Tour Confidential: What we’re watching for in the PGA Tour’s return

Jon Rahm hits out of the sand during last year's Charles Schwab Challenge.

Jon Rahm hits out of the sand during last year's Charles Schwab Challenge.

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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 the Charles Schwab Challenge, the PGA Tour’s first tournament after a three-month hiatus; when Tiger Woods might return; the Tour’s response to the nation’s social unrest; and more.

1. This marks one of the more intriguing weeks in PGA Tour history when the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial begins Thursday. Player testing. Social distancing. No fans. Jim Nantz flying solo in the booth. And a return to play after three months off. What storyline(s) are you most interested to follow?

John Wood, PGA Tour caddie for Matt Kuchar (@Johnwould): For me, I’m fascinated to see how this whole new set of circumstances will play out. Players and caddies are so accustomed to very specific routines, not only on the course but off the course, not only during practice rounds and practice, but during tournament rounds. It will be interesting if the new “rules” try anyone’s patience to a degree that it will affect their play. Get there Monday for the swab test, wait for the result to see if we can play/caddie that week. Social-distance in instances where we are used to shaking hands, giving high-fives, handing clubs back and forth, handling and cleaning of the flagstick and the rakes, etc. The Tour seems to have done a meticulous job of setting things up for a successful return, but there will always be unforeseen events that will have to be addressed. What happens if we play Colonial, and two caddies and a player test positive, then the next week, three caddies and four players and one official test positive? Is there a contingency for the graph going the wrong way? Hopefully none of that happens, and it’s smooth sailing, but I’m interested in all the hundreds of moving parts of a PGA Tour event and how they’ll come together in this new world. And the no fans is going to be so bizarre. I think it’ll hurt some guys and help others, so that’s something to follow as well.

Sean Zak, senior editor (@Sean_Zak): John’s right about the meticulousness. I’m impressed with the Tour’s system right now. I hope it works. I’m honestly excited for the elite fields at events that otherwise don’t get Rory, Rahm and Brooks to show up each year. 

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: To see competitive golf being played again. Somebody wins, somebody places, somebody misses a cut by a shot who needed it for all the world.

Josh Sens, senior writer (@JoshSens): Some of the more interesting stories will be unfolding off-camera and behind the scenes, as the Tour sees how its on-paper protocols play out in reality. How will all the moving pieces work? What happens, or doesn’t happen, will be a part of a learning experience that is going to influence the rest of the season, whether we’ll see fans at some point soon-ish or not, and more. 

2. The tourney is loaded, with 16 of the top 20 players in the world. Despite the strength of the field, should we expect rustiness from the guys, given the extended layoff? Or will it be business/birdies as usual from the Tour’s A-listers?

Wood: Business/birdies as usual from the A-listers. Everyone’s had plenty of time to prepare, and I think you’ll see some phenomenal play. With the abundance of events throughout a calendar year, I don’t think players, maybe in their careers, have had this kind of layoff. They’re going to be EXCITED. They’re going to be HUNGRY. And with the season now feeling more like a sprint than a marathon, their play, good and bad, is going to be magnified. There will be a sense of urgency like we may have never seen before, which will bring some serious excitement.

Zak: I think there’s potential for some rustiness, but I imagine pros will make the most of their practice rounds even more than in a normal season. I doubt anyone will be going mega-low, but these are the best in the world for a reason. They make it look easy. 

Bamberger: I think the players will pick right up where they left off, pretty much. 

Sens: Business as usual with their physical games, but no doubt some mental adjustments in going through all the safety checks and playing in an altered atmosphere. No fan energy to feed off. Just the occasional solo golf clap from a camera operator or grounds crew member? It’s going to be odd. It will be interesting to see whose focus stays sharp, and whose gets thrown off by the weirdness of it all.

3. Charles Schwab Challenge tournament director Michael Tothe said he expects the TV audience that tunes in to the event will likely be more than three times larger than the usual draw. How much do you expect the Colonial event will resonate beyond core golf fans?

Wood: Frankly I think that’s why we are coming back before most of the other sports, so I think he’s absolutely right. It’s a great field and a great course, but I feel like if you put on a repeat of Boris Spassky vs Bobby Fischer, colorized it and told people it was live, you’d get some damn good numbers. Like I said, I think the reason golf is coming back before the other sports (other than NASCAR) is specifically to try to grab those football, baseball and basketball fans who haven’t had any competition whatsoever to watch. 

Zak: Agree with John here. I think the Tour will enjoy its month of being back before other sports catch-up. I HATE to think this way, but if there was ever a time to get a top 5 showdown at a non-major, now is the time. BK and Rory in Texas? Subscribe. 

Bamberger: John Wood rolling strong here, and good to have you back, sir. The only way you’d get better numbers were if Hogan, Tiger and Arnold were paired for the first two rounds. 

Sens: Grabbing those other fans isn’t the reason golf is coming back before the others. It’s coming back before some others because it has a better chance of operating safely. But no doubt attracting newbies will be an upside of beating other sports to the punch. To say there’s pent up demand for live televised anything is an understatement.

4. Tiger Woods, after an impressive showing in the Match II, is not in the field. When do you think we’ll see him back, and how much do you suspect he’ll play in the run-up to the major season, which is slated to kick off with the PGA Championship, Aug. 6-9?

