Golf Still Thrives
Golf still thrives in year unlike any other
Contributor: Doug Ferguson
The year in professional golf began with Justin Thomas making birdie to win the Sentry Tournament of Champions. It ended 350 days later with Jin Young Ko, the number one player in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, making birdie to win the CME Group Tour Championship. Along the way, the PGA Tour staged 37 tournaments that enabled 91 players to earn $1 million or more. The European Tour offered 35 tournaments held in 17 countries and concluded with Lee Westwood at the top of the list. The majors introduced new champions in Bryson DeChambeau, out of nowhere winners like Sophia Popov and a familiar one in Dustin Johnson. The numbers alone would suggest a normal year in the world of golf.
Far from it.
There was no golf anywhere in the world for two months. There were no roars for the last nine months, with no clear idea when that would return. No one was introduced as the “champion golfer of the year” for the first time since 1945. Absent were the sing-song chants of “Ole, ole, ole, ole!” and the throaty cheers of “USA! USA!” on the final weekend of September. Hugs gave way to fist-bumps. And a new phrase was introduced into the vernacular of tournament golf: The bubble.
Golf certainly was not immune to Covid-19, the deadliest pandemic in a century. The LPGA Tour was the first to feel the effects. Coming off two tournaments in Australia, it was headed to a three-week Asia swing when tournaments in Thailand, Singapore and China were cancelled. The European Tour, which along with the Asian Tour already had cancelled a pair of co-sanctioned events in Malaysia and China, postponed the Magical Kenya Open. What followed was a week in March on the PGA Tour that began on a lucrative note and ended with a future that has never been more muddled.
PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan was making the rounds on television shows in New York to promote the tour’s new media rights deal when he was asked about any concerns about the new coronavirus.
The Players Championship, with the richest purse in golf at $15 million, began on Thursday as a normal tournament. By the middle of the day, the tour announced the gates would be closed and no fans would be allowed for the next month over concerns of the outbreak. By the end of the day, the PGA Tour went from having no fans to having no players and no tournaments. Rory McIlroy and others showed up the next morning to clean out their lockers. Bernd Wiesberger was in the biggest hurry as he tried to catch the last flight out to Austria that evening. No one knew when they would return, or even if they would. “We did everything possible to create a safe environment for our players. But at this point, and as the situation continues to rapidly change, the right thing to do for our players and our fans is to pause,” Monahan said.
The next month was an exercise in salvaging a golf season. It was a reminder that while the week-to-week tours are the backbone in golf, the majors are the heart of the sport. Nothing could move forward without the six largest organisations in golf working together — the PGA Tour, European Tour and LPGA Tour, along with the PGA of America (Ryder Cup, PGA Championship, KPMG Women’s PGA), The R&A (The Open Championship, AIG Women’s Open), USGA (US Open, US Women’s Open) and Augusta National (Masters). Monahan effectively served as moderator for daily calls and it slowly came together. An individual sport never required so much teamwork.
As an example of how fluid the situation had become, the USGA contemplated holding the US Women’s Open and US Open on consecutive weeks in December. Mike Davis, the chief executive of the USGA, realised the PGA Championship would lead off the major season in August. He figured The Open Championship could go no later than September because of weather and daylight. The Masters had penciled in November. A draft of the press release was being prepared for a US Open at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles when The R&A realised it had no real option other than to cancel. That sent the US Open back to Winged Foot, to be held in September. That was but one piece of so many moving parts that made this year in golf more challenging than any other. An individual sport never required so much teamwork.
Of course, there were challenges in so many other ways. First and foremost was developing a plan built around “health and safety”, a phrase that rolled off the tongue as easily as “birdies and bogeys”. There were protocols to follow, testing that was required upon arrival and the need to make sure golf wasn’t taking away from the well-being of each community in which it played. It led to consecutive tournaments on one golf course on the PGA Tour, new tournaments on the European Tour that were held at the same golf course in successive weeks on two occasions — Celtic Manor in Wales and Aphrodite Hills in Cyprus — and LPGA events with sponsors who cancelled but still offered financial support to other tournaments.
Golf returned in a staggered fashion. The PGA Tour was the first of the main circuits to come back at the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial in Texas on June 11-14. The European Tour returned a month later with consecutive weeks in Austria, followed by a novel plan that limited travel. It featured a six-week “UK Swing” and then three weeks on the Iberia peninsula. The LPGA Tour started up at the end of July with one of two new tournaments, this one at Inverness Club in Ohio, site of the 2021 Solheim Cup. The Japan Golf Tour returned in September but only had four more events for the year. The Asian Tour never played after March.
