The Hero World Challenge is a bottleneck at the top. That should come as no surprise.
After all, the field consists of 20 players who represent the best the game has to offer, the kind of field a Saudi Super League could sink its teeth into … not to mention quite a bit of appearance fee money.
So it should come as no surprise that only three shots separate 12 of the contestants. It should also be no surprise to see names like Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Collin Morikawa, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau among them. It should be no surprise to see the lead at 6-under par, a Route 66 pace through the exotic playing grounds of Albany Golf Club in the Bahamas.
Related: McIlroy Continues Hot Streak in Round 1 in Bahamas
Then again, there might be one surprise. Maybe it’s a little unexpected for some to see Abraham Ancer crowding the household names. Maybe you’re thinking, “Now there’s a name that doesn’t belong.” And if you are, it’s OK, Ancer won’t hold it against you. In fact, he readily admits, he used to feel the same way.
“When I first got out on the Tour, mentally I had no chance,” said Ancer, 30. “I felt like I was always pretty mentally strong and I feel like I was ready, but no, there were some events at the beginning of my career that I was like, I have no idea if I have what it takes to be out here.”
Actually, Ancer corrected himself. He had a pretty good idea he didn’t belong. There was the fact he missed 13 cuts in 19 starts and finished 190th in FedEx Cup points during his rookie season in 2016, which cost him his playing card. Then there was the occasion when he stood on a driving range, surrounded by giants, the likes of which he is playing alongside this week.
“I think back then it was my first event on Tour at Napa and I was setting up at the range,” said Ancer, who was born in South Texas, but grew up in Reynoso, Mexico, where he lived until age 14. “It was kind of chilly in the morning. It was my first PGA Tour event and Rory (McIlroy) … was there that week. Dustin Johnson, I think, or somebody else sets up right next to me and I'm seeing him hit 5-irons into the wind.
“And they were going like, I don't know, 215 (yards), 220 into the wind cold, and I'm hitting my 5-iron like 170, like this low. And I'm like, ‘I just don't know if I have what it takes really.’
“That was a rough year, but after that I just told myself that I got there for a reason, I didn't have to change anything, just have to get better and believe in my game.”
Ancer is a believer now, and making believers out of all of us. He excelled at the University of Oklahoma, where he remains second to Anthony Kim in career scoring average. He won the 104th Emirates Australian Open in Sydney in November 2018. He accounted for three wins and five points during the 2019 Presidents Cup, where his only loss came in a Sunday singles match with Tiger Woods.
Earlier this season, he tied for eighth at the PGA Championship, won the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational for his first PGA Tour “W” and collected nine top-10s. In doing so, he secured a place in the elite Hero field, and now he’s in the thick of it, tied for the lead with McIlroy and Daniel Berger.
Will it hold up? Who knows. There’s 54 holes to play and three shots separating 12 contenders. All of them have more impressive credentials than Ancer. Regardless, Abraham Ancer knows one thing: he belongs.
He’s put in the work to know it.
“When I first got on Tour I didn't really do much in the gym,” he said. “Physically, I didn't really put much attention to that and I quickly realized that I had to. So I improved a lot in that sector. Saturdays, Sundays I was kind of like tired and sluggish.
“Now I feel like I'm peaking on Saturday and Sunday and just getting better. Like I said, mentally I feel a lot more confident. That was a slow process. It just didn’t … wasn’t like one night I woke up and was ready to go. Believing, working on the stuff that I worked on with my team and just knowing that I'm not going to see results the next day. Slowly, every single year, I've been able to improve.”
Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa reached the top of the heap in her career, ascending to the No. 1 ranking among women before retiring at the young age of 28. Ancer, who played Albany’s backside in a scorching 5-under par on Thursday, is the first male Mexican player to crack the top 100 in the OWGR. He has risen to No. 12 in the most recent ranking.
He doesn’t know if he can match Ochoa’s accomplishment, but he knows better than to sell himself short. For the time being, he is in the superstar field of the Hero World Challenge. And after Day One, he is tied for the lead. That’s enough to think about for now.
“This is my first time here and I absolutely love it," Ancer said. “It's a great spot to just come hang out, but it's also a golf course that is very demanding. It gets windy and it's a tough test, but it's in great shape.
“You hit the right shots, you can score. Obviously I had a good day today, so I'm a little biased, but I like it here.”
He should like it. Abraham Ancer belongs.