Answering 7 lingering questions as the 2021 PGA Tour season gets back underway
Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy smile on the first tee during the first round of the 2020 Memorial Tournament.
KAPALUA, Hawaii — Tropical vistas, swaying palms, soaring drives. This week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions on Maui serves as a welcome paradisiacal backdrop as the PGA Tour resumes its 2020-21 season after a month-long intermission.
It’s a new year, yes, but a dozen events have already been played on the wraparound schedule. Lucky No. 13 carries a certain cache as a winners-only gathering, though a spot in this year’s field was also extended to those who qualified for the Tour Championship after the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the 2019-20 schedule.
Meanwhile, much remains the same as when we last saw the tour in action. There are practically no spectators, coronavirus continues and Dustin Johnson is still the top-ranked player in the world.
But with a flip of the calendar also comes resolutions, or at least an eager look at what lay ahead. So as the season resumes this week, here are seven burning questions for 2021.
Will Dustin Johnson suffer a letdown, or be even better?
The World No. 1 won three times in 2020, matching a career-high for victories in a calendar year, including his first Masters and second career major. He also had four runner-up finishes, a third, and three other top-10s while missing the cut just twice. In the last five years, Johnson has won at least three times a year every year except in 2019 when he won twice. In other words, the healthy and confident 36-year-old ain’t going anywhere. “Motivation for me, it’s not that hard,” he said. “I like being the best.”
Bryson DeChambeau is talking about trying to increase his PGA Tour-leading average swing speed even more in 2021.
What will distance king Bryson’s encore look like?
More speed, probably. DeChambeau’s goal is to reach between 207 and 210 mph average (!) ball speed (he currently leads the tour at 192.8 mph). This approach helped him have a breakout year and win his first major at the U.S. Open (though things didn’t pan out at the Masters). There’s no reason to think he won’t be a weekly threat on the often repetitive setups of the tour, or at this year’s U.S. Open, which heads to Torrey Pines in June. Long term, the question of how long his body can hold up with his physical regime remains relevant. Short term, at 27 years old, his go-for-broke strategy would seem to be paying off (literally and figuratively).
Rory and Brooks: Will they bounce back?
McIlroy was ranked No. 1 in the world and had four top-10 finishes before golf shut down for three months. Once it returned, sans fans, he admitted the (lack of) atmosphere was a struggle. Plus, his wife gave birth to the couple’s first child in August. All of which is to say McIlroy’s play should be much improved in 2021. Koepka, meanwhile, was plagued by a knee injury, missed five cuts and dipped to 12th in the OWGR after starting the year at No. 1. As goes his health, goes his golf.
Justin Thomas comes off an impressive year in 2020: two wins and 11 top-10 finishes in 20 starts. But a second major still awaits.
When is Justin Thomas going to win a second major?
Though Thomas won two titles in 2020, including a WGC, and had 11 top-10 finishes in 20 starts, the year was as much about the ones that got away (WGC-Mexico, Workday and Zozo, where he had the lead on the final day but couldn’t close out the win). And though he played well at the U.S. Open and the Masters, Thomas went a third straight year without adding a second major. He’s only 27, sure, but McIlroy, Koepka and Jordan Spieth all had multiple majors while in or around that age. If we’re looking for logical spots to accomplish the feat in 2021, the Masters and the PGA Championship at Kiawah would seem like his best chances.
Who’s the next breakout 20-something?
Will Zalatoris. As one Korn Ferry Tour player told me at the start of 2020, this 24-year-old has got the game to win immediately on the PGA Tour. After collecting four top-16 finishes in five starts on the big stage last year, including a T-6 at the U.S. Open, he’ll now have the chance thanks to special temporary membership, which will afford Zalatoris unlimited sponsor’s exemptions for the rest of the 2020-21 season.
Will players continue to be tested for COVID-19?
The short answer is yes. For how long is somewhat dependent on the rollout of a vaccine and other factors. But it’s expected the tour will continue to test players at least through the spring and more likely well into the summer. Which brings us to …
When will we see fans on tour again?
It won’t be in Hawaii or during the West Coast swing, save for the Waste Management Phoenix Open, which is currently planning for about 8,000 a day. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. The tour says it will take a conservative approach, and their decision-making is dictated by what local regulations allow. Another tournament to keep an eye on: The Masters, which is said to be discussing how many patrons, if any, they might allow in April. If tournament officials have to limit entry to only a handful, you almost wonder if they might consider moving the event to November again if that gave them a chance at a full crowd in 2021?