neighborhood in Mexico City, so they don’t have to deal with waiting in traffic —  it’s not really because of any security concerns or potential threats. Heck, there have been several instances where even the media shuttle has gotten the luxury of a police escort to dodge traffic!

I didn’t personally see this, but a colleague told me he saw a massive police escort, lots of flashing red lights and he was thinking, wow, this must be a huge VIP…and Fluff got out of the car, shaking his head, saying, “I didn’t ask for anything of this!”


As mentioned above, Bones was really suffering from food poisoning or something (with the high altitude, everything is magnified, like, times 100), so Phil’s brother stepped in.

A few highlights on this rare occasion:

*“(Phil) has only had three caddies: his father-in-law, Bones and me, and I’m retired,” said his manager Steve Loy.

*“It was fun. It was the first time we were able to do that and it was fun,” said Tim Mickelson. “Trust me, I don’t want Bones’ job, though. I have a whole new respect. Every hole seems uphill.”

*Asked if he disagreed with any of his brother’s club choices or decisions, Tim, smiling, said: “Well, he’s never listened to me on the course or off the course, so nothing is going to change.”

*Phil’s first remarks in his post-round scrum:

The first three holes, Bones hasn’t been feeling well and the first three holes are straightaway going from the clubhouse downhill, and we got back and we looked back up the hill and I could see that it was going to be a difficult walk… Tim knew that (Bones) probably wasn’t going to make it the whole round and so he came out. It was great. Now, you can’t replace somebody likes Bones. He’s phenomenal and he’s so good with club selection and strategy and so forth, but my brother’s a great player and he did a phenomenal job today. He’s caddied in amateur events and he’s played at a high level in amateur events so he has a good grasp of this. And then the other two guys, Scotty Vail and Greg, the caddies for Louis Oosthuizen and Snedeker, were very helpful, too.

Well, (Bones is) irreplaceable. I mean he’s one of the best in the business. He’s so good at club selection, and here at altitude that’s where he’s invaluable and so forth. But he’s hurting. It’s a difficult course to walk because it is hilly. He had two knees done but that’s not the issue, he just hasn’t been feeling well. So he’s irreplaceable and I love playing with him. We’ve had phenomenal times. But on the positive side, I had a lot of fun with my brother. He’s so fun to be around and he did a great job today. He’s a good player in his own right. He’s a scratch player, understands the game, has caddied for many top players…

*Phil likes spending time with his brother!

(Tim) does give me the needle, but I think that’s so funny. It keeps me relaxed. The fact that he told — he has a few stories about me that he wish he didn’t — it can be challenging, but he’s so fun to be around, he’s one of the quality people that I know.

*More on his brother again…

Well, my brother understands, you know, he understands how to play the game at a high level and how to shoot low scores and when to go for it and when not to. And as a college golf coach for many years, he also understands smart strategies, strategic play and smart plays. And so does Bones. So he was there if I needed to talk through some stuff, but for the most part, these greens are greens I’m going to read on my own. Also, the irons, you really have to to feel, get a sense for it. You can’t say I like an 8 or I like a 9 because it can go such a different yardage. It’s based on how you feel, how hard you’re going to hit it and all those nuances. So of all places to have it happen, this is probably the easiest to transition, but Bones is invaluable. He’s so good at what he dose.

*Phil on looking a bit indecisive on no. 7:

I was in between two clubs. I could have hit either one and I ended up going with the longer, the more of the two. I went with an 8 instead of a 9 because I just felt 4 Tee-Scripts.com like taking the water out of play. It was a little bit safer play. It flew a little bit long like I thought it probably would. I think that nothing would have been different on that instance had Bones been out there. You know, on this golf course, I don’t have Bones read the greens. On the club selection, we’ll have options, but for the most part it’s very difficult for a caddie to pull a club for a player here. So I’ve got to do it because it’s based on how I’m feeling, how hard I want to hit it, what kind of draw or fade I want to hit because the discrepancy in distance is so great here that it’s hard for any caddie to pull a club. So I don’t use Bones all that much on the club selection either, even though he’ll give me a few options.

*Thankfully, it happened at a new venue at a course where Phil doesn’t rely on Bones as heavily. Had it been elsewhere…

So of all places for it to happen, this is probably the easiest one. I’m lease reliant on him here, whereas at Augusta it would be catastrophic because we have so much history on that golf course over the years, so many shots that he’s documented, how far each club has gone and where we want to be and not be and what happened in certain years when we went here and we made that putt and that putt, remember, it broke a little more. All those things on a course like Augusta would be invaluable that you simply can’t replace. It would cost me a lot of shots. But a place here, which is a new golf course, we don’t have that history. It probably was the easiest place to do it.

*Phil approves of moving the tournament from Doral to Mexico City:

It’s been very flattering to come play here and feel the support from the 5 Tee-Scripts.com people. They’ve been so nice and I’m very happy that this tournament, the World Golf Championships, has been brought here to Mexico City. If’s been a great opportunity to bring the best players in the world right here.


