Industry News

L.A. or Mexico City? For Tour pros, it might be hard to tell

By Steve Elling

Two weeks ago, when the PGA Tour made its annual trek to Los Angeles, competitors at Riviera Country Club were a mere eight miles from one of the priciest, poshest addresses on the planet: Rodeo Drive, a monument to conspicuous consumption, just a slow roll down traffic-choked Sunset Boulevard.

This week, they’ll be encamped squarely in the middle of what could be called Rodeo Drive South.

With last summer’s announcement that the big-money World Golf Championships would move from the Miami area to Mexico City, myriad security concerns were raised about the wisdom of showcasing golf’s biggest names in the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, replete with 21 million residents and a well-chronicled criminal element. 

Reacting to the news last summer that the event had been yanked from his Doral resort, Donald Trump, then a longshot Republican presidential candidate, bombastically warned of competitors’ needing “kidnapping insurance,” a statement with some statistical merit. Yet the way WGC officials have described the scene, players probably had more to fear from Zika at the Olympics than Zetas in Mexico City. 

WGC officials recently wrote to players who were likely to participate, explaining that every security precaution was being taken. Not that there were many concerns, given the gilded neighborhood.

“It basically said, ‘It’s safe; we’re not concerned about anything,’ ” said Italy’s Francesco Molinari, who received the advisory and is entered this week. “There wasn’t any practical advice, really, just reassurances that things would be fine.”

Two charter flights were lined up to whisk players from southeast Florida – one after the Honda Classic and the other after Monday’s nearby Seminole Pro-Member – to Mexico City and the high-end hotels located a few hundred yards from the host Chapultepec Golf Club in the uber-rich Polanco district.

“It sounds like a five-star prison camp,” cracked one player agent.

Though kidnappings in Mexico have become a veritable revenue stream for a growing criminal element, the LPGA has staged the Lorena Ochoa Invitational at the capital’s Mexico Golf Club since 2014 without incident. Some PGA Tour players shrugged off any abduction fears.

“I have really no knowledge of anything, no,” said American Justin Thomas, a three-time winner in 2016-17 who is No. 8 in the Official World Golf Ranking. “I’m just excited to eat some tacos.”

He might chew on this in the meantime: Eleven weeks ago, the State Department updated a security advisory for Americans traveling in Mexico, outlining hot spots and underscoring risks that include kidnapping. The Estado de Mexico, the state that surrounds three-quarters of the district in which Mexico City is situated, includes a dozen cities where Yanks were advised not to venture. Mexico City itself, however, isn’t on the precautionary list. 

According to Mexico’s Association to Stop Abductions, kidnappings have nearly doubled in six years, to 8,833 in 2016. Experts say that only one in five abductions in Mexico is reported, because residents fear that police and other authorities are complicit in many of the crimes. 

Perceived risks aside, all but one player (an ill Jason Day) who qualified for the event, which features a guaranteed payday and no cut, has committed to play. In 2016, last place paid $48,000.

Given the safety concerns voiced by Trump and others, odds are decent that players will feel as safe in Polanco as they do in their own beds. The Tour’s security front man this week, Steve Olson, is a former FBI agent who spent years serving in Mexico – not a bad forecaddie to have on the payroll. 

As far as creature comforts, there’s little reason for players to stray from the hotel zone. The Polanco district has been compared to Rodeo Drive and New York’s Fifth Avenue. If you’re going to be held hostage, better that it happens in a Zagat-quality neighborhood than the back of an old van, right?

Fans will be subject to the PGA Tour’s standard metal detection at course entrances, said Andy Pazder, the Tour’s chief of operations. For adventurous souls, drivers will be available to players for a city excursion.

Actually, Pazder said the drivers could help regarding his No. 1 concern for the week. Forget Mexico’s crime statistics.

“To be honest,” he said, “there’s more of a concern about the traffic.”

That sounds like Los Angeles, too.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando SentinelCBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling