MEXICO CITY — As Rory McIlroy finished a practice round late Wednesday afternoon at Club de Golf Chapultepec, scores of kids screamed for the World No. 1’s autograph. He was happy to oblige.
Meanwhile, a couple thousand miles away in South Florida, Brooks Koepka posted a picture on Instagram of himself chilling in his pool with his dog, Cove. The former World No. 1 is skipping the WGC-Mexico Championship for the second time in three years, this time by choice. Koepka, who had a wrist injury in 2018, is instead playing his hometown Honda Classic next week.
The contrasting images are symbolic of life on the PGA Tour these days, where save for a handfuls of weeks a year, someone is putting on a tournament somewhere—and some weeks are more star-powered than others.
That includes this week. Despite a limited field, no cut and a purse of $10.5 million, with the winner earning $1.82 million, several of the game’s biggest names aren’t teeing it up, for one reason or another. Koepka is hardly the only notable to be MIA in MEX.
Tiger Woods, who tied for 10th in Mexico a year ago, said during last week’s Genesis Invitational at Riviera, where he also served as the tournament host, that he wasn’t going to be ready for this week and that he felt “a little rundown.” The 44-year-old added that playing in the higher elevation of Chapultepec wasn’t going to help that, either.
Others had their reasons, too—be it scheduling, lack of success or indifference.
Patrick Cantlay, ranked seventh in the world, is having elective surgery on his septum in order to be ready for the Players Championship in a few weeks, while 10th-ranked Justin Rose is skipping the event for a second straight year in preparation for the upcoming Florida swing. Three others from the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking, Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson and Jason Day, aren’t playing, either. Tony Finau is absent because of a death in the family.
It’s Fowler’s first absence from the tournament, while Stenson has missed it two of the last three years. Day has never competed in the event. When they have played, Koepka and Stenson also have not finished in the top 25 in the tournament, while Fowler’s best result was a T-16.
Then there’s Phil Mickelson. At No. 58 in the world, he didn’t qualify. But the 2018 winner of the WGC-Mexico said before missing the cut last week at Riviera that even if he did earn his way into the field that he still wouldn’t play because he scheduled a family trip and a commercial shoot for this week.
Of course, players can’t play every week. But with a calendar that’s becoming increasingly busy, and in a year that also includes the Olympics, something’s gotta give, whether it’s this week in Mexico; next week at the Honda Classic, a tournament that’s in the backyard of many of the game’s top players; or somewhere else.
“Some of the stars don’t feel like they have to play in a WGC just because it’s a WGC,” said Kevin Na, who is in the field in Mexico, the seventh time he’s competed in the tournament. “It’s kind of [bad for business] a little bit, but there are still plenty of superstars here.”
To Na’s point, the field is not void of notable golfers. Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas and defending champion Dustin Johnson, who also won in the tournament’s first year in Mexico in 2017 after the event moved from Trump Doral, are all regulars in the event. The three are also ranked in the top five in the world, which is good news for those writing the big sponsorship check.
More star power: Three-time major winner Jordan Spieth, who decided to play after a T-9 at Pebble Beach moved him back inside the top 50 in the OWGR, and World No. 7 Adam Scott, who is coming off a win in his first start of 2020 at last week’s Genesis, are also competing. As are Webb Simpson, who won earlier this month in Phoenix, Xander Schauffele and Tommy Fleetwood. All are ranked in the top 11 in the world.
Scott is teeing it up after having skipped the tournament last year. “I’m starting a lot later than most this year,” he said. “But putting this back in this week got me out here against the best in the world, and also it’s going to get me four rounds of golf early in the season, just in case it didn’t go well last week.
“For the last couple years, I’ve put World Golf Championships in and out of the schedule a little bit, trying to find what’s working for me, but I think as I’ve started playing better and better last year, to be the best player out here, you’ve got to play against the best, and that means coming to these events.”
Doing so also will give Scott the reps he feels he needs in the run-up to the Masters, with starts at Bay Hill, the Players and the WGC-Dell Match Play along the way.
“It’s another opportunity for just me to see at least three competitive rounds of golf, where I’m at, what I need to work on, keep me competitively pretty fresh with a week off before the Masters,” he said. “It seemed like a fairly logical schedule based off the break.”
Still, many players say they wouldn’t mind more of a break, as has surfaced amid discussions around the Premier Golf League. One of its selling points of the potential alternative tour is a shorter season, something that could perhaps extend to the PGA Tour in some form at some point.
“Would I be OK with 30 events and having forced weeks off and playing for $15 million every week? I’m OK with that,” Na said. “Guys are going to argue for playing opportunities, but play better.
“But I don’t think it would hurt the tour. Yeah, I’d be OK with it.”
For now, the game’s biggest stars will continue to pick when and where they play carefully.
McIlroy, who skipped the WGC-Mexico and played the Honda Classic in 2018, then did the opposite last year and missed the tournament that’s in his backyard, seems happy with his choice.
“I think it’s been wonderful,” he said of the WGC-Mexico. “The one thing that I love about this tournament is it feels like the community here really appreciates us coming to play, and there’s always been a great atmosphere at this tournament, and that’s a wonderful thing. It’s really nice to play in front of people that are appreciative but also fans of golf. They don’t get to see us very often.”