PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico (AP) — Greg Norman is a busy man, running all sorts of companies. So for him to stop and play a PGA Tour event these days he usually needs extra incentive.
A few weeks ago, it was joining his 22-year-old son at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. This week, it’s playing the Mayakoba Golf Classic on a course he designed.
“I was going to be down here anyway, so … why not?” said Norman, a 2001 inductee into the World Golf Hall of Fame who has played only four PGA Tour events over the last four years, his time otherwise spent laying out courses, overseeing a vineyard and a clothing company, all while going through an ugly divorce then getting engaged to former tennis star Chris Evert.
“If you’re here,” Norman added, “you might as well tee it up if you’re feeling well. And I feel OK. We’ll be able to tell come Friday or Sunday.”
Norman had hoped to play last year in the inaugural event — the PGA Tour’s first-ever stop south of the border — but wasn’t healthy enough. A cold slowed him earlier this week, but he was on the tee box for the pro-am on Wednesday, curious to see if his inside knowledge can help him make the cut, something he hasn’t done on the tour since 2005.
The Shark would’ve had a better chance of sticking around for the weekend at this tournament last year.
Concerns about the hassles of playing in a foreign country, questions about the quality of a course built for tourists and a general fear of the unknown kept away most top players who weren’t part of the prime event of the week, the Accenture Match Play Championship. With so many Americans avoiding the initial Mayakoba Classic, there were more countries represented in its field than any non-major in 2007.
Then the tournament went off without a hitch. Fred Funk even provided a dramatic storyline, overcoming a back injury that sometimes forced him to lay down for massages between shots to become the tour’s oldest winner since 1975 at 50 years, 8 months, 12 days.
As soon as folks returned to the United States, buzz began spreading about the 6,923-yard, par-70 El Camaleon Golf Club course and the gorgeous resort surroundings. Quickly, it became a terrific consolation prize for those not among the 64 players invited to the match play event.
“The week after, my Ping rep told me, `Bubba, you missed out on a great tournament. The hotel is unbelievable, the golf course is in great shape, everything about it is beautiful,”‘ Bubba Watson said. “I had to have a week off last year and I just chose this one. But this year, I put it on the schedule and took another one off. I knew I was going to play in it as long as I wasn’t in the match play.”
Funk is back to defend his crown. Also returning is Jose Coceres, who lost a sudden-death playoff to Funk, and third-place finisher Peter Lonard.
In addition to Watson and Norman, other notables who’ve come to the Riviera Maya in search of a fiesta and FedEx Cup points include Nick Price, John Daly, Shaun Micheel and Tim Herron.
All told, the 132-man field has combined for 177 victories and 13 majors, compared to 148 wins and nine majors for a 144-man field last year.
The course remains in good shape, perhaps even better than last year thanks to maturation of the greens. There’s also the natural intrigue of the “Devil’s Mouth,” an opening to an underground, cave-like passageway known as a “cenote.” Anyone willing to venture in it from the first fairway will come out behind the second hole.
Mostly, though, there’s natural beauty that stuns players who are accustomed to playing in beautiful places.
“This is probably top-5 that I’ve played, if not higher. Probably top-3,” Watson said. “There’s not that many better than this.”
The seventh and 15th holes are played alongside the Caribbean Sea. Many more are lined by mangroves, tropical trees that are densely bunched and help promote all sorts of ecosystems. The thicket provides a perfect haven for iguanas and the course’s namesake creature, chameleons.
And, of course, there’s one looming Shark, even if he did turn 53 a few weeks ago.
“Greg Norman — old man,” Funk said, laughing and adding, “I can say that because I’m an old man, too.
“I’m going to pay for that comment. I guarantee it.”