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Why the Mayakoba Golf Classic matters more than ever on the PGA Tour

Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka enter play with varied motives, but Rickie Fowler might have the biggest goal of all: a Masters spot

Rickie Fowler is the poster child of this week’s Mayakoba Golf Classic, which is the final event of the calendar year on the PGA Tour. Under normal circumstances, golf’s top players would stay away from anything played in December, unless it was close to home and an easy cash grab.

But Fowler needs Mayakoba just as much as the tournament needs all of the marquee names it can get. Fowler is No. 49 in the Official World Golf Ranking, and the top 50 at year’s end earn spots in the 2021 Masters.

Fowler could solve that problem altogether with a victory this week or by winning before the second week in April. But that’s not a locked-up bet with Fowler. Although he has won five PGA Tour events in his career – some would say he’s a chronic underachiever – Fowler’s last victory was the 2019 Waste Management Phoenix Open. And despite three top-10 finishes at the Masters, he’s without an invitation for next year.

Fowler dropped a spot in the world ranking this week, making his situation even more tenuous, after Christiaan Bezuidenhout won the Alfred Dunhill Championship on the European Tour to jump from No. 60 to 41. The best thing Fowler has going for him this week is that neither No. 50 Mackenzie Hughes nor No. 51 Matt Wallace is entered at Mayakoba.

However, No. 52 Kevin Streelman, Chez Reavie (54), Russell Henley (56) and Will Zalatoris (60) are in the field, which means that Fowler needs a good week, or at least a better week than those behind him in the ranking. According to the bookmakers, Henley poses the biggest threat. Henley is 22-1 to win this week, ahead of Fowler at 28-1.

Corey Conners (No. 55) and Sebastian Munoz (58) already are in the 2021 Masters: Conners via a top-10 finish at the recent Masters and Munoz by virtue of a top-10 at the Tour Championship.

Fowler’s chances of winning Mayakoba are slimmer than they normally would be because of the top end of this week's field. Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka are the headliners, and it’s not immediately clear why either is entered. They have played this event once early in their careers, Thomas in 2015 and Koepka in 2013.

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Because it’s the expressed intention of Thomas and Koepka to win every time they tee it up, it can only be surmised that each thought that he could pick off a win at the end of the year and head into 2021 with the wind at his back.

However, Thomas doesn’t appear to need Mayakoba to boost his confidence and gin up some momentum. Ranked No. 3 in the world, Thomas had three victories in the 2019-20 season, most recently at the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational in August.

Perhaps he still has a lingering bad taste from the Masters two weeks ago. He finished fourth, though a full eight shots behind winner Dustin Johnson, who, coincidentally was a late withdrawal from Mayakoba. The part that no doubt burns the hottest for Thomas is that he was tied for the lead after 36 holes and was never a factor after that, managing only 70-71 on the weekend. Taking it out on the field at Mayakoba won’t erase all the frustration over his lack of performance at Augusta, but it would be a pretty decent Christmas present.

Koepka, on the other hand, needs a victory. He’s fallen from No. 1 in the world at the beginning of 2020 to No. 12, and he hasn’t won since the 2019 WGC FedEx St. Jude. Lingering issues with his left knee precipitated his drop in the ranking, but Koepka insists that he’s nearly perfectly healthy at present.

He also is perfectly feisty, dismissing his T-7 finish at the Masters as something with which he could be encouraged. In his mind, he might as well have finished T-37. He didn’t win, so anything less was a disappointment.

Koepka plays best with a chip on his shoulder. He might not think he has anything to prove with four major-championship victories on his side of the ledger. But the great Michael Jordan always used any slight, perceived or real, to his advantage as proper motivation.

Koepka has played a fair amount of golf with Jordan, who has found a way late in the game to dip into Koepka’s pocket. The same is said for Fowler. Both of them would do well to channel some inner MJ this week. Each needs it, if for different reasons.

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