MEXICO CITY -- Abraham Ancer was star-struck as he prepared to tee off at Torrey Pines last month. Never mind that he was playing in one of the most dazzling golf courses on tour, with coastal bluffs sweeping into the Pacific. In the group in front of him at the La Jolla, California, golf course was his boyhood idol, Tiger Woods.
“I just watched him, I couldn’t believe he was just that close to me,” Ancer said.
The initial grip on the club, the placement, positioning and the fluid motion of the swing was all there. Growing up in the border town of Reynosa, Mexico, Ancer would fist-pump like Tiger did when he made a putt.
“I realize now I could’ve talked to him, but I don’t know, I didn’t want to bother him,” he admitted.
Ranked No. 260 in the PGA Tour rankings, Ancer is Mexico’s top-ranked golfer and, as such, earned a spot in this week’s World Golf Championships-Mexico at Mexico City’s Club de Golf Chapultepec.
The WGC-Mexico expects to field 45 of the top 50 players in the world, including Bubba Watson, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson and last year's winner, Dustin Johnson.
“I’m excited to see how many people are there to watch me, I’m sure the support will be amazing,” Ancer said. “It’s fun to be able to represent Mexico in tournaments of this magnitude.”
After a publicized move that saw the tournament relocated from Miami to Mexico City, the WGC joined the OHL Classic at Mayakoba as the only two PGA Tour events hosted in Mexico.
“It’s a market that exceeded our expectations,” said Gerald Goodman, the executive director of the WGC-Mexico. “For many players last year, it was their first time in Mexico City, and they were very happy with the organization, the course and the fans.”
The prospect of having a local representative on the tournament each year is also a boon.
“It’s big for us [to have Abraham]. It was always on the docket to have the highest-ranked Mexican player in the tournament,” Goodman said.
There's also the distinctly Mexican feel that the tournament emanates, from fans and even media.
Last year, Rory McIlroy drew a smile when he was serenaded with a rendition of a Mexican staple, a chorus of Cielito Lindo during a post-round interview. Cardboard cutouts of top golfers in mariachi fare dotted the gallery, while Mexican fútbol announcers gave a few strokes a much livelier treatment than the usual sedate tones.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 2, 2017
On the course, the atmospheric conditions in Mexico City, which sits 7,381 feet above sea level, proves to be a unique task.
“With the elevation, this course plays shorter, but the architect has done a great job creating a challenge for our players,” Goodman said.
For Ancer, the prospect of playing a major PGA event, surrounded by the world’s best in front of home fans is equal parts daunting and thrilling.
“I started playing golf very young in Mexico,” he said. “Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a club in my hands. Before I moved to the U.S., all my amateur tournaments were in Mexico.”
Recognizing his son’s growing prowess in the sport, Abraham Ancer Sr. moved the family across the border from Reynoso and back to McAllen, Texas, in time for the younger Ancer's high school years.
“My dad was really into golf too, it was a dream we shared together,” Ancer said.
After four years at Sharyland High School, Ancer attended Odessa Junior College, where he won “five or six” tournaments in his only year there. Then the recruiting process resulted in a scholarship offer from Oklahoma, where in his sophomore year, in 2011, Ancer received an honorable mention on the PING All-American list.
After graduation, Ancer joined the Web.com Tour in 2014. In four seasons there, he accrued one win and nine top-10 finishes. Moving up to the PGA Tour, Ancer obtained his first top-10 finish within the circuit last November, at the OHL Classic in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
A dual citizen, 27-year-old Ancer, who was born in McAllen, has chosen to represent Mexico professionally.
“I’m from a Mexican family, I was raised in Mexico and I’ve always considered myself to be Mexican,” Ancer said. “I’m obviously very thankful for the opportunities I’ve had in the United States, but I feel Mexican.”
Ancer recognizes the advantage he and his fellow Mexicans have had in the United States to develop their game. LPGA legend Lorena Ochoa played golf at Arizona and LPGA player Gaby Lopez, who represented Mexico at the 2016 Rio Olympics, was a standout at Arkansas.
“Golf is growing in this country, but we need to work harder to generate more players in the future,” Ancer said. “Lorena Ochoa was an amazing thing for us and she inspired many like myself to know a Mexican can be the world No. 1. I hope I can do something similar.”
Though golf in the country is expanding in exposure and popularity thanks in part to the WGC-Mexico, despite commanding a high ticket price (up to $520 USD for a single weekly pass), the focus, organizers note, remains on the future and hinges on greater accessibility to the sport.
Goodman touts the involvement of Mexican organizations that are working hard to promote the sport.
“The commitment from our partners in Mexico is amazing in order to expose the game to young children and get them involved,” Goodman said. “It could be years away -- to have a Mexican player, a child that goes through the Mexican amateur system to one day become that player who qualifies to the event outright and competes to win.” Goodman said.