Even without Tiger Woods, golf’s elite make a point at WGC-Mexico Championship

MEXICO CITY — There was Jon Rahm with an ace and Rory McIlroy with a couple of 400-yard (elevated-aided) drives and Patrick Reed putting aside all the distractions.

There was Bryson DeChambeau playing his best golf since emerging from the weight room a different player and Eric Van Rooyen threatening to steal the title.

And Justin Thomas atop the leaderboard.

Club de Golf Chapultepec was a wild place on Saturday, and it wasn’t just the abundance of birdies and high-flying golf balls in the thin air of Mexico City. A pretty stout group of players is in contention at the WGC-Mexico Championship with one round to play.

“It’s a World Golf Championship, you would expect to compete against the best in the world,” said Rahm, who aced the 17th hole from 158 yards — with a gap wedge. “I know Rory was up there, JT, Bryson … so there’s a lot of great players up there. I’m just really happy that after the first two days, I’m going to have a legitimate chance [on Sunday] without needing to shoot 59 or something like that.”

Rahm put those thoughts in play on Saturday when he started with four straight birdies and six in the first seven holes. A three-putt bogey at the eighth derailed those dreams, but the third-ranked player in the world played the back nine with three birdies and the ace to shoot 61.

It is the kind of stuff dreamed up 20 years ago when the World Golf Championship events were first launched, the idea being to bring the best in the world together more frequently in limited field events that would be on a level just below the major championships.

With all the recent chatter about the proposed Premier Golf League — which would have 48-player fields with big-money events in 18 tournaments– the WGCs has virtually provided the same results, although on a less-frequent basis and with a larger field. And the biggest difference — as part of the PGA Tour and European Tour structure.

Sure, Tiger Woods isn’t here, and neither are seven other players — including No. 2 Brooks Koepka — among the top 50 in the world.

But it makes for a nice Sunday with the likes of Thomas, Reed, Rahm, McIlroy and DeChambeau chasing the title.

Reed, of course, seems to thrive on controversy. It would be just like him to prevail in a week when not one, but two people called him out for the rules violation at the Hero World Challenge that just won’t go away. Both Koepka and former CBS television analyst Peter Kostis made it clear their views, and Reed was left to answer the questions again.

The talking has been better with this clubs, as he’s shot scores of 69-63-67 to head into Sunday tied with van Rooyen and one shot back of Thomas. Rahm, McIlroy and DeChambeau are four shots back of Thomas.

Van Rooyen is the outlier in the group at the top, a South African who played college golf at the University of Minnesota and has just a single top-10 finish and has played most of his career in Europe. He qualified by being among the top 50 in the world two weeks ago, but slipped to 52nd this week. He needs to get back into the top 50 after next week to qualify for the Players Championship.

“I certainly am (an underdog) compared to some of the resumes of some of the other people I’m playing with,” van Rooyen said. You’ve just got to go play golf, man. You can’t overthink this kind of stuff. At the end of the day, there’s 18 holes in front of you, and you’ve got to navigate it the best you can. I can’t control what Justin Thomas does. He’s a phenomenal player. I can’t control what Patrick Reed does or the guys behind us. Jon Rahm just went out and shot 61. Who’s to say one of us is going to win. All I know is I’m going to focus on myself and do my thing.”

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