10 lessons we learned from the PGA Tour's one-of-a-kind 2020 season
Tiger Woods helps Dustin Johnson slip on the green jacket at the Masters in November.
The PGA Tour ended, or should we say passed, its challenging 2020, the Mayakoba Golf Classic serving as the final event of this season unlike any other. Though its sabbatical is short—the Sentry Tournament of Champions begins in four weeks—the downtime gives us a chance to look back on the year that was and what we learned from it. Here are 10 lessons gleaned from the tour’s 2020 season.
The kids are alright
Clearly the best under-25 player is Collin Morikawa, 23, who has won three times in his first 27 career tour starts, highlighted by shooting the lowest closing 36-hole score in major championship history in capturing the PGA Championship in August. Wait, we meant Matthew Wolff, 21, who finished T-4 at the PGA and runner-up at the U.S. Open, his first two major starts of his career. Actually, is it Scottie Scheffler? The 24-year-old won rookie of the year and finished fifth in the FedEx Cup. Or maybe it’s Viktor Hovland, 23, with two wins in his last 19 starts ... or Sungjae Im, 22, who finished runner-up in his Masters debut.
The tour is no longer experiencing a youth revolution, as said revolution has transformed into the status quo. Still, it’s insane that five of the tour’s top 30 players—and arguably five of the top 20—have been on tour for two years or less. As the past of previous young guns has proved (remember the “Big 4” of Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler?), the present is no guarantee of the future, but don’t expect the likes of Hovland, Morikawa, Wolff, et al. to disappear in 2021.
A member of the grounds crew waters the rough during a practice round prior to the 2020 Memorial Tournament.
Jack Nicklaus is not one for subtly
This year’s Memorial was held on what was supposed to be Open Championship week. Maybe that’s why the tournament setup at Muirfield Village masqueraded as a major, its greens playing like trampolines with rough so tall and thick that search parties are still looking for Danny Willett after a missed fairway. Throw in 20-plus mph winds and it’s no surprise just one player broke 70 in the Memorial’s fourth round, compared to nine who shot 80 or worse. It was the highest scoring average (75.959) for any round on tour outside of a major in four years, and the highest round at the Memorial in four decades. And Sunday wasn’t an aberration: Only two players broke 70 on Saturday, and Thursday’s 73.923 from the field was the highest Round 1 average on tour in 2019-’20.
Why was the course configured in such a trying manner? The host himself telegraphed this answer earlier in the week. A frequent advocate of curbing distance, Nicklaus ripped golf’s governing bodies for their lack of policing regarding increasing driving gains in an interview on Thursday. “The USGA and the R&A have got to wake up sooner or later,” Nicklaus said. “They can’t just keep burying their heads on this.” In case doubt remained on Nicklaus’ intentions, he made a meal of the Sunday broadcast by having construction crews tear up his course—a renovation he believes is needed to combat said distance increases—as the tournament was ongoing. The tournament and its difficulty was Nicklaus’ statement: If golf won’t take care of this problem, I’ll do it myself.
Do not slight Europe
Never pegged the Honda Classic as the spark to re-ignite the American Revolution, but here we are. At least, we’re guessing we’re in conflict judging by the reaction across the pond after Paul Azinger knocked Tommy Fleetwood and their beloved Euro Tour. On one hand, the response from Euro players, fans and media was a tad hysterical. Conversely, we get it, if only for this, uh, “Zinger” alone:
“[Euro players] want to prove that they can win at this level particularly on this golf course. Even some of the obscure names that have won here, like a Mark Wilson and you think, man, Mark Wilson won at PGA National.”
There are some lines that men cannot cross. In golf, that line is Mark Wilson.
Jordan Spieth hits his drive on the 14th tee during the second round of the 120th U.S. Open Championship.
You can’t wish something into existence
It’s been three years since Spieth has won, and it feels like the entire sport wants to will him back to his former self. Though that may ultimately come to pass, 2020 only grew the expanse between the Spieth of then and now.
In 20 events this year, the three-time major winner registered two top 10s against six missed cuts. Colonial was the lone start where he entered Sunday in contention, and he was a non-factor in the three majors. It’s not a fickle driver or streaky putting that’s plaguing Spieth; he’s struggling in all aspects of his game, finishing the 2019-’20 season 165th in strokes gained/off-the-tee, 97th in approach and 105th in sg/putting. Worse, though his scoring has been good to decent to start a tournament (75th in Round 1 average, 36th in Round 2), the weekend has been the bane of his existence, ranking 165th in Round 3 and 147th in Round 4.
