MEXICO CITY -- Before the current president of the United States ruined the Doral tournament by making it a joyless slog on a brutally difficult golf course, that World Golf Championship was a fun, freewheeling event, set to a salsa beat.
Thankfully, this year the WGC brand exported its product to Mexico, and the tournament has been reborn as a lively social gathering on a refreshingly quirky venue. Club de Golf Chapultepec is a stately oasis for Mexico City's ruling class, dating to 1921. It is an old-school, tree-lined course that conjures Harbour Town… were it built on the side of a mountain at nearly 8,000 feet of elevation. Thus pitching wedges are carrying 180 yards and 3-wood is too much club for some of those trying to knock it on to a couple of par-4s.
"One comment I keep hearing," says Paul Casey, "is that this feels and plays like Switzerland or parts of Italy, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Europeans do well." Indeed, at the end of the first round the leaderboard featured an eclectic cast of characters, heavy on the Euros: tied for the lead, with four-under 67s, are, among others, crafty English ballstriker Lee Westwood, young Spanish bomber Jon Rahm and English putting wizard Ross Fisher. Plenty of world-class names are right there, too: Phil Mickelson and Jimmy Walker are also at four under; Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia are tied for seventh at three under; Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas are another shot back at two under.
Regardless of who takes the $1.7 million first-place check, this south-of-the-border experiment has already been a success, notwithstanding Henrik Stenson WD'ing mid-round on Thursday with a stomach virus. (Hey, shizz happens.) "The atmosphere out there was awesome," Bubba Watson said following his first round. "Big crowds, a lot of energy. I had a bunch of kids following me all day calling my name. I loved it." This is the fruit of the tournament's policy to allow free admittance to kids.
Says Casey, "Of course, they couldn't quite pronounce Bubba so it came out Boopa. Never failed to make me smile."
Matt Kuchar played a World Cup in Mexico City a year and a half ago and has seen the evolution of its golf galleries. "They're very well-behaved, they understand the etiquette," Kuchar said following his 68. "It's kind of exciting to see a sport take root in a country that doesn't have a strong golf tradition."
It's the hoariest of clichés, but the tournament sponsor the Salinas Group has cited growing the game as its primary motivation for plowing some $100 million into a seven-year commitment. While Donald Trump turned Doral into a monument to himself, the Salinas Group has taken a very low profile this week. Family scion Benjamin Salinas has served as the unofficial host, and he says, "This tournament is not a political statement. It's a charity thing for kids and developing golf in Mexico. That's it."
Indeed, the family-owned Azteca TV doesn't even have rights to the live coverage, though the channel has offered some fun features like having famous futbol announcers provide raucous commentary to otherwise anodyne golf action. The Salinas Group is putting its money where its mouth is, helping to fund the First Tee Mexico, an ambitious new initiative that was announced this week and will be the primary tournament beneficiary. Benjamin Salinas is also spearheading and a new nationwide project to build a public course in every state in Mexico, which currently has only 200 tracks for its 120 million citizens, all of them either private or parts of fancy tourist resorts. (Ground has already been broken on the first of these public courses, near Tijuana.) In the ongoing efforts to make the game less elitist, Benjamin Salinas is asking the private clubs in Mexico City to open their doors to the public at least one day a week. Earlier this week kids from every state in Mexico were flown in to attend a lively clinic hosted by Jordan Spieth. "I wanted the kids to see their idols up close, to be inspired by them," Salinas says.
This same sense of inclusion has been extended to the players. While Trump chewed the scenery and unilaterally made changes to the course that many competitors found over-the-top, Salinas has done a lot of listening this week. "I'm loving chatting with the players, making sure everything is okay," he says. "Hearing their comments is very useful, I like that very much. I like to speak to the critics so we can be better next year. Not just better—perfect."
The hospitality has already been tremendous, beginning with a chartered jumbo jet from Florida and police escorts from the hotel to the golf course. Last week Billy Horschel cited security concerns in saying he wouldn't have come to Mexico City even if he had qualified, though the golf gods ensured that he didn't. There are plenty of other precious snowflakes on the PGA Tour who feel uncomfortable leaving the American suburbs, lest they stray too far from a Cracker Barrel.
Salinas was aware of Horschel's comments, and he says, "It's a shame. Usually that comes from prejudice about Mexico. He should definitely come and see it–he will be more than welcome if he qualifies... Our number one priority is to show these ambassadors of the world, ‘Wow this, is another Mexico.' This is the actual Mexico. It's not the one that has been shaped by the misleading things you hear."
Polanco is the neighborhood where the players are staying. Its mean streets are crowded with Michelin-starred restaurants and dealerships for Bentley, Porsche, and Tesla, not to mention a vibrant street scene.
"What a wonderful city," says Kuchar. "I've had so much fun just walking around and exploring."
Adds Mickelson, "The food is spectacular. And the coffee – I love coffee – it's amazing here." Asked by a bilingual reporter what his favorite dish is, Mickelson said, "El carne es el major." Switching back to English, he added, "My Spanish is very limited so let's not get carried away."
These kind of cross-cultural exchanges are the whole point of taking a World Golf Championship out into the world. "It's important to the brand of the PGA Tour," says Casey. "There are so many fantastic events in the U.S., but it's almost to the point of saturation. PGA Tour members get a bad rap that they don't like to travel but plenty of us do. It'd be a shame to miss out on a week like this. Mexico City is damn cool and so is this event. It has a different flavor, just a nice feel to it. And it's still in its infancy. It's going to be fun watching this tournament grow up."