Tour Confidential: How did the PGA Tour (and the players) handle golf’s return?

Bryson DeChambeau and Rory McIlroy

Bryson DeChambeau and Rory McIlroy bump fists after their round on Sunday.

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Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss how the PGA Tour and its players handled the Charles Schwab Challenge, the first tournament after a three-month hiatus; the fan-less atmosphere; Bryson DeChambeau; and more.

1. The first tournament after the PGA Tour’s three-month hiatus is in the books, with Daniel Berger edging Collin Morikawa on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff at the Charles Schwab Challenge. Many new wrinkles were in play in Fort Worth. Covid testing. Players’ movements being restricted. Social distancing. Remote press conferences. No fans. Solo Nantz. And now, a charter jet to the next stop, in Hilton Head. How would you assess how both the Tour and the players handled an event that was undoubtedly being closely observed by many other sports leagues and associations?  

John Wood, PGA Tour caddie for Matt Kuchar (@Johnwould): Pretty much an A+ across the board. The Tour did a phenomenal job of preparing for each and every eventuality. Testing and safety were the number one priorities, and there were redundancies in place for everything. I couldn’t have been more impressed with their preparation. The players were just excited to be back and playing golf, and seemed to handle all the newness in stride. Once they got inside the ropes, things were the same as always. Shoot the lowest score, win the tournament.  

Josh Sens, senior writer (@JoshSens): Watching from afar, it sure seemed to go smoothly. And you could sense the genuine excitement of the players to be back out there competing, which helped make up for the lack of fan electricity. There were oddities, of course, with Nantz flying solo in the booth and no gasps or cheers from a gallery, but there are oddities in almost all of our old rituals these days. Whether there were any public hiccups, I guess we won’t know that for certain for a couple of weeks. But from a distance, it looked a whole lot safer than some pool parties I’ve seen on social media.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: It was odd. These are odd times. The Tour is being as responsible as it can be by appearance. It’s obvious that the system is not by any means foolproof. It’s not that the show must go on. It’s that the Tour has decided to let it go on. I think they’ve made the right move. But there is no bubble. Way too many variables.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer (@Alan_Shipnuck): Couldn’t ask for a more riveting Sunday: a vintage Rory implosion; Spieth doing Spieth things (for better and for worse); Bryson Hulk-smashing a claustrophobic, classic course; a host of appealing young players going all-out down the stretch; and two brutal spin-outs to reminds us all what a cruel game this remains. The behind-the-scenes stuff melted away, and we had a great week of golf.

2. To viewers at home, the absence of fans would have been the most obvious difference between this Tour event and all the others before it. How much in your mind did the eerily subdued vibe impact the tournament?

Wood: I said all along that things wouldn’t be vastly different until the last nine holes on Sunday, and then, only if you were in contention. Everyone out here (save Tiger) plays with little to no fans sometimes, so I didn’t feel all that different for the first two days. Watching on TV on Sunday was different, for obvious reasons. But the subdued vibe didn’t take away from what was a crazy and exciting tournament. And as it always does, Colonial held up as one of the best courses we play.

Bamberger: I felt the same way. Even Kapalua has no fans, except at the end. There wasn’t anything like the normal energy, but for guys over their shots, it felt pretty much like business as usual.

Sens: It was a little strange, but I didn’t find it strange to the point of distraction, not as it would have if it had been the Ryder Cup, or the Waste Management or some other event known for its raucousness. Mostly, it was just good to be watching golf again.

Shipnuck: Honestly, I loved it! It was such a peaceful, uncluttered TV presentation. The course looked more pure without all the grandstands, and the absence of bros braying “bababooey” was pure bliss.

Bryson DeChambeau

Bryson DeChambeau gained weight and distance, and he LOST this

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3. Bryson DeChambeau’s bulked-up physique and booming tee shots (he hit 11 drives 340 yards or longer) were the talk of the tournament. If DeChambeau’s fine play continues, are we destined to see a wave of beefy bombers descending on PGA Tour tee boxes?

Wood: Yes. I think there is quite a bit of shock at how much his size, his clubhead speed and his ball speed have increased in such a short amount of time, all the while seeming to maintain his flexibility, his feel and accuracy. On Thursday and Friday, we played behind a group that included Brooks, Rory and Rahm. There was a long wait on the 15th hole, and we were there when Brooks got ready to play his tee shot. We were standing behind him, and I remarked to Matt: “You know, looking at him, if this was 10 years ago, you would have thought you were watching a long drive contest.” It just wasn’t believable that a body that big and strong would be conducive to playing great golf. We were wrong. And now, watching what Bryson has done, I can only imagine the impact it will have on the young players we know, and the younger players we don’t know yet. You better get your head out of the sand fast and come up with a long-term plan, USGA and R&A – the ball is going to get longer and longer and longer and longer.

Sens: Was that Bryson DeChambeau, or the guy who ate Bryson DeChambeau? He looked like his own superhero alter-ego. John’s right. You’ve got to figure success will breed imitation. But the same bulked-up program might not work as well for just anyone.

Bamberger: Bryson is following in Koepka’s footsteps. Short of equipment modifications, more guys will go that way. The Big Beef Era.