Revisionist history has dubbed the period since Spieth’s victory at Royal Birkdale in 2017 a drought, which is not entirely true. He had two consecutive runner-ups in playoff events in 2017, nearly completed the biggest comeback in tournament history at the 2018 Masters and played in the final group at the 2018 Open Championship. He has also dropped 60 spots in the World Rankings since that Open win, and he is the rare talent whose success is measured in victories and victories only. For his part, Spieth insists he’s on the right path, that this is all part of a process. Here’s to hoping that process yields more positive results in 2021.
Reputations can be rewritten
Despite all that he’s accomplished—which is a heck of a lot—Dustin Johnson was often known for what he lacked. A killer instinct and an inability to close may be deemed opinions, yet opinions supported by a litany of near-misses and Sunday struggles at the biggest events (including a disappointing final-round performance in August’s PGA Championship). Yes, he had a U.S. Open title, and those are damn hard to win … but Johnson’s power and ability should have begat multiple majors rather than one.
That narrative has been erased, and in resounding fashion. It wasn’t just that Johnson set a tournament record with his 20-under score at the Masters, or that he lapped the field by five strokes. What forever closed the door on those whispers was that Johnson nearly lost his four-shot, 54-hole lead after five holes on Sunday, only to answer with vigor at the very moment things appeared to head south. Coupled with his FedEx Cup, the question with Johnson is no longer what if. It’s what’s next.
Appreciate that Brooks is here
A T-7 at the Masters—a performance Brooks Koepka called “disappointing”—gave hope Koepka has rounded the corner on hip and knee issues. Of course, when it comes to hip and knee issues, sometimes that’s a corner that can’t be walked back around, so, if only for a second, let’s be thankful for what we’ve witnessed from Koepka. He attacks the majors with a single-minded focus and tenacity that only a handful of others in this game have known, and his refusal to adhere to social tour norms—while occasionally forced—is nonetheless interesting. The game is better when Brooks is in the mix.
Old men can still ball
Four of the last 16 PGA Tour winners were 40 years or older: Jim Herman (43, Wyndham Championship), Stewart Cink (47, Safeway Open), Sergio Garcia (40, Sanderson Farms Championship) and Brian Gay (48, Bermuda Championship). Phil Mickelson, who began playing the PGA Tour Champions in late summer, had a runner-up and T-3 on his year. And Shriners winner Martin Laird is allegedly 37 but evidence suggests otherwise:
Jared C. Tilton
No, it’s not a consistent success, yet for all the rightful worry about what distance gains are doing to the sport, it’s refreshing to see the older crowd not completely phased out of the sport.
Thursdays mean just as much as Sundays
McIlroy is a lot like Dustin Johnson in that they are blessed with a curse, for they can make this impossible game look impossibly easy and when they don’t we wonder what’s wrong. That is an absurdly unfair standard, one Rory has tried to redefine. That is all well and true. Also true: The major drought is now at six seasons. And though it’s murky territory to question one’s head space or temerity, Rory is a collective 28 over par in major Round 1s in that six-year stretch, compared to 61 under for Rounds 2-4. The sample is too big, the score too disparate to wave off as circumstantial.
McIlroy is only 31 years old and remains on an all-time trajectory, and it’s worth remembering it was not too long ago that the Ulsterman battled, and overcame, the Sunday scaries. Still, if McIlroy wants to reach that next echelon of golf legend, he’ll have to make peace with those opening-day demons.
Don’t bet against Bryson
What was greeted as a curious hypothesis from the Mad Scientist—a year-long odyssey from man into mountain for massive distance gains that would engender success—has proven true. Any remaining doubt was erased by Bryson DeChambeau’s triumph at the U.S. Open, at a course that was supposed to be an antidote to the power boom. This on top of a T-4 at the PGA Championship. And while the Reckoning didn’t come to the Masters, you better believe Augusta National knows its battle is just beginning.
Thing is, DeChambeau was already a top-15 player in the world when he started his endeavor, and what he did this year is not just some one-off or endgame but merely a part of an evolution. Some of the ridicule directed at him is self-inflicted, yet to doubt what Bryson’s doing—and where he’s going—is to miss the obvious.
The best stories are the ones you never expect
“Feel good” is not exactly synonymous with 2020. Nevertheless, the year on tour delivered much needed opportunities to remain positive and optimistic. Our two favorites: journeyman Michael Thompson’s emotional victory after adopting a child during the pandemic (told expertly here by Alex Myers) and Harold Varner III, at a juncture where the lines of sport and society were blurred, showing us the best that golf can be.