What we'll remember about golf in 2020
Understandably, most of our memories from golf in 2020 involve social-distancing protocols, canceled tournaments and fanless majors. COVID-19 had an effect on all of our lives this year, and it had an unavoidable impact on golf. As our staff reflected on the year, it wasn’t always the gravity of the circumstances that drove our memories, but how we reacted to those circumstances. COVID, as odd as it sounds, created opportunities. It allowed us to cheer even harder for underdogs (Sophia Popov), appreciate brilliance (Dustin Johnson) and ingenuity (Bryson DeChambeau) just a little more, and remember the power that the game has in bringing people—and families—together. Indulge us as our staff writers look back over the year and recall what made “Golf in 2020" most memorable to them.
• • •
Nona Blue restaurant, Ponte Vedra Beach, Wednesday night before the first round of the Players Championship. Matt Fitzpatrick, his manager and I were passing around appetizers at dinner when a nearby TV caught Fitzy’s eye. There was Adrian Wojnarowski, ESPN’s NBA insider, babbling above a you-have-to-read-it-twice chyron. It was some variation of this: NBA postpones season after Rudy Gobert tests positive for coronavirus. This was back before “COVID-19” supplanted “corona” as the name of choice, but that’s beside the point. This far-off virus was encroaching. Fast.
Thursday’s opening round was played amid perfect scoring conditions—75 degrees, no clouds, no wind. TPC Sawgrass glistened in the sunlight, and the best players in the world were making birdies on eagles on birdies. Still, no one seemed to care. The only thing people talked about was the virus. They can’t let fans in tomorrow. Will they even be able to finish the tournament? I’ll always remember, that was the first day I thought twice about putting my bare hand on a door handle. Masks were still a few days away.
At noon on Thursday, just as Hideki Matsuyama was polishing off maybe the most underrated 63 in golf history, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan announced that there would be no fans the rest of the week, or at any of the tournaments through the Valero Texas Open. Even then, you got the sense this was like trying to use a Band-Aid to patch a gunshot wound. That night, as rumors began to swirl that the tournament itself might be canceled, a text from Fitz popped up: “Are you following all this?” Of course, I said, then told him to come join me (we first became friends in college at Northwestern) and watch this unfold together.
As he stepped into my room, he received a text from the PGA Tour, which he read aloud in sheer disbelief: “The Players Championship has been canceled.” And just like that, in 24 hours, COVID-19 had gone from just another headline to the dominating force in our lives. —Daniel Rapaport
• • •
Inflection points are not always apparent in the moment. They can require time to emerge, becoming evident only in hindsight. Yet the benefit of retrospection was not needed at two crossroad events in 2020.
The first was at the Travelers Championship in June. The PGA Tour was in its third week back, but a fourth seemed very much in doubt. Five players withdrew with coronavirus-related issues before the tournament began, two more dropped out Friday, and Jason Day played as a single on Saturday as a precautionary measure. There was more panic and worry on social media than on the actual grounds at TPC River Highlands. Even so, rumors flew and a somberness blanketed the competition in a way that made tomorrow seem very distant. Still, when this effort was on the verge of collapse, the tour, its players, caddies, officials, along with the Travelers staff and volunteers, kept it upright. The collective sigh of relief Sunday night from everyone involved when the tournament ended with a champion (Dustin Johnson) was deserved, and while plenty of uncertainty lay ahead there was a palpable sense that the season would not be lost.
The second inflection point? Well, perhaps this remains open to discussion. But witnessing Bryson DeChambeau prove his unorthodox approach to golf could win a major championship on a course that was supposed to prove it couldn’t, to see the initial vexation felt by Winged Foot members turn to resignation, certainly didn’t feel like a moment up for interpretation. —Joel Beall
• • •
I will always remember Jan. 26, 2020, as a horribly sad and surreal day. That Sunday at Torrey Pines, a golf course shrouded in fog during the early morning, we in the media watched thousands of fans make their way to their favorite spots for the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open. There was a considerable buzz of anticipation, with Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm among the contenders. Tiger Woods was five shots off the lead, a considerable gap, but he’d pulled off magical things on the South Course before, and he was seeking his record-breaking 83rd PGA Tour win. Then, suddenly, who won or lost seemed not to matter at all. Reports came in that Kobe Bryant was in a helicopter crash up the California coast in Calabasas. Bits of awful news trickled in. The former NBA great was gone at age 41. His 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, was with him. They were heading for a youth basketball tournament. There were eight people who perished.
