Next Stop, Mexico
by Chuah Choo Chiang / Images: Getty Images
Hideki Matsuyama (L) and Byeong Hun An
The International Team’s flagbearers from Asia will be out to avenge their gut-wrenching Presidents Cup loss by staring down the game’s greatest golfers at this month’s World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship.
The US$10.5 million showpiece at Club de Golf Chapultepec in Mexico City will be the first World Golf Championship of the new decade and while no Asian golfer has lifted the trophy in its storied history, recent editions have witnessed some of the region’s leading lights delivering eye-catching performances.
In 2018, young Indian Shubhankar Sharma delighted the golfing world by brilliantly taking the second and third round leads before settling for T9 with a closing 74 in the company of American legend Phil Mickelson, who won the tournament after a playoff against Justin Thomas.
Thai ace Kiradech Aphibarnrat crept into a top-five finish that year to emerge as the highest placed Asian finisher, thanks to a closing 65. The big-hitting Kiradech, the only Thai on the PGA Tour, showed his liking once more for the tree-lined and tricky Chapultepec layout by finishing a creditable third 12 months ago, when he produced three 68s and one 69 to serve another reminder of his imminent potential to become a PGA Tour champion.
Japanese hero Hideki Matsuyama and Korea’s rising stars Sungjae Im and Byeong Hun An were amongst the stalwarts in an Ernie Els-led International Team who came agonisingly close to upsetting a Tiger Woods-powered United States side in the Presidents Cup in December.
While the narrow 16-14 defeat was a bitter pill to swallow, the trio’s performances at Royal Melbourne, coupled with some wonderful showings by C.T. Pan of Chinese Taipei and China’s Haotong Li, were another timely reminder of the growing strength of Asian golf.
Matsuyama, a five-time PGA Tour winner, remains as Asia’s only winner in the World Golf Championships, launched in 1999 with a vision to gather the world’s best players from the various international tours four times a year. The 27 year-old broke through at the 2016 WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai and followed up with another stellar victory in the 2017 WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
Often a stoic figure in the heat of battle, Matsuyama showed a welcome fiery side of his game en route to a 2-1-1 record at Royal Melbourne, securing two wins in the Four-Ball sessions with straight-shooting Pan and settled for a tie with Tony Finau in the Singles.
Nearly three years since his last win, much is expected of Maruyama in 2020 as he seeks to end his victory drought and begin the new decade on a winning note. With top-25 finishes in Mexico in 2017 and 2019, and at a course which demands precision, the Japanese ace is tipped to challenge in Chapultepec.
Korea’s Im continues to win over new fans and fellow competitors with his imperious golf, which is built upon the foundation of a rock solid iron game. The 21 year-old, who was the 2019 Rookie of the Year, delivered 3.5 points for the International Team, which included a 4 & 3 drubbing over reigning U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland in the Singles. Woods, only the second playing captain to win the Presidents Cup, took time to congratulate the Korean after the showdown.
Im’s continued rise will be monitored closely as he makes his debut in the WGC-Mexico Championship. The youngster from Jeju island has featured in one WGC previously, finishing T11 at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai last November. In 43 PGA Tour career starts, he has notched up nine top-10s and finished runner-up at the Sanderson Farms Championship and T3 at the inaugural ZOZO Championship in Japan at the end of last year.
Through his meteoric rise on the Asian Tour where he won four times and claimed the Order of Merit in 2019, Thailand’s 24 year-old Jazz Janewattananond will go head-to-head with the stars in Mexico for the first time. Coached by Pete Cowen, who also works with World No. 1 Brooks Koepka, the baby-faced Thai could well be a dark horse. He surprised many with a fantastic run at the PGA Championship last year before finishing T14 and matched that performance in his WGC-HSBC Champions debut.
The likes of Kiradech, Li, Pan and Sharma have yet to quality for the WGC-Mexico, but with Matsuyama, Im and Janewattananond already in the fray, the golfing world is waiting eagerly to see who will step up to the plate in Mexico.
Note: Chuah Choo Chiang is Senior Director, Communications for the PGA TOUR and is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.