KUALA LUMPUR: When it comes to World Golf Championships events, Dustin Johnson probably provides the best description.
“They are very important tournaments. They are big tournaments. They bring together the best players in the world,” said the 17-time PGA TOUR winner and current world No. 1.
It is no wonder these factors have driven the long-hitting American superstar to five WGC titles, where he is second after Tiger Woods for most WGC career victories. Beating the best of the best has pushed him to excel and the mantra appears to be driving Asia’s band of new glory seekers on the WGC frontier.
The region’s flagbearers will get a crack against Johnson and the world’s elite when the first WGC tournament of 2018, the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship, takes place at Club de Golf Chapultepec in Mexico City from March 1-4. Johnson is the defending champion at the US$10 million showpiece which is supported by the Salinas family who are intent to help grow the game further in Mexico.
While WGC tournaments have been held with great success for nearly two decades, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama has only burst through the gates recently as Asia’s most successful golfer following standout triumphs at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions in 2016 and World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational last year.
At 25, Matsuyama has entrenched himself as being amongst a new wave of ultra-talented golfers dominating the global golf scene alongside the power hitters such as Johnson, reigning FedExCup champion Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Spanish sensation Jon Rahm.
Beyond Matsuyama, Asia is counting on the likes of China’s Haotong Li, 22, Kiradech Aphibarnrat of Thailand, 28, 24-year-old Gavin Green of Malaysia and the latest sensation, 21-year-old Shubhankar Sharma of India to become world-beaters. Each have shown glimpses of greatness and the quartet will get their chance to underpin their credentials in Mexico, which is not lost on them.
Li, a product of the China Golf Association-HSBC Junior Golf Programme and a graduate of PGA TOUR Series-China, boosted his credentials on Sunday when he took down Rory McIlroy in a head-to-head duel to win the Omega Dubai Desert Classic for his second European Tour triumph.
“I’m really excited about the WGC-Mexico Championship. It is always my ambition to play and compete against the best players in the world, so to get into the elite field is a special feeling,” said Li, who burst into global prominence with an impressive third place finish at The Open Championship last July.
“As it is also my first WGC appearance outside of China, I am determined to make it a memorable week. Hopefully I can contend for a win,” added Li.
Green, who starred for the University of New Mexico during his amateur days, created a slice of golf history at the end of last year when he became the first Malaysian to win the Asian Tour’s Order of Merit, which earned him his maiden appearance at the WGC-Mexico Championship.
“The World Golf Championships are all big events … all the best in the world will be there,” said Green.
During his rise in 2017, Green featured in the PGA TOUR’s events across Asia last fall, namely the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, CJ CUP @ NINE BRIDGES in South Korea and WGC-HSBC Champions in China. And the Malaysian said those events “opened” his eyes to top level golf which he believes will make him a better golfer.
“Playing in the WGC opened my eyes as well as playing in the CIMB and CJ too,” Green said.
“I know what to expect, I know what to do. You’ll get all the good guys in the top events, so I just hope to use these events to better myself.”
Kiradech, Asia’s No. 1 in 2013, is keen to lift his game a notch higher as well, which means improving on his WGC record and ultimately playing his way onto the PGA TOUR. In 11 starts, Kiradech’s best is a T18 at the 2016 WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and he hopes his appearance at the WGC-Mexico Championship will lead to a breakthrough.
“It is fun to have the opportunity to play in big tournaments. Being the first World Golf Championships event of the year, I will be very motivated to produce a strong performance in Mexico and hopefully I can challenge for the title,” said Kiradech, who made a welcome return into the world’s top-50 following five top-10 finishes at the end of last year.
Two victories in two months have propelled man-of-the-hour Sharma into his maiden World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship appearance and the Indian rising star intends to keep his career trending upwards with hopes of reaching the ultimate destination, the PGA TOUR, very soon.
He claimed a second European Tour and Asian Tour co-sanctioned victory in Malaysia last weekend, eight weeks after breaking through in South Africa. His stunning rise, which has been predicted by some of India’s leading golfers, was capped by a brilliant final round of 10-under 62 in Kuala Lumpur which shot him to the top of the Race to Dubai rankings and Habitat for Humanity standings on both Tours respectively.
“I’m really excited as it was a goal of mine to get into one WGC event this year. I knew I had to be in top-10 in Europe to get it done. I never imagined I would win in Malaysia as I wasn’t in contention going into the last day (he was four back) and there were so many players on the leaderboard.
“I’m really happy how things have changed for me. I can’t wait to play against the world’s best in Mexico,” said Sharma.
He is eager to follow in the trail of close friends Anirban Lahiri and Arjun Atwal. The former is a two-time Presidents Cup star and a regular on the PGA TOUR while latter is India’s first winner on the world’s premier circuit. “Every golfer dreams of becoming the world No. 1 and that motivates me as well. Going to the golf course and getting into the big events, you keep setting new standards. I’m sure Dustin (Johnson) isn’t content at being world No. 1 and he wants to win more majors. I want to be world No. 1 too one day, win the World Golf Championships events, win the majors and play on the PGA TOUR. Getting a chance to play at that level will be incredible.”
All eyes will surely be on Kiradech, Li, Green and Sharma as they attempt to follow in Matsuyama’s footsteps and conquer the world in Mexico City. The golfing world awaits with bated breath.