In the media center, reporters stared blankly at their laptops. We spoke in whispers. It was almost impossible to focus on the golf. Many of us made our way out to see Woods, who was a friend and former workout partner to his fellow icon. We watched Tiger closely, took note of his expression and posture. Did he know? Had somebody told him? Fans shouted, “Do it for Mamba!” and Woods would later say he was puzzled by that.
Ben Jared/Getty Images
As it turned out, Tiger wouldn’t learn of Kobe’s death until caddie Joe LaCava told him as they walked from the 18th green to the scoring room. Tiger stopped in his tracks. “Excuse me?” he said. One player after another paid tribute to Bryant when they finished, and would do so with words and deeds in the coming days and weeks. Tony Finau (shown above at the Waste Management Phoenix Open) recalled his love for the Lakers and his own mother’s tragic death in a car accident.
I truly felt sorry for Marc Leishman. The good-natured and talented Aussie shot an impressive 65 in the final round to beat Rahm by one and seize his fifth PGA Tour title. It was Australia Day back home, no less. But Leishman’s win would always be tinged with tragedy. “A very sad day,” he said. —Tod Leonard
• • •
At Golf Digest, we’ve long operated by the assumption that everyone’s favorite golfer is themselves. Friends and colleagues know mine is actually my 15-year-old son. I say this because, among other reasons, Charlie is everything I’m not on the golf course. He’s more graceful, more instinctive. When I mention being nervous over a particular shot, he looks at me as if he doesn’t understand the concept.
It wasn’t long after Charlie started swinging a golf club that it was apparent he was going to be better than me. We just weren’t sure when. Then came the pandemic. A baseball season was canceled, caddying loops were lost, but there was so much golf that Charlie was shedding strokes at a rapid clip. If there wasn’t one moment that it was clear he edged past me, there were several: a best-ball tournament where he carried me, the first time he broke 80, and then inevitably, the night our handicaps refreshed and his had dipped lower than mine ever had.
I am competitive enough that I still relish the chance to beat him on occasion. This was the year I came to accept—and actually embrace—that most times I won’t. —Sam Weinman
• • •
By its very nature, because of the questions it asks of those who play, because of its demands for physical exactitude and mental vigilance, and also because of its maddening unpredictability, golf has a way of producing moments that inspire and bring awe. Two satisfying results emerged this year from championship competition, and it’s likely they will be celebrated well beyond the bounds of this calendar.
Sophia Popov’s victory in the Women’s British Open was special because of that always-welcome narrative of the underdog emerging, and her surprise performance moved us to cheers. And there was Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world, the very opposite of a long shot, capturing that unique November Masters in record-breaking fashion. Having endured a well-documented odyssey of disappointment and chaos in the majors, Johnson’s “breakthrough,” if we can call it that, brought a poignant denouement that nearly brought him—and us—to tears.
But we’d be remiss to not acknowledge the bigger picture, and that is the undeniable truth that the game itself commanded the spotlight in 2020. As the world collapsed because of the unknowns from the coronavirus pandemic, golf provided a haven of normalcy and hope. It offered spiritual and physical renewal. It invited us outside, allowed for a semblance of camaraderie with friends and reminded many people who had given up on or forgotten the game of its innate virtue as an uplifting exercise of body and mind. Golf was rediscovered as a sanctuary, and because of that the game enjoyed an explosion in popularity. Golf proved to be the ultimate champion in this troubling year. —Dave Shedloski
• • •
Looking back at the PGA Tour season, two things stand out—the chaos that surrounded the early days of coronavirus and cancellations, and that pro golf was able to not just resume but do so without the complications other sports like college football have experienced. All who helped make that happen should be commended.
