G-Mac gets early start on title defense in Mexico

Graeme McDowell didn't expect to get an early jump on his defense of the OHL Classic at Mayakoba, but when he missed the cut last week in Las Vegas he headed south to the eastern shores of Mexico with some work to do and some needed downtime on the beach to enjoy.

McDowell will be among the field of 132 players trying to keep their focus on the golf while competing in Playa del Carmen, Mexico's version of a Riviera of sun, surf and sand.

G-Mac came to this tournament last year looking to put a charge in his season and left with a win that carried huge momentum for the rest of the year.

“It was a very important victory for me and it opened up some nice doors for me and put me in some good positions in the FedExCup race,” McDowell told a pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday.

“This time of the year is becoming very important for the PGA Tour and that's why we continue to see more and more players playing at this time of the year. It's so important that they get off to a fast start with so many great players now and it being so difficult to win.”

McDowell, of Northern Ireland, held the 36-hole lead at last year's tournament but found himself trailing the lead by three strokes entering the final round.

Then a 5-under 66 in the fourth round, including an eight-foot birdie putt on the last hole, pushed him to 18-under 266 and into sudden-death with Jason Bohn and Russell Knox.

On the first extra hole, again No. 18, he hit a brilliant approach shot with a 5-iron from about 200 yards to within three feet for a birdie to turn back Knox and Bohn.

That gave McDowell, who won the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, his third career PGA Tour victory and first since the 2013 RBC Heritage.

“It was great to reconfirm to myself that when I put my mind to it, I can still compete at the highest level,” McDowell said. “

“I suppose I'm disappointed that I haven't really kicked on in 2016 with that momentum, but this year has been a funny one. When it's been good, it's been really good; when it's been bad, I've been going home on Friday nights.”

The OHL Classic at Mayakoba is the sixth event in the PGA Tour's wraparound schedule that bridges two years with 47 official events in 43 weeks.

That includes seven events during the fall of 2016 which will award FedExCup points. After a break, the season will resume in January with the traditional swing through Hawaii before moving to the West Coast.

El Camaleon Golf Club at the Mayakoba Resort is a Greg Norman-signature course. It will play as a 6,987-yard par-71 this week, with a routing that bends through three distinct landscapes — mangrove jungles, limestone canals and oceanfront stretches of sand.

Seven of the nine past champions of the OHL Classic at Mayakoba are in the field this week, including Charley Hoffman, Harris English, John Huh, Johnson Wagner and Brian Gay.

Six Mexican golfers will also compete, led by Carlos Ortiz, a three-time winner and Player of the Year on the Web.com Tour in 2014.

McDowell is one of seven major tournament winners in the field, joining Ernie Els, Angel Cabrera, Keegan Bradley, Stewart Cink, Jim Furyk and Webb Simpson.

Furyk, who makes his first start of the season, said the course suits his game.

“Historically, I haven't played much in the fall because I play so much during the rest of the year, but with my wrist injury and surgery I only played 14 events last season,” Furyk said.

“I'm fresh and I targeted coming here. I heard a lot of positives about the course here and the resort. I like the course and the greens roll pretty good. It's not overly long but you have to drive the ball in the fairways here.”

The OHL Classic at Mayakoba made golf history when it became the first PGA TOUR co-sanctioned event to ever be contested outside of the United States and Canada in February of 2007.

To commemorate its 10-year anniversary, OHL and its founder Juan-Miguel Villar Mir increased the event's purse by $800,010, taking the total to $7,000,010, the largest prize money distributed at any golf tournament to date in Latin America.

The additional $10 dollars are designed to acknowledge the 10 years of the tournament's existence.

Continuing a trend from past seasons, three of the first five winners this season (Justin Thomas, Hideki Matsuyama and Cody Gribble) were under the age of 30 at the time of their victories.

Fourteen different winners under the age of 30 accounted for a total of 18 PGA Tour titles in 2015-16.