PGA Tour's stars will play early and often in golf's comeback
Rory McIlroy (right) and Dustin Johnson got unofficial action in during the TaylorMade Driving Relief charity event.
When the PGA Tour resumes its season next week at the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, golf will look different in many ways. No fans. No pro-ams. Lots of social distancing.
The fields at a lot of tournaments will be different, too.
At Colonial, 15 of the top 20 players in the Official World Golf Ranking are slated to play, including No. 1 Rory McIlroy and the rest of the top five. They’ll be joined by Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth, Matthew Wolff and Collin Morikawa. It’s the caliber of field more closely associated with a major championship.
“I can’t speak for everyone, but for me personally, I just want to get back out and play,” McIlroy said recently. “I miss the competition. I miss the buzz of getting into contention and playing in those last few groups on a Sunday and really feeling that. I also miss the locker room. I miss people. I miss being around people.”
So much so that he plans to play in three of the Tour’s first four tournaments back. His schedule looks more Sungjae Im than Tiger Woods. He isn’t alone.
Many other top-ranked golfers on Tour have suggested they’ll be playing early and often when tournaments begins again. When and where Woods will play, we don’t yet know. Under ordinary circumstances and he isn’t one to play a lot or alter his schedule. Whether that changes after the long layoff is unclear. But Brooks Koepka, the guy who only cares about majors, will ramps things up. He’s playing each of the first three tournaments—at Colonial, RBC Heritage Hilton Head and the Travelers in Connecticut—and his fellow bash bro Dustin Johnson will play early and often as well, according to Johnson’s agent, David Winkle. Expect similar schedules from Justin Thomas and Jason Day.
Time off helps.
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The last anyone on Tour hit a shot in official competition was March 12 at the Players Championship. You’re forgiven if you forgot because it’s been so long. That day, Hideki Matsuyama shot a spectacular 63 and was two strokes clear of Si-Woo Kim, Harris English and Christiaan Bezuidenhout. Hours later, it was all wiped off the books.
But after three months away, most seem eager to take a break from Pelotoning, or however they filled their time, and get back to their day jobs after an unexpected offseason in the middle of a season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brooks Koepka plans to play in the first three events in the Tour's return.
Reasons vary, too, from competitive itch for some to job security for others. The Tour has changed its rules so players will carry over their status into the 2021 season, no matter what happens during the restart, but the chance to improve that status and qualify for the FedEx Cup Playoffs remains.
At 145th in the FedEx Cup standings, James Hahn isn’t in the field for the Charles Schwab or RBC Heritage, so he’ll re-start his season at the Travelers Championship, followed by the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit and the new Workday tournament at Murifield Village the week before the Memorial. He says he’ll play every tournament he can get into, which might only be six or seven out of the 10 remaining weeks before the FedEx Cup Playoffs begin.
“It will be a sprint to the finish,” Hahn said. “My mindset is the same as the others: trying to keep my job for next season while trying to be safe in an unsafe environment.”
James Hahn says it will be a "sprint to the finish" for those players who are lower on the FedEx Cup standings.
At 49th in the points standings, Billy Horschel is in a more desirable position than Hahn, thus he doesn’t need to chase starts. It doesn’t mean he won’t, though. Horschel will play the first two events, take two weeks off, play the Memorial, take another week off, then peg it up nearly every week through the Tour Championship—assuming he makes it to East Lake—to end his 2019-’20 season with potentially five out of six weeks on the road. Not that doing so is much of a departure for him—each of the past three calendar years he’s made at least 25 starts.
“If I was in a bad spot on the FedEx [list], then maybe I’d add another event,” he said. "But the rationale that I’d play more than I usually do because we were off for three months and didn’t play any golf just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Others will take a different approach to plotting their schedules.
“Still trying to decide it all,” said Charles Howell III, who doesn’t plan to play in either of the first two tournaments on the Tour’s reconfigured schedule. “Really curious to see how Colonial goes.”
Lee Westwood said that he likely won’t play the first few tournaments either. Ditto Tommy Fleetwood. Both are from England and would face 14-day quarantines upon arriving in the U.S., which means in essence they’d have to remain in the country for a few months to play the rest of the season.
“I’m not going to travel to America and stay away for four months,” Fleetwood told The Guardian. “That is simply not a consideration.”
Yet there are other considerations being weighed as well.
Adam Scott said he is taking a wait-and-see approach, having told the Australian Associated Press that he has concerns over the Tour’s health and safety plan. So he won’t be teeing it up in any of the first six tournaments and said that he would likely wait until late July for the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
“They are being fairly thorough, but my initial reaction was I was surprised it wasn’t tighter than it is,” Scott said. “What concerns me is dialogue that [the Tour] is hopeful of returning one- or two-hour test [results]. You’d want that in place before competing.”
Then there’s the fact the Tour will administer tests to players, caddies and certain staff and officials but would only screen others at tournaments with questionnaires and temperature checks. Making sure the “bubble” is truly secure is something some are looking to see before they begin to play.
Adam Scott says he'll be slow to return to play, waiting until he feels more comfortable with the safety of traveling and competing in events.
“An asymptomatic person could operate within a tournament,” Scott told the AAP. “If they’re not showing symptoms, and I somehow picked it up inside the course, and I'm disqualified, I’m now self-isolating [in that tournament city] for two weeks. I’d be annoyed if that happened.”
In the meantime, many more will play on and play often.
“Ultimately, the Tour isn’t gonna put us in a bad spot,” said Scott Stallings, who didn’t make it into the field at Colonial but plans to play as often as he can the rest of the season. “In the end, it’s not the worst thing in world not having to deal with the headache of the first event for me, though. Because at the end of the day we have no clue what that week will look like and how it will work.”