But the singular moment that will resonate the most was one that didn’t occur in the bright lights of professional golf but rather in the gloaming of a spring evening at Miami Beach Golf Club. With courses all over South Florida shuttered as everyone tried to figure out a safe way forward, the verdant Florida landscape transformed from a playground for golfers into a park for the neighborly. A few kids cruising the cart paths on their bikes here, parents strolling there. On the driving range, a solemn figure carefully swiveled, dipped and spun forward, each shot from his shag bag eliciting a gentle ping from a piece of equipment of another era. It was then that I realized that though familiar it was a sound that I hadn’t heard for weeks. It was also sweet music in what were uncertain and troubling times. Things have found a (sort of) way forward in the months since, yet it was that moment that served not only as a simplistic pleasure amid a darkening light but as a beacon of promise, for one of the greatest beauties of the game is the next shot that awaits. —Brian Wacker
• • •
Golf fans all had April 8-11 circled on our calendars at the start of 2020. A painful void, instead, filled those dates as the world went into a lockdown. Golf courses were closed. And the Masters … postponed?!? One of the best weeks of a golfer’s year had been wiped out. Now what? Our family approached the situation by creating a new tradition unlike any other.
Like many other city-dwellers, my wife and I escaped to the suburbs in New Jersey and moved in with her parents during quarantine. We were blessed to do it—my in-laws are great. They’re casual golf fans, but they knew the significance of a Masters Week with no Masters. So they suggested we have a Masters tournament of our own in their back yard, awarding a green jacket and crystal (OK, a plastic trophy) to the winner.
We played nine holes on Saturday, nine on Sunday. We made up a layout as we went, using a hula hoop as the cup and hitting foam balls off a mat. Still, it was golf at a time there was none.
More important than who won (although please note I do happen to be holding the trophy in the above photo), these are memories we’ll always have. We then watched some re-runs of old Masters tournaments, so Augusta National still graced our TV that weekend. One day, I’d love to take them there, a trip every golfer should make. In 2020, we had the “Marshall Masters,” and a weekend we’ll never forget. —Stephen Hennessey
• • •
The thing about working at Golf Digest that they don’t tell you—but I probably should have figured out on my own—is that there is a lot of golf involved. It hits around noon on summer Fridays or even Thursdays (or Wednesdays, Tuesdays and Mondays). That’s when people suspiciously start dropping off of Slack or meetings are suddenly canceled. Why exactly? Because someone has a tee time somewhere.
I have no problem with this except for the fact that I’m not very good at golf. I played with friends and relatives in high school, but never well, and I always wound up losing money when wagers were made. If I hit a shot and it got airborne, that was considered a win. I didn’t play in college or immediately afterward, as I was too busy remembering to drink water, learning how to hold a conversation and getting my heart broken. Nevertheless, when I got the gig at Golf Digest, this was my chance. Last year at our annual company team event, the Seitz Cup, I played poorly and our team lost. (It was very cold, so please take that into account.) I wasn’t Jordan Spieth on Sunday bad, but I also certainly wasn’t Jordan Spieth on Friday good. That needed to change.
In 2020, I played a lot more golf. I went to Chelsea Piers to hit balls. I bought new clubs. Essentially, I was determined to be not terrible. At this year’s Seitz Cup, my team even won. Daria, my partner, gets most of the credit, but I didn’t embarrass myself. Some would say I was actually OK. And that’s all that really matters. It’s been a wonky year in many respects, but at least I’m decent at golf now. —Greg Gottfried
• • •
Living in southern Connecticut, near COVID-19’s original epicenter in the U.S., I’ve spent the last nine months wanting to breathe as much outside air as possible. Golf naturally became the central social exisetence of my husband and me. We had a new addition to our group this summer.
We had always played a lot of golf with our friend Shane. He asked if we minded if his girlfriend, Shayna, could join us. She didn’t play golf, never had, but wanted to try it out. Isolation had changed her summer plans, so her newfound free time could be filled with golf.
The task of teaching her fell to me. Our crew is passionate, but I’m the only one who has ever gotten any real instruction or played competitively.
I quickly realized I hadn’t taught an adult who’d never played before. The only true beginners I’ve helped have been juniors, and all the adults I help are friends who’ve played off and on for years. This was a different experience entirely. I had to reframe how I thought about her swing, what exactly I wanted it to accomplish.
It helped that Shayna is one of the most positive people you’ll meet. She doesn’t get frustrated, she’s open to all advice, and she’s willing to try anything. So, the majority of her success this past summer—the photo below is when she made her first par—is entirely on her, and had nothing to do with me.