 

Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy, who is playing in his first tourney since enduring a rib injury, is leading by two shots. His wedge game was awesome. In strokes gained for approach shots into the green, Rory had mostly wedges because let’s all say together: the altitude so the ball goes forever! And he hits it far, anyway.

McIlroy, who hasn’t played a competitive round since January 15, missed a few short putts in the last few holes, yet still managed to shoot an impressive seven-under 65. He also had a date Wednesday night with the toilet and despite lack of sleep and feeling under the weather, he posted a four-under 68 in the first round.

Highlights from Rory’s post-round quotes…

*On his game overall:

I played really solid. I basically hit the ball where I was looking for the most part. I think my wedge play was really good. I had some really good wedges and short irons and that’s really, if you can do that around here you’re going to score well. A little disappointed with the couple of misses coming in, but it can happen late in the day on these greens. Yeah, a couple of misreads, that was really it. I felt like I made two good strokes on those last two holes, but these things happen. But I’m still, I’m two-ahead going in the weekend, so I’m in a good spot.

*He’s totally exceeded his expectations (love how honest he is):

Oh, exceeded expectations, way exceeded expectations. I came here not with low expectations but I didn’t really know what to expect. It’s my first competitive week back after seven weeks, an injury. I was just trying to take it each day as it came. I’ve got through two days and I’m in a pretty good spot and hopefully the next two days go just as well. Definitely exceeded expectations up until this point.

*He generally has played well coming off long layoffs and returning from injuries:

I really didn’t know what to expect but physically I feel really good. 36 holes, it’s not the most physically demanding golf course. Obviously the altitude takes a little bit out of you but I feel great. Yeah, I mean, I think I’ve exceeded my expectations coming into the week. I would have — I would have liked to have said coming in here yeah, I’m going to just get straight back at it and contend for the win or whatever, but I’m sort of a bit more realistic than that. Coming in here this week I definitely would have taken a top-10, it would have been a great start to come back, but I’m in a great position and I can think about trying to win this thing.

Yeah, the course looks easy to walk, but hell, I felt like I was climbing a mountain because of the altitude.

*Geez, guys, the scores are too high!

I don’t want to jinx it, but yeah, I’m surprised that the scoring isn’t better. Obviously there’s a lot to adjust to with altitude and the greens and whatever, but I guess it is tricky if you miss it in the wrong spots but I haven’t really put myself out of position at all and that’s probably why I’m a couple ahead right now.

I hope Rory wins by 10. Or maybe just to make it exciting he wins in a thrilling duel against Phil or Dustin Johnson or RIckie Fowler or any rising star, fun player to watch.


Aside: Just a very mundane example of how normal Rory is. As he walked from the TV interview area to the flash area, I found myself walking next to him and mentioning that I ran into his dad Gerry at Seminole last Saturday. Rory said he knew already because his dad had told him. See, that sounds so stupid and trivial, but it also shows how normal and down-to-earth the McIlroys are.

Then Rory started talking about how much his dad is loving being a member at Seminole and how he already has a Monday tee time set up for when  he returns. I mentioned how much I love the fact that Gerry is a member there, with kinda a “knowing” look, like, he doesn’t necessarily come from the same background as the rest of the membership, which makes it all the more awesome. Rory didn’t miss a beat and agreed.

When I saw Gerry last Saturday, he looked better than ever and clearly loving life (how could you not!), and I couldn’t be genuinely happier for him and their entire family — he’s always been class and worked a couple of jobs so Rory could become Rory and he deserves every second of the good life.

You can almost always tell if a kid comes from good stock from their parents. It’s rare for any player on Tour to NOT change and remain true to themselves and Rory always has, so as I’ve declared countless times, I am unabashedly a fan. I think his rookie year on the PGA Tour was also my “rookie year,” so I feel like I’ve known him forever and I remember telling him back in 2011 to please never change. So far, he hasn’t (and if he was going to, it would’ve happened a long time ago). I’m glad he’s kept his word, but I’m also not surprised.


 

Just another funny moment during the holes I walked following Rory, DJ and Hideki. Walking up near the 6th green, DJ’s approach was in the bunker, but I hear a voice behind me calling my name. I turn around and naturally, it’s Dustin. He asks me if I dropped my phone. It took a second for me to register because it’s the middle of a round and he’s just casually asking about a phone.

I was like, uhh, no, my phone is always glued to my hand. He was trying to be helpful and didn’t get my self-deprecating joke and shrugged, saying, “Oh, it looks like a girl’s.” Not far behind him, his brother and caddie AJ was holding an iPhone with a super girly-looking cover — WAY more teenie bopper than anything I’d ever have! When they were done with the phone, I offered or DJ or AJ asked me to take it because someone was calling it repeatedly (it was on vibrate). It was nice of them to notice the phone and pick it up. I got it back to its rightful owner — well, it was her dad, who was panicked as his daughter was likely rather concerned.

The whole thing was such a Dustin moment because who else casually asks if you lost your phone in the middle of a hole during a tournament. LOL.

Good night!