On the golf course, the shots that were played, the scores and the winners made it look like any other year. That was to ignore the deafening silence. Colonial was so empty for the first tournament back that carts used to ferry players to the practice range or to transport TV crews became a nuisance. Players often had to wait for carts that were in their line of sight.
Typically, those carts would be behind a wall of spectators. And then there was Sung Kang making a hole-in-one on the first round at Colonial at the 13th hole. He didn’t even know it until he was 50 yards from the green. “I’m like, ‘Wow, it’s in the hole’. It wasn’t really crazy. Nobody was really up there, only a few people out there just clapping a little bit,” Kang said. Phil Mickelson made a birdie and instinctively pinched the bill of his cap to acknowledge the gallery, until remembering there was no gallery.
Dustin Johnson missed the cut at Colonial and felt tenderness in his knee, a concern because he had surgery on his knee the past winter. This was more a case of trying to practice too much to get ready to complete again, first at a made-for-television charity event at Seminole Golf Club in Florida and then a real tournament. He was hard to figure at the onset. Johnson would win at the Travelers Championship, and then post a pair of 80s at the Memorial, shoot 78 and withdraw from the 3M Open in Minnesota. And a few weeks later, he looked like he might never lose. Johnson ended the year by winning or finishing runner-up in six of his last seven tournaments. He captured the FedEx Cup and its $15 million bonus, a relief to the world number one because he had come close before and desperately wanted his name on the list of winners.
Jon Rahm also missed the cut at Colonial and went on to two more victories, including at the Memorial Tournament that elevated him to number one in the world for the first time. It didn’t last long. Rahm reached the top of the ranking twice, both times for two weeks. Whether it was the stop-and-start nature of the season or the increasing depth at the top of golf, this was the first time since the Official World Golf Ranking began in 1986 that five players reached number one in a calendar year. It started with Brooks Koepka, who never got on track from a number of nagging injuries. Rory McIlroy, who did everything except win, replaced Koepka during a week off in February. He stayed at number one until July — the ranking was frozen for 12 weeks during the shutdown — before it went to Rahm, Justin Thomas for one week, Rahm again and then Johnson for the rest of the year.
Europe lost some of its lucrative Rolex Series events — only four for the abbreviated season — but CEO Keith Pelley managed to put together a schedule that included five new events as part of the “UK Swing” that the tour funded with €1 million for prize money at each tournament and a bonus pool of £500,000. The bubble was strict, with players staying at host hotels, such as Celtic Manor. Sam Horsfield, of England, won two of them, the Hero Open at Forest of Arden and the Celtic Classic at Celtic Manor. He earned a spot in the US Open through his performance in the UK Swing, only to have to withdraw because of a positive test for Covid-19. The virus was relentless as it was random. Even limited in schedule, Europe delivered some feel-good moments, such as Tyrrell Hatton winning the BMW PGA Championship, the tournament he once attended as a young boy, and Lee Westwood capping off the year by capturing the Race to Dubai at age 47, his third time to be Europe’s number one.
Danielle Kang emerged from the shutdown by winning back-to-back in Ohio on the LPGA Tour, one of those victories at the expense of Lydia Ko as the former teen prodigy made gains in working her way out of a slump. In some respects, the LPGA Tour looked like it did some 30 years ago. The fields were dominated by American players with some emerging European stars, but largely lacking South Korea, the biggest force in women’s golf. Most of the players chose to stay home, and they played occasionally on the Korean LPGA Tour. That list included Jin Young Ko, who swept all the major awards in 2019 to reach number one in Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings. Her plan was to rest in the offseason, missing the LPGA events in Florida and Australia, and start up in Asia. And then Asia was cancelled, and Ko never left home. She didn’t return to the LPGA Tour until November for two tournaments ahead of the US Women’s Open. She was runner-up at the US Women’s Open and won the CME Group Tour Championship to capture the Race to the CME Globe. And while her number one ranking was under threat by Kang, Nelly Korda and Sei Young Kim, Ko ended the year at number one.
Kim and DeChambeau fit the bill as players whose next step was winning a major, so their victories were not a surprise. DeChambeau attracted most of the attention because he was so hard to miss. He began a project to add muscle and mass (some 40 pounds) to swing harder and faster and hit the ball farther. He overpowered Detroit Golf Club in winning the Rocket Mortgage Classic and always seemed to be on the first page of the leaderboard. So it was no surprise to see him hoist the US Open trophy. Kim hit the richest putt in women’s golf at the end of 2019, a 25-footer for birdie to win the CME Group Tour Championship with its $1.5 million prize. She was on the rise and capped it off with a distant victory in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Aronimink, outside Philadelphia. For the women, it was the first time since 2009 the majors were won by players who had never captured a Grand Slam event. The men had two newcomers in DeChambeau and 23-year-old Collin Morikawa at the PGA Championship.