When I think back at teaching her how to play, the highlight reel runs clearly through my mind. That first greenside bunker shot she ever hit, which almost went in the cup and settled 18 inches from the hole. The sound the clubhead made the first time she generated a good amount of clubhead speed, whoosh. That first drive that got airborne. That 25-foot birdie putt she made for our two-woman scramble, to a chorus of anguish from my husband and her boyfriend.
It was exciting to see how quickly she improved. Having played since I was little, my days of major leaps of improvement in golf are more than a decade in the past. I’ve shifted my relationship with golf, mostly for mental self-preservation. I played DIII golf in college, but graduated feeling like I never got nearly as good as I could’ve. To quell the frustration, I’ve slipped into an easier, less complicated routine with golf. I play for fun, we mess around on the golf course, I keep my handicap in the mid-single digits, but I haven’t truly challenged myself to get better in a long time. Watching Shayna, I realized it’s also a bit uninspired. I forgot what those milestones felt like. I felt a mental freshness toward the game.
I followed quarantine protocol, went to my parents’ house, signed up for a golf tournament, and put myself through a golf boot camp. I had just over two weeks before the tournament started. My mom, the only person who’s ever consistently helped me with my swing, took a look and we made some changes. I grooved them in as best I could under the timeline, reacquainting myself with familiar callouses and sore muscle.
Stepping up to the first tee, my adrenaline spiked. I smiled to myself, How many times have you done this? Is the quickening heart rate and narrowing vision really necessary? It was good to feel it again.
Over the course of the tournament, I coupled fantastic ball-striking with truly abysmal putting. I was exhausted. But fulfilled and content in my golf in a way I hadn’t been in years.
Teaching Shayna how to play broke my routine. The game that has been a part of my life since before I can remember suddenly felt new again. —Keely Levins
• • •
Normally, when I play golf, be it alone, with my dad or with buddies that make me putt out everything since we are playing for a massive sum of $10 (it’s the bragging rights that truly matter), my sole focus is shooting the lowest score I possibly can. In my mind, what’s the point of going out there if you’re not trying to do better than the last time you played. I live my life by what it says on the scoreboard. I’m (Michael Scott voice) too competitive. Too fiery. I want to win TOO badly. It’s my curse.
I still play this way 98 percent of the time, but I have changed my outlook for the other 2 percent, which are the nine-hole rounds with my brother, my father and my mother, who has gotten into golf in the last few years (my sister has no interest—but she’s always there in spirit).
Not too long ago, getting my mom on the golf course was a pipe dream at best. You see, while she enjoyed watching the final rounds of majors with my dad and I growing up (particularly, the part when the winner would embrace his family on the 72nd green), there was a big part of her that loathed the sport. My dad plays a LOT. Like a LOT a LOT. Outside of fixing up random stuff around the house, it’s his only hobby. Not a bad one to have, in my opinion.
Of course, this means golf has his constant attention, specifically in the summer. While some wives would say good riddance to their husbands for four-to-six hours, my mother has never been a fan of him being out the door at 6:30 a.m. and not back until noon on Saturdays and Sundays. As I’ve attempted to explain to her, it could be much, much worse, but she is even more stubborn than her son.
Finally, these past few years, she’s joined us. My dad got her lefty clubs, and she’s come to (somewhat) embrace and respect the game and all its challenges.
During the pandemic, she’s played more than she ever has, always with me, my dad and my brother. Wednesday nine-hole evening rounds became the norm, and in the beginning of the lockdown, it was the only time I really saw them. I’m married now and have my own house—and my own wife who also can’t stand when I leave to play golf.
The combination of the pandemic and being able to get out with my mom and dad and brother once a week made me realize that it’s not always about score, despite that famous Bill Parcells quote always lurking in the back of my brain. Sometimes, you can just enjoy your surroundings, and, more importantly, enjoy the company. Simply advancing the ball with people you want to be with is one of the best parts of golf.
My mom, who does not hit it far, has become quite good at advancing the ball. My dad, brother and I have become quite good at encouraging her to keep advancing the ball. To widen her stance a bit. To keep her head down but also pick her head up but don’t dip her shoulder and don’t take it too far insid—you get the point.
Amazingly, the sport that constantly separated my mother and father for hours at a time brought them (and my brother and I) together for two extra hours a week. That’s what I’ll remember about the crazy year that was 2020. And if you’re wondering, yes, I shot the lowest score every time. —Christopher Powers