Shipnuck: Bryson is prone to taking things to the illogical extreme, and he has now done so with bomb-and-gouge. I salute his work ethic and fearlessness in gaming the system, but there was something tragic watching proud Colonial reduced to pitch-and-putt. Hogan weeps.

4. Just one player, Rickie Fowler, wore a mic during play this week (Adam Hadwin said he also volunteered his services), and several other players spoke out against it. We’ve already debated in this space whether players should feel compelled to wear a mic, but now that we’ve seen in action on Tour, how much do you think amplifying Fowler added to the broadcast?

Wood: Well, I didn’t hear any of Rickie, but personally, I don’t like it. This is their place of business, and if they want/need to let out some expletives, or tell a funny story that Richard Pryor may have included in his stand-up act, they should be allowed to, with no repercussions. News flash: Sometimes, you gotta relieve some pressure out there, and if it’s with a curse or a “blue” story, so be it. There have been many times, as a caddie, I’ve said something that’s absolutely not for public consumption. It’s said to make my player laugh during a tense situation, or be self-depreciating. There are also times we are discussing things that are tough issues, either involving golf or sports, or society in general. Those are told in confidence of those caddies and players in the group, and that’s understood. Would it be entertaining? Probably. But it could also be misunderstood, misinterpreted, taken out of context and damaging. I’m just not in favor of it.

Sens: I didn’t hear enough from Fowler to judge his comments in particular. But I’m sure it would be more interesting to hear from a player in contention, coming down the stretch. When the NFL mics up its players, it obviously monitors the audio and carefully selects what it wants viewers to hear. You would think the Tour could do the same to protect players and caddies from stuff spilling out that might be misconstrued.

Bamberger: Players should absolutely not be compelled to wear mics. But Rickie is ahead on most social/media things and likely is here, too.

Shipnuck: We don’t need players wired-up in these first five fan-less events, when the boom mics can pick up almost every conversation. The issue isn’t that they should be made to, it’s that players should want to. This is an entertainment business. Deliberation of strategy is riveting and what the hardcore fans are dying to hear. Surely the players and caddies can avoid profanity in those situations. As for R-rated jocularity while bantering down the fairway, the guys in the truck can protect them and do it on a slight delay to make sure there is nothing objectionable. 

5. One of the game’s great enigmas, Jordan Spieth, played beautifully for the first three rounds (65-68-68) before closing with a roller-coaster 71. Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy, who has struggled to close out tournaments in the past couple of years also excelled for three days (68-63-69) before finishing with a dispiriting 74. Which player did we learn more about this week?

Wood: I’d say Jordan, and although his Sunday wasn’t what he hoped for, I’m quite sure he takes huge positives from the week. For most of the week, he seemed in a much better place mentally, something I know he worked on very hard during the hiatus. I think he learned that he is definitely on the right path again, and can’t wait to get the tee in the ground next week. Rory? One bad round on a course he’s never competed on before. Much ado about nothing.

Sens: I’m not sure we learned a ton from either. Both of their showings were in keeping with a lot of what we’ve seen from them of late. We know that Spieth can grind with the best of them, especially at a course where he feels comfortable to begin with. And we know that when Rory starts leaking oil, the spill can get bizarrely messy for a guy who is otherwise a world beater. 

Bamberger: I’d say Jordan. He’s moving in the right direction. Rory is in the right direction.

Shipnuck: It was great fun to see Jordan in full flight, but, man, Sunday was exhausting: five bogeys, including a yip of less than 2 feet, but also a birdie burst mid-round that gave us false hope. I think overall it’s a step forward for Jordan, but his unsteadiness on Sunday is worrying. Per J. Wood’s comment on Rory, this isn’t one round. It’s part of a pattern. Rory can’t win them all, but the Sunday ejections when he plummets off the leaderboard and telecast are baffling. He has way too much game to retreat so spectacularly.

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6. As the Tour enters week two of its comeback and heads to Hilton Head, Tiger Woods remains at home (despite early-week news over his yacht’s whereabouts). What are the odds we see Tiger at either of the remaining two fan-less events, in Harford and Detroit?

Wood: I’m no oddsmaker, but I’d say Hartford is about 10-1, the 1 being the fact that Joey LaCava is a Connecticut native, and Rocket Mortgage about the same. I think we will see Tiger at Muirfield. For both weeks I’m not sure, but definitely for Jack’s event. Yes, we’ve had a huge chunk of time off, but in my mind, Tiger is working backward, not forward. “I want to be ready for the PGA, the U.S. Open, the Masters. …” Tiger is always always always sharp mentally, but he wants to make absolutely sure he’s ready physically. So I think he looks at the PGA and says, “OK, I want to play A, B and C on these weeks to be in peak form for Harding Park.”

Sens: I think we see Tiger at the Memorial. Not before. 

Bamberger: Tiger doesn’t do unexpected things, in terms of schedule. My guess is Memorial. He likes what he knows.

Shipnuck: I agree with all of the above. Tons of important golf is coming, and he doesn’t want to push too hard too early. Let’s not forget how much he was struggling with his game and body pre-Covid. Memorial feels right.

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