8 takeaways from the PGA Tour’s return to golf at the Charles Schwab Challenge
After more than a dozen weeks without a PGA Tour event and nothing save a couple of match play exhibitions to quench our thirst, we finally got live, televised Tour golf this week. And it was magnificent.
The field at the Charles Schwab Challenge was spectacular — the top-five players in the world, including 101 PGA Tour winners in the 148-player field — and many stars stuck around to make it an exciting weekend, which was capped by a Daniel Berger playoff victory. But there’s plenty to unpack following golf’s triumphant return. Here are our takeaways.
Golf’s biggest stars were (mostly) sharp
The Colonial field was great, but that doesn’t always guarantee the marquee names gravitate toward the top. This week they did. Justin Rose and Harold Varner III (more on him, below) opened with 63s, Justin Thomas fired a 64 on Thursday, and Rory McIlroy jumped into the mix with a 63 on Friday, as Jordan Spieth and Bryson DeChambeau were among those who signed for 65s. Patrick Reed added his own 63 on Saturday, leading to a handful of the sport’s big dogs in position on Sunday. One of golf’s youngest and brightest stars (Xander Schauffele) led as Spieth, Thomas and Gary Woodland were among a group that was one back. Then, at 1:41 p.m. local time on Sunday, five players — Thomas, Spieth, Woodland, Schauffele and Berger — were tied for the lead at 13 under. Eventually it was Collin Morikawa, Berger and Schauffele battling it out as others faded down the stretch.
Jordan Spieth is as captivating as ever
We know the numbers! We know the numbers! He hasn’t won since July 2017, he’s fallen to 56th in the Official World Golf Ranking and his weekend play has been abysmal. (He ranked in the top 10 in first-and second-round scoring average last year, but wasn’t any better than 170th in the third and fourth rounds.) But we’ve seen some signs! Before golf’s long pause, he made seven of eight cuts this season and had two top 10s.
He’s still shaky off the tee and isn’t putting like he did when he racked up wins in 2015 and 2016 (or even like last year, when he had that clicking despite other struggles), but he’s always been streaky and, boy, is he complex. At Colonial he briefly held the solo lead on Saturday and entered the final round just one shot back. He then went on a Spieth-like stretch of three bogeys in four holes on the front side, only to go on another Spieth-like stretch of three birdies in four holes to start the back (then blasted one O.B.). He finished T10, and we’ll be on Spieth Watch again next week at Harbor Town.
Bryson DeChambeau really did get huge and it’s working
DeChambeau said back in the fall he was going to get big and hit the ball a lot farther, and he’s done that. And he’s still doing that. DeChambeau returned to Colonial bulkier than ever, saying he added 20 pounds in the three months the PGA Tour was off (putting him at about 235-240 pounds). The results are in, and they are good. He tied for 3rd and led the field in Strokes Gained: Off the tee (7.321) and driving distance (340.3 yards).
Mic’ing up the field is an experiment we’re not done with yet
After the success of mic’d up players at the Seminole Skins and Champions for Charity, it seemed like a good idea for the Tour (to continue) to try and get more players involved. While Jim Nantz said on Saturday that every player was asked and only Rickie Fowler volunteered, it turns out he had been handed some bad information and that a few willing players were not mic’d up anyway.
While Fowler’s commentary wasn’t anything earth-shattering, this week also reminded us that commentators pausing to listen to player/caddie conversations caught on boom mics is every bit as interesting as a player wearing a mic. Maybe there’s a middle ground to be had. A few more players mic’d up? More boom mics to capture action? Less play-by-play and more deferring to the players and caddies to take us through the shots? This one needs more time in the think tank, me thinks.
We got our first glimpse of a major sports league conducting hundreds of coronavirus tests
Players, caddies and officials went through extensive testing at Colonial, and this will continue at other PGA Tour stops. Other events — and even other sports — will certainly gain learnings from it, as will the Tour.
“I won’t lie to you, I was kind of nervous waiting for the results of both of them, because I don’t know if I have it or not. Symptoms are so you can’t really tell,” Ryan Palmer said. “Those were some interesting moments waiting for those results. That’s the main thing, just paying attention to what I’m doing when I go leave the house as far as the grocery store, when I go practice. Just staying smart and making sure I’m keeping safe so I’m able to get here this week and still play.”
No fans is weird…
Spieth drained a bomb of a birdie putt during Saturday’s third round — but it was nothing but crickets around him. That happened all week. The only fans at Colonial were the few peeking through the high fences surrounding the course.
“It was very different,” Thomas said. “It honestly might have been better for starting out because I think I was already nervous starting out because I hadn’t played in a while, but I think with fans it would have been really, really nerve-racking. But it just didn’t take as long to kind of get into the focus and mindset that I thought it would be, but yeah, it’s just weird.”
Harold Varner III made a statement
No, he didn’t win, but the 29-year-old closed with a 72 to finish nine under overall, tying for 19th. Everyone knows how meaningful this win would have been, as our Michael Bamberger noted in his column on Saturday night: Harold Varner, a black golfer, is trying to win for the first time in a week when the PGA Tour has made unprecedented nods to the nation’s social unrest after the death of a black man, George Floyd, under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.
Varner did not win, because winning golf tournaments is hard, but he accomplished quite a lot, on and off the golf course, with his spectacular play and by using the platform in which he’s created to speak of social injustices in today’s society. The win, on the course, is going to come for him. Soon enough.
Golf is in a good spot, while other sports (looking at you, MLB) are not
Pro golf, of course, is much different than football or baseball or basketball, as it’s easier to naturally social distance. There’s also no owners to satisfy, which is important. So while not a completely fair comparison, it sure was refreshing to see a pro sport return and bring a little normalcy back into the world, especially when other sports, like the MLB and NBA, are still trying to finalize deals to return to action (and it’s not going well). Until then, we have another Tour event on the calendar, the RBC Heritage, coming in just a few days. The Tour plane leaves Colonial for Hilton Head on Monday morning.