Since starting in 1999 the World Golf Championships have been a thoroughbreds’ parade, an arena where only the game’s very best prevailed, give or take the occasional (very occasional) Kevin Sutherland or Nick Watney. Other than that, the honour roll of past winners begins with Tiger Woods and includes every big-time player of the era. Els, Mickelson, McIlroy – we need not go on, lest we delay getting to the point on this final morning of the latest WGC, the Mexico Championship.
The point is this: does Shubhankar Sharma belong on this list?
The lazy answer – the most obvious answer – is of course not. The 21-year-old Indian golfer is an undoubted talent, strong and long and possessed with a craftsman’s touch, but is he WGC class yet? We will find out today, with Sharma teeing off in the final group in Mexico City alongside Phil Mickelson. He has a two-shot advantage, but also the disadvantage of never having been under such pressure before.
This isn’t to write off the young man’s chances. After all, we are looking at player who, having failed to pick up his card at the European Tour Q-School at the tail end of last year went out and won a Joburg Open three weeks later. That was his first European Tour win. His second followed last month at the Maybank Championship in Malaysia, where a final round 62 – four shots better than anyone else in the field on the day – was enough to win by two shots. Muchos Cojones, as they say down Mexico way.
However, the final round of WGC brings its own particular pressure, particularly in the company of a player like Mickelson. The American left-hander has been there and done that. He has been in brilliant form, though not winning form, so far in 2018 and will feel a victory is due. He will also be the gallery’s favourite, not just because he is the most recognisable name but also because he hasn’t won since his Open Championship victory in 2013. Everybody loves a comeback story.
But – there is usually a but when it comes to Mickelson, especially when it comes to his accuracy off the tee. The tight and tricky lay-out of the Chapultepec GC offers the American a chance to showcase his imagination and short game skills but those fairways might look awfully narrow from Mickelson’s vantage point on a Sunday afternoon. If he can stay away from the trees, he is the favourite. If not, there are plenty more who will think themselves worthy of stepping in.
Sharma will be one, of course, but you don’t have to look too far down the 54-hole leaderboard to find potential winners, all of them WGC class. World no1 Dustin Johnson, who won here last year, is only three shots behind the leader, and only one adrift of Mickelson. Likewise, Justin Thomas, whose 62 on Saturday broke the course record, will fancy his chances of making two wins in two weeks on the PGA Tour. The American starts four shots behind the leader. Jordan Spieth is six shots adrift – probably too far off the lead but you never know with the reigning Open Champion, who is liable to a miracle or two when the mood takes him.
From a European perspective, all eyes will be on Sergio Garcia, who won in Singapore at the start of the year but has been as quiet as a church mouse ever since. Indeed, this is only his second PGA Tour of 2018. He has his gaze fixed firmly on retaining his Masters title next month but after three solid rounds he finds himself tied for second place on eleven-under. He looks a strong pick, but only for those willing to dismiss the nagging sense that Sergio 2018 may yet be a little undercooked, that early season rustiness will kick in over the final day.
That leaves us with Garcia’s countryman Rafa Cabrera Bello, on 11-under par, and, more temptingly, England’s Tyrrell Hatton, on the same score. Hatton cuts a curious figure, by turns combustible and cheery. He isn’t the most imposing looking player, especially in such elevated company, but he has developed the world-class art of getting the ball in the hole quicker than most He had a top ten finish in this event last year and has played beautifully for 54 holes this week to find himself in contention.
Can Hatton win? Not if this latest WGC stays true to form, and a thoroughbred like Mickelson or Garcia comes through and wins. But for those of us looking for an exhilarating value bet on a cold and snowy evening parked in front of TV, there is no better choice than the English man at 15/2.