KUALA LUMPUR: 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 standout performances.
In 2018, young Indian Shubhankar Sharma delighted the golfing world by brilliantly taking the second and third rounds 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 competing full-timeon the PGA TOUR, showed his liking once more for the tree-lined and tricky Chapultepec layout by finishing a creditable third some 12 months ago where he produced three 68s and a 69 to serve another reminder of his potential to become a PGA TOUR champion.
Japanese hero Hideki Matsuyama, South Korea’s rising stars Sungjae Im and Byeong Hun An were amongst the region’s stars in an Ernie Els-led International Team who came up agonisingly short 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 in Royal Melbourne, coupled with some wonderful showings by C.T. Pan of Taiwan and China’s Li Haotong were another timely reminder of the growing strength of Asian golf.
Interestingly, three of the International Team members – Adam Scott, Cameron Smith and Marc Leishman – have gone on to taste individual wins in the immediate aftermath of Royal Melbourne which the likes of An believes is due to the Presidents Cup.
“It was incredible to see Cam win (Sony Open in Hawaii). Hopefully I can break through and win one day. Our (International Team) group chat has been going crazy of late. Hopefully someone else can step up, hopefully me or Sungjae (Im) or someone else. It shows the Presidents Cup has helped us. The group chat is still running and it’s great,” said An.
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 elite 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 during the heat of battle, Matsuyama showed a welcome fiery side of his game en route to a 2-1-1 record in the Presidents Cup, securing two wins in the Four-Ball sessions with straight-shooting Pan. He settled for a tie with Tony Finau in the Singles.
Nearly three years on 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.
South 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 sought out the Korean to congratulate him after the showdown.
Im’s continued rise will be closely watched 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 and in 46 PGA TOUR career starts (at the time of writing), he has notched 10 top-10s and finished runner-up at the Sanderson Farms Championship and T3 at the inaugural ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP in Japan.
Mexico’s Abraham Ancer, who played with Im in Australia, said: “We call him ‘the weapon’. He is an unbelievable golfer. The guy just does not miss. He’s so, so good at what he does.”
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, the baby-faced Thai could well be a darkhorse.
He surprised many with a fantastic run at the PGA Championship last year before finishing T14 and matched that result in his WGC-HSBC Champions debut in November. Still, the freckled-faced Thai knows he still has plenty of work to do to step onto the next level. “I’m still trying to gauge myself to see how much I need to improve. These guys are so good. I’m not there yet but I know what are the right things that I need to work on with Pete to then try to get my game ready to compete against these guys.”
The likes of Kiradech, Li, Pan and Sharma have yet to quality for the WGC-Mexico but with Matsuyama, Im and Jazz already in the fray, the golfing world will be waiting eagerly to see who will step up on the plate in Mexico.
* Chuah Choo Chiang is senior director, communications for the PGA TOUR and is based in Malaysia.