MEXICO CITY – Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Phil Mickelson – if that sounds like a dream foursome or your fantasy team lineup you’re probably not alone.
Fact is, that four-ball is pure fantasy, right? Modern golf’s version of the ’27 Yankees, water-cooler topics for ridiculously hypothetical conversations – If Rory had Phil’s short game, how many majors would he win? If Phil had Rory’s consistency off the tee, would they have renamed the U.S. Open trophy after him?
You get the idea.
The PGA Tour brought a World Golf Championship to Mexico and the four horsemen of the A flight rode in.
Note to our friends in Mexico: this is as good as golf gets right now.
Sure there are pieces that could be interchangeable. You could add a Jordan Spieth or Thomas Pieters, the European Ryder Cup star from last fall who is being billed in many circles as a singular talent. Or Jon Rahm, who won the Farmers Insurance Open earlier this year, could add a measure of marquee for those who relish the inside-baseball pick.
Or, you could be greedy and want it all, the young and the not-so-young, the established and the up-and-coming. Such is the embarrassment of riches after three days at the WGC-Mexico Championship.
Johnson trails Thomas by a stroke after the duo posted matching 66s, while McIlroy is tied for third place with Mickelson. For good measure Spieth, Rahm and Pieters are all within five strokes of the lead with one trip around Club de Golf Chapultepec remaining.
Call it a bucket-list leaderboard.
It’s no surprise when the best emerge from the pack at a WGC, they are, by definition, a gathering of the world’s best players. But you rarely get a pack of the best bunched so tightly at one time.
This week, however, the planets aligned in dramatic fashion, with Johnson, who claimed the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking with his victory two weeks ago at the Genesis Open, doing what he does best, overpowering golf courses with a detached brutality.
“I feel like I played really, really good the last three days, I’ve really hit the ball well. I feel like I’m putting it well, too. It’s just not really going in the hole,” said Johnson, who could lose the No. 1 ranking this week if he finishes outside the top 4 and McIlroy wins.
McIlroy will have some ground to make up to fulfill that potentiality, but in his first start since going on the disabled list in January with an injured rib, he finds himself in the hunt after what he called a “boring” 70.
To put the gravity of this week’s collection of all-stars in context, McIlroy admitted that it wasn’t the injury induced layoff or the stomach virus that slowed him on Thursday that led to his struggles on Day 3, it was nerves.
“I was a little bit nervous going out today,” said the four-time major champion. “I’ve been in positions like this before dozens of times, but I don’t know, coming off an injury and sort of the first time back in contention for a while, I was a little bit edgy the first few holes.”
Thomas may be the relative unknown of the front-runners, at least to the casual fan, but his three victories so far this season prove that his abilities far outreach his current celebrity, which could increase dramatically on Sunday if he were to emerge from this group headliners.
“It’s cool playing in the final group with DJ and Rory. That’s something I haven’t experienced before, playing with those guys,” said Thomas, who scrambled for much of his round but solidified his spot atop the pack with a hole in one at the par-3 13th for a 12-under total. “I’ve played with a lot of great players, but it will be a new experience.”
And then there’s Phil, always entertaining whether he’s leading or getting lapped, and he’s giving the Mexican faithful the full experience.
An eventful day featured almost as many rulings (three) as fairways hit (four) for Mickelson, who saw more of Mexico on Saturday than a college student on spring break.
At the 10th hole Lefty pushed his drive left, took a drop and made par. At No. 11 he pulled his drive right, took a drop and made par. At his next stop he was right again off the tee, took a drop and made what most would consider a good bogey.
And yet the 46-year-old still managed to shoot an under-par round (68) and remain in the hunt just two shots back, not that Mickelson was taking much solace in either accomplishment.
“Honestly, it was a disappointing round for me because I haven’t played the way I would like to the last three years and I put a lot of work into it the last year and a half,” said Mickelson, who was rejoined by his longtime caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay on Saturday after the looper was sidelined with a stomach virus on Day 2. “I had a complete meltdown and lost all focus of my game for a nine-hole stretch there.”
Still, he’s among the deepest list of contenders this season at the year’s deepest field. The year’s first WGC has produced a world-class cast for the final act – enjoy.