Cook, who is 88 now and makes his home in Ashville, Ohio, says it was 1988 when he was first approached about reviving the Mexico Open.
The Mexico Open has a storied if somewhat disjointed history since it was first played at Club de Golf Chapultepec in 1944. Ben Crenshaw, Billy Casper and Lee Trevino helped put it on the map with victories, and Al Espinosa, a California native of Mexican descent, won it from 1944-47 before the tournament took its first hiatus, in 1948.
It was a harbinger of things to come.
World events, politics, disinterest, and/or the pandemic shuttered the event 19 times between 1944 and today. The longest drought was from 1985-89, and that’s when Jim Cook, the father of PGA TOUR Champions veteran and 10-time PGA TOUR winner John Cook, got involved.
Jim had established Championship Management and was running three TOUR events – the San Diego Open, Las Vegas Invitational and NEC World Series of Golf, which later became the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone. The iconic Akron, Ohio course was a particular favorite of many top TOUR players, and it’s where many got to know Jim Cook.
He built the NEC World Series of Golf into a monster because it offered one of golf’s biggest purses. When the field expanded in 1976 from just the four major winners, the winner’s check was $100,000. The highest payout for a major in 1976 was the PGA Championship, at $45,000.
“I was at the Masters that year watching my son play,” he recalled. “Seve Ballesteros had been enlisted to introduce me to Francisco Lavat, who then was the president of the Mexican Golf Federation. Now of course I knew Seve pretty well from the World Series of Golf. Just a great guy. And he introduced me to Francisco, and we hit it off.”
Lavat got Cook to believe the event could be a success if they put the event in the PGA TOUR offseason and lured some of the better U.S. players to come. Cook, who had proven himself a powerhouse in securing sponsors for the other events he ran, immediately went to work on some big companies in Mexico to get the ball rolling.
“I got Corona, which was a very big deal,” he said. “AeroMexico and Porsche/Audi, which had a big plant in Mexico City.” With those companies aboard it was time to appeal to top players.
The reimagined event would be played in November 1990, and Cook used his son, who by then had racked up three TOUR wins, to help him attract a solid field. The winner’s share of the purse, $100,000 – the rival of any event in golf at the time – helped with buy-in.
“The first time I went, I won,” said Jay Haas, the 1991 Mexico Open champion. “That was at Chapultepec. It was a great course – kikuyu fairways and bent greens. The ball went a long way because of the elevation. It was a pretty good challenge distance-wise.
“I remember you had to make a lot of up-and-downs at Chapultepec,” he continued. “I made a nice par on 18 to tie Ed Fiori and won on the third playoff hole with a birdie.”
How exactly Haas ended up playing in the first place can be traced directly back to Jim Cook.
“I knew it would be run right,” Haas said. “Jim was doing all of the fundraising. Purses weren’t that high even on the PGA TOUR. I had a great week. It was a very fun time.”
Asked about his winner’s check, Haas didn’t remember it being that large. Nor did the 1993 winner Fred Funk and 1995 winner – one John Cook – recall exactly what they’d won. Funk said he thought it was $30,000. Haas and John Cook believed it was $50,000. When informed Jim Cook said it was $100,000, Haas said he would research it. He later confirmed via text that he indeed made $100,000, which he said was another good reason to have played.
“That and the cerveza!” Haas said.
Jim Cook said the purse was his biggest selling point in year two. He also was paying the players a small appearance fee – $5,000 to $10,000 – and covering their expenses.
“I was astonished at how great the golf courses were,” said Funk, who beat Donnie Hammond at La Hacienda. “I wasn’t really an established player on TOUR (Funk had won for the first time at the Shell Houston Open in 1992). The field didn’t have all of the studs in it. I was just trying to make some money.”
Another selling point for Cook, as if he needed it, was that the event didn’t have a cut. The field also had fewer than 100 players, about half of whom were U.S. players. The pitch: Come to Mexico for free and play in a no-cut event for a shot at a hundred grand. John Cook’s job recruiting players was a lot easier than his dad’s job had been.
“The guys went down for money and a good time,” John Cook said. “It was the off-season, and it was a nice getaway. And we played a number of good golf courses. The courses were unreal. It was like Riviera light. Every course looked like Riviera.”
Jim Cook split with the tournament after 2000. Lavat had been succeeded as president of the Mexican Golf Federation, and new leaders had new ideas. They wanted the tournament to be played throughout the country instead of just around Mexico City.
The tournament wasn’t played in 2001, but it trudged on and in 2013 it was moved to March and became an official event for PGA Tour Latinoamérica. Now it’s making its PGA TOUR debut.
“I’m glad it’s still around,” Jim Cook said. “I have a lot of fond memories of Mexico. I hope it has a long, successful life.”