The Ryder Cup may be more than 18 months away, but Thomas Bjorn would surely have been delighted with a superb European challenge at the WGC-Mexico Championship.
World No 1 Dustin Johnson held his nerve down the stretch to clinch a one-shot victory, but the next four places on the leaderboard were occupied by prospective members of Bjorn’s European team for next September’s contest in Paris.
Tommy Fleetwood piled the pressure on Johnson when he set the clubhouse target at 13 under, although the Abu Dhabi champion had to settle for outright second in only his sixth appearance in a World Golf Championship event.
The talented young Englishman looked to be out of the running when he bogeyed the eighth following earlier birdies at the first and sixth, but he suddenly revived his challenge after the turn.
Fleetwood appeared to have sunk an eagle putt from 10 feet at the 11th only to look on in astonishment as his ball performed a 360-degree lip-out, but he tapped in for birdie and claimed further shots at 12 and 15 before nailing a monster 40-foot putt for another gain at the last to card an excellent 66.
Johnson’s march to the title hit the buffers when he made back-to-back bogeys at 12 and 13, and charismatic Spaniard Jon Rahm suddenly found himself in a tie for the lead with the American when he eagled the 11th and holed from 35 feet for birdie at 14.
Rahm, who announced last week that he would be taking up European Tour membership in a bid to make his Ryder Cup debut next year, moved to 14 under with another birdie at the 15th, but poor approaches to each of the next two greens were to prove costly.
The Farmers Insurance Open winner needed three putts to get down from 70 feet at 16, and he raced another lengthy putt eight feet past the hole at the 17th before missing the return.
Rahm’s faltering finish on his WGC debut saw him finish in a share of third with a resurgent Ross Fisher, who atoned for a disappointing 72 on Saturday with an entertaining final-round 65 – the joint-low round of the day.
Fisher, part of Colin Montgomerie’s winning Ryder Cup side at Celtic Manor in 2010, made three birdies in four holes around the turn and hit back from a bogey at 14 with three consecutive birdies to finish an encouraging performance.
Thomas Pieters was the standout star for Europe on his debut at Hazeltine last year, winning four of his five matches and proving an inspirational choice to partner Rory McIlroy, and the Belgian made a flying start to his final round in Mexico as he birdied three of the first four holes.
But the putts dried up for Pieters and he reeled off 12 straight pars before breaking the run with a superb 20-foot birdie from the fringe at 17 which lifted him to within a shot of Johnson and Rahm, although a poor drive at the last left him with no chance to go for the green in two and he closed with a frustrating bogey-five.
Further down the leaderboard, McIlroy could not match his form of the opening two rounds in his first start for six weeks following a rib injury, and the halfway leader endured a bad day with the putter as he laboured to a level-par 71 to finish four off the pace on 10 under.
Tyrrell Hatton continued to enjoy what he has described as his “American adventure”, following up his confident display at the Honda Classic with another top 10 in just his third appearance in a WGC tournament.
Hatton, who played in the final pair with eventual champion Rickie Fowler at PGA National last week, fired a 70 which featured an eagle at the 15th as he finished one behind McIlroy and two ahead of Ryder Cup stalwart Sergio Garcia, who mixed five birdies with four bogeys in his erratic 70.
Paul Casey (66) and Matt Fitzpatrick (68) enjoyed solid final rounds, but their fellow Englishman Lee Westwood had a day to forget after a spectacular collapse around the turn.
The veteran was just one off the lead after birdies at the first and fourth, but he found water at the long sixth which prompted a dreadful run of four double-bogeys in six holes and he limped in with a 78 to close on two under par.