KUALA LUMPUR: It wasn’t long ago when Asian golfers would take delight at simply being in a World Golf Championship (WGC) event. Rubbing shoulders with the game’s elite, watching their heroes up close and personal and competing alongside them were often good enough an experience to take home and cherish.
Oh, how times have changed.
These days, the new generation of young Asian stars such as Kiradech Aphibarnrat of Thailand, India’s Shubhankar Sharma and Anirban Lahiri, Haotong Li of China, Korea’s Si Woo Kim and Byeonghun An, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and C.T. Pan of Taiwan are in it to win it.
They don’t want to just make up the numbers at the WGCs or on the PGA TOUR, and apart from possessing a burning desire now to win at the highest level, their aspirations are backed by armory in their games, a fearless attitude and high dosages of confidence running through their veins.
The WGC-Mexico Championship, which is offering a princely US$10.25 million at the Club de Golf Chapultepec on Feb 21-24, will present the region’s leading lights with their first shot at WGC glory in 2019.
Twelve months ago, India’s Sharma announced his arrival on the big stage by snatching the second and third-round lead through some glorious golf before finishing T9. Arriving in Mexico on the back of two Asian Tour-European Tour co-sanctioned victories, the 22-year-old unveiled his growing credentials with a masterful display which he followed up later in the year by sharing the third-round lead at the PGA TOUR’s CIMB Classic in Malaysia before finishing T10.
American golf legend Phil Mickelson, who played alongside Sharma during the final round en route to his 43rd PGA TOUR win in Mexico, was effusive of his praise of the young Indian, whom he had funnily enough brushed off on the practice putting green in the previous day after thinking Sharma was a journalist hunting for an interview.
“I saw how well he struck the golf ball. He hit a beautiful tee shot on one, you can tell he can really play. I saw some of the putts, some of the highlights with the putter. I know he's a very talented player so I know what a great player Mr. Sharma is. I probably shouldn't say that, he's 26 years younger than me!” said Mickelson, who won the tournament after defeating 2017 FedExCup winner Justin Thomas in a playoff.
As the new 2018 Asian Tour Order of Merit champion, Sharma has guaranteed a quick return to the WGC-Mexico Championship and he is eager to reproduce his heroics at Chapultepec, well known for its narrow fairways and tricky greens which is well suited to his straight-shooting game.
“Those two events (WGC-Mexico Championship and CIMB Classic) were definitely the highlights in 2018,” said Sharma.
“Obviously I have special memories and feelings from Mexico. I couldn’t finish it off but it was a turning point for me. It showed I could play against best in the world. It was my career-first WGC and to have a chance to win at that stage, it gave me a lot of self-belief.
“Hopefully I’ll get more chances to win. Getting my card on the PGA TOUR remains my goal in 2019 and getting into the Presidents Cup International Team is also right up there, so hopefully playing well in big events like Mexico will help.”
As it currently stands, Matsuyama, the ultra-talented 26-year-old Japanese ace, is currently the lone Asian golfer with two victories registered at the 2016 WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai and 2017 WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational.
Grip it-and-rip it star, Kiradech is also keen to add his name to the exclusive winners’ club soon. Last year, the big-hitting Thai produced his first top-five in a WGC in Mexico, which he credits for helping him become the first Thai to earn a PGA TOUR card for the 2018-19 season. Kiradech also enjoyed top-5s at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and WGC-HSBC Champions in 2018 to prove he truly belonged in the big league.
“I can win one of these events,” said Kiradech, holder of four European Tour titles. “I’m not far off from winning. Just keep knocking on the door. I had three top-5s in the WGCs and when the moment comes again, I have to control myself better. Winning one event on the PGA TOUR is my goal in 2019. Winning a WGC will be special.”
Malaysia’s Gavin Green featured in the WGC-Mexico Championship last year, finishing in 64th place. While not exempted for this year’s tournament, Green is fired up to return to the big stage soon as he enters his second full season on the European Tour in 2019.
Another elite line-up of global golf stars is expected to descend in Mexico City with the likes of Mickelson, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and Jordan Spieth tipped to headline the prestigious tournament which offers 550 FedExCup points.
“They are very important tournaments. They are big tournaments. They bring together the best players in the world,” said Johnson, a 19-time PGA TOUR winner including five WGC titles.
And for this reason, the Asian brigade cannot wait to challenge the world starting with the WGC-Mexico Championship.
Note: Chuah Choo Chiang is senior director, communications of the PGA TOUR and is based in Kuala Lumpur