Even so, this was a year defined more by what wasn’t played. Not since the end of World War II had The Open Championship not been played. It was cancelled, returning to Royal St George’s in England in 2021, with the return to St Andrews for the 150th Open pushed back a year further. Shane Lowry will end up holding onto that silver claret jug for another year. The Ryder Cup had more circumstances to consider.
Golf could be played without spectators, and it was. But the Ryder Cup? That was the decision facing the PGA of America, the host organisation with the match scheduled for America. Is it a Ryder Cup without partisan cheering, or no cheering at all? It was the last big event to decide what to do, and most telling was a development that got the attention of Jay Monahan. The Warrens Cranberry Festival in Wisconsin was cancelled, an event that draws some 45,000 people. Who would ever link golf with cranberries? In this case, given the festival was some 150 miles from Whistling Straits and scheduled for the same weekend, it was ominous. And it was postponed. Monahan was involved because that meant pushing the Presidents Cup back a year, too. Now the Ryder Cup is back to odd-numbered years, as it was before the matches were postponed in 2001 by the September 11 terrorist attacks.
During the discussion to postpone, one PGA of America official raised an interesting question. What if it gets pushed back to 2021 and it still can’t have spectators? The answer was if that turned out to be the case, there would be far greater issues than the Ryder Cup.
So what really was different about 2020 in professional golf? The Masters in November stands out. The US Open had been played in September, though not since 1913.The PGA Championship in August? That’s where it used to be. World wars and weather have cancelled tournaments. No spectators? There has been the odd tournament without them, such as a microburst of wind that felled trees at Congressional in 2012 during the AT&T National that Tiger Woods won. One could almost make the case there has been testing, although it was for performance-enhancing drugs, not a virus that created a pandemic.
One of the biggest changes was time off. Injury aside, most of the world’s best had never been away from competition for so long. Depending on where they lived, some players didn’t even have access to their own golf course. Kevin Na was cleaning out his locker at The Players Championship when his caddie found a banana in his bag, which was put in there for a second round that was never played. “If he hadn’t pulled that banana out, that banana would have been in there for a long time,” Na said. McIlroy was among those who didn’t bother practising because there was no purpose. No one knew when — or if — golf would resume.
Sophia Popov found out the Cactus Tour in Arizona was still playing with health regulations, and then she saw an entry list that included former major champion Anna Nordqvist and Linnea Strom. Popov wound up winning three times, a sign of what was to come. Also in Arizona, the field for the local Scottsdale Open was so full that a PGA Tour player, Scott Harrington, only got in at the last moment. To be sure, players were itching to get back to work. The soft opening came in the form of TV exhibitions. Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff played an exhibition at Seminole, the first time the fabled Florida course was shown on TV. Then it was Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and their teammates — NFL legends Peyton Manning and Tom Brady — at the Medalist. Both were geared toward raising money and showing golf could be safe amid a pandemic.
The Charles Schwab Challenge was the ultimate test. Caddies were given sanitised wipes for bunker rakes and pins. There was a host hotel for players, though not mandatory. This bubble was efficient, but not airtight. And the first event back was a rousing success. No one tested positive for Covid-19. The quality of golf was evident in the scoring. Daniel Berger won a playoff over Collin Morikawa, both at 265. Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele and Justin Rose were among those who finished one shot behind. There was a false sense of security, for the following week at Hilton Head Island along the South Carolina shores, the island was packed with tourists and players tested positive. Nick Watney earned a footnote in history as the first. Moving on to Connecticut for the Travelers Championship, the caddies for Brooks Koepka and Graeme McDowell tested positive, and both players (along with Chase Koepka) withdrew as a precaution. Two other players tested positive. “The snowball is getting a little bit bigger,” McDowell said on his drive home to Florida, signalling an ominous warning. That prompted Monahan to say the percentage remained low, even though every number mattered. “It’s pretty clear that this virus isn’t going anywhere,” Monahan said.
They played on, without interruption, until every tour completed their season. That in itself was remarkable.
As for the time off, no one took greater advantage than DeChambeau, who treats golf like science and has never been afraid of letting his mind take him places no one imagined. He introduced the single-length irons, with all the shafts roughly the length of a seven-iron. He speaks of standard deviation and spatial awareness. He once described his lower back pain as his quadratus lumborum not working. For his latest experiment, it was all about distance. He teased about it going into the offseason at the end of 2019 that he was going to return a different person. “You’re going to see some pretty big changes in my body, which is going to be a good thing. Going to be hitting it a lot further.” He lived up to his word. His diet was said to be as much as 6,000 calories a day. He drank protein shakes the way some players drank water. He worked out harder than ever to build muscle and mass that would allow him to swing the club as hard and as fast as his body could tolerate.