Wood: I don’t think you’ll see Tiger back for a few weeks, even with the extended layoff we’ve just had, but that’s a guess. Just looking at the schedule of the upcoming events and comparing them to what he usually plays, maybe The Rocket Mortgage in Detroit? Then down the line and leading up to the PGA, I could see him playing both events at Muirfield, Workday and The Memorial, seeing that he’s won about 37 events on that course, then the FedEx and the PGA.  

Zak: I think Tiger comes back for both events at Muirfield Village. No need to bother with courses he’s never played in competition. Eight (or six) rounds at a top track he knows well is exactly the prep he needs for Harding Park. 

Bamberger: I’m guessing his caddie, Joe LaCava, a New Yorker in spirit driving with Connecticut plates, will talk Tiger into playing Hartford, as he talked Tiger into playing the Tampa event in 2018. The Hartford course is way underrated; it’s like a short, traditional, U.S. Open course, with interesting, sensibile greens and a tournament run by people who know golf and the players.

Sens: The Memorial. A course where he’s feasted many times before. That doesn’t give him a ton of reps before the first major of the year in August. But it gives him enough.

5. Harold Varner, one of the few black players on the PGA Tour, released a statement this week calling for unity in the midst of the social unrest following the death of George Floyd in police custody. A day later, Tiger Woods called for education. On Friday, the Tour released a statement from commissioner Jay Monahan entitled “a time to communicate and search for answers,” then published a video with Monahan and Varner labeled “an open and thoughtful conversation.” Many Tour players shared these messages, and on Tuesday, several also participated in the “Blackout Tuesday” campaign on social media, where participants posted just a black background. How would you assess the Tour’s response to the social unrest that has rocked the nation?

Wood: I think it’s been appropriate. It’s something that has to be addressed. Morally, it has to be addressed. I’m a huge fan of Harold, and obviously of Tiger, and I’m glad they’re taking a bit of a leadership role in this. We can have ideas and thoughts about what it’s like to simply walk around as an African-American in America, but there is no way we can truly understand unless we close our mouths and open our ears, and even then, we may be able to grasp only a small part of it. And I’m proud that the commissioner talked about communicating and searching for answers, because that’s what we need. We have to listen. Golf hasn’t wrapped itself in glory when it’s come to racial issues throughout its history. Hopefully, this will give it a fresh start.

Bamberger: American golf has been backward on every aspect of race issues and social equality. The country-club mentality, and I am part of the problem, is go with the flow and which way to the first tee. Golf is a game of social conformity. It shouldn’t be. Golf, the institution and the sport, should be a place where you can stand for something without being ostracized, bring in people without the host or guest getting the evil eye. The Tour should allow the players to wear shorts. In other words, start letting go of some of the meaningless obstacles that makes golf look ridiculous and focus on the meaningful aspects of the game: Golf is a competitive sport in which you start by treating your playing partners and your opponents with respect and fairness. You can go anywhere you like from there, in golf and anywhere else. 

Zak: I disagree. It wasn’t enough of a timely response from the Tour. For about four days, when the sports world was catching up with the rest of the world, all the PGA Tour did was press RT on Twitter. The Tour retweeted Varner, Woods, Max Homa and Jon Rahm. That’s great, but it waited until most other branches of the sports world spoke out. It waited until part of the dust had settled to show what side it was on. It waited long enough for people to notice relative silence from the Tour. Now, eventually Commissioner Monahan sat down with Varner for their discussion. I enjoyed hearing that and was happy to see Monahan pushing players and Tour staffers to read, but overall the entire week felt like a non-progressive outreach from the Tour. So I was unimpressed. 

Sens: Sean’s right, but it’s also hard to take a more aggressively progressive stance when you don’t have that leg to stand on in the first place. Golf has never been a sport at the leading edge of social change. Quite the opposite. Read Charlie Sifford’s memoir if you need a refresher. The Tour’s response was pretty much the least it could do. It’s in no place to pose as a leader here. But if you’re looking for a positive, at least there was a response, something that hasn’t always happened in the past.

6. Augusta National made its biggest real estate purchase to date, buying a 15-acre property near the club for $26 million. Put on your developer cap and propose a plan for how the club could best put that land to use. (Your budget: unlimited!)

Wood: Well, whatever they do, one thing is for sure: It will be done perfectly, and it will look like it’s been there since day one. That’s just how they operate. And if I had to venture a guess, I’m going to say it may be the beginnings of a “Competitor’s Village” for lack of a better term. A small, gated community of rental homes built specifically for players and their families to stay during the tournament. Easily secured, maybe an underground tunnel to the Club, and homes for the members to stay during their visits, other than the cabins on the property itself.   

Zak: Create a monstrous media hotel. Media only. Five-star suites, with a separate floor for each outlet. GOLF.com gets the penthouse. WE need to be taken care of. 

Bamberger: I’m bored to tears of Augusta National’s avariciousness. (No, I don’t have the best words.) The club has enough, in every way. Introduce a tournament ball. Hold pat on everything else. Keep handing out that green coat. That’s a winner.

Sens: A little public-access pitch-and-putt.

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