February 20, 2019
The World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship is an unlikely saviour for the sport. At the first staging of this tournament, in 2017, players and caddies were affected by sickness to such an extent that an emergency ward by the 18th green would have been a valid addition. The impact on last year was inevitable; Rory McIlroy gave the event a miss despite a $10m prize pot, as again did Jason Day. The tournament seen by many as a beacon of light, having prised WGC status away from the Donald Trump-owned Doral site in Miami, was floundering.
Is it hird time lucky? The early signs are at least promising. McIlroy will tee up at Chapultepec on Thursday. The resurgent Tiger Woods will do likewise, in what will prove a fascinating insight into interest in this sport’s most famous player in unorthodox professional territory. That there is no cut means a guarantee of Woods for four rounds, useful to analysts and the 14-times major champion himself after the weather delays which disrupted last weekend’s PGA Tour stop in Los Angeles. Whisper it but Augusta National is not so far away.
The broader picture, even so early in the year and owing to a bizarre set of circumstances, is that golf could sorely do with some uplifting tales emanating from central America.
In no particular order 2019 in golf has seen: murmurs of discontent or confusion relating to new rules; squabbles over slow play; negative publicity as the European Tour opted to stage an event in Saudi Arabia; the vilification of Sergio García after damage done to greens in Saudi Arabia; and an epic rumpus involving what Matt Kuchar paid – or did not pay – a caddie. Individually these events are bothersome enough but, when taken collectively, they portray the image of a sport grasping for happy pills.
This week, for the first time in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event, players are permitted to wear shorts for pro-am and practice rounds. A topic so trivial it is barely worthy of a shrug will attract attention as if delivering seismic change on the game. It is little wonder.
Victory for JB Holmes on Sunday at the Genesis Open has not been assessed – externally anyway – without reference to his chronic pace of play. The antics of Holmes – procrastinating and pontificating, never ready when it is his turn to play – made this event unwatchable even to seasoned golf fans. Holmes shrugged his shoulders after walking off with a cheque for $1.3m. “There’s times when I’m probably slow but it is what it is,” Holmes said. The inference was simple: “I couldn’t give a …”
That the PGA Tour, a members’ organisation, will not appropriately penalise serial slow-play offenders is hardly news. A key point with this will arrive, surely, only if those providing live broadcasts of events decide the product is being meaningfully harmed. Viewing figures for Sunday’s final round would make interesting reading.
García’s extraordinary episode in Saudi, a woefully ill-fated European Tour production, was followed by an apology which implicated personal circumstances. Whether the Spaniard’s penalty starts and ends at disqualification from that event is apparently still a matter for discussion.
So, too, is how badly Kuchar’s reputation has been besmirched by his low-balling of a temporary caddie when he won the Mayakoba Classic in Playa del Carmen. As public relations blunders go, not least for a player commonly portrayed as more pure than the driven snow, this was incredible. Three months on, due in no small part to media attention, Kuchar’s climbdown led to David Ortiz securing a payment of $50,000. Intriguingly, Kuchar is back in Mexico this week, where one presumes he will keep his head down.
What combines García, Kuchar and Holmes is the inevitable public sense that golfers in the upper echelon are out of touch with reality, that they believe they can do as they please without fear of serious penalty. Garcia’s petulance, Holmes’s ignoring of what helps grow the game and Kuchar’s thrifty touch despite outrageous wealth sit uneasily with the public at large.
Against this backdrop it is somewhat poetic that Woods, whom by his own admission erroneously operated within his set of rules for too long, offers hope. His comeback from severe injury appeared complete amid success at the Tour Championship last September but should the 43-year-old do likewise on Sunday, for what would be the 19th time in a World Golf Championship, the Masters narrative will gather considerable pace. Woods would be doing his sport a humungous favour. It is uncanny how, the more things change …