Tour Confidential: What can other sports learn from the PGA Tour’s return?

Brendon Todd and his caddie, Nick Jones.

Brendon Todd and his caddie, Nick Jones, during the Travelers Championship.

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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 has handled its first three tournaments after its coronavirus hiatus, Bubba Watson, Collin Morikawa and more.

1. The PGA Tour’s third tournament after its three-month hiatus due to the coronavirus saw a flurry of withdrawals due to the virus. Cameron Champ and Denny McCarthy tested positive and withdrew; Brooks Koepka and Graeme McDowell both withdrew after their caddies tested positive; Chase Koepka, the younger brother of Brooks Koepka who had to Monday-qualify to get in the field, also withdrew as a precautionary measure; and Webb Simpson withdrew after a member of his family tested positive. Then, on Sunday night, Dylan Frittelli tested positive. On Wednesday, Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced stricter safety measures, then modified the Tour’s protocols again on Saturday. As other sports prepare to return to their own competitive spheres, what learnings can and should they take away from the first three weeks of the Tour’s return?  

Sean Zak, senior editor (@Sean_Zak): One, bubbles don’t exist. These leagues will operate with something that more closely resembles nets, not bubbles. Another learning is that, optically, enforcement of the rules is on the league and its inhabitants. The Tour has done a phenomenal job of setting up a very controlled space, but in order for it to be fully controlled, everyone within it needs to follow protocol and hold each other to those protocols, too. Things as easy as eating in your hotel room, it seems. 

Josh Sens, senior writer (@JoshSens): That a “bubble” is only as protective as its weakest point. Also, as Sean points out, individual choices matter. And that old habits die hard. On the 17th today, as DJ was putting, his brother/caddie sidled right up alongside Brendon Todd’s caddie, who sidestepped away slightly. Only to have Austin cozy up to him again. Not a malicious move by any stretch. Just a reminder of how easy it is to slip back into old ways when new ones are called for. And lastly, that it’s hard to test too much. 

Nick Piastowski, senior editor (@nickpia): Players will very likely contract the virus. The PGA Tour seems, on the surface, to have buy-in from its golfers of this inevitably. It will be interesting to see if other sports are as unified. Tour players, not coincidentally, also seem to have full buy-in of the safety protocols, though as Sean and Josh say above, actions have yet to fully speak louder than words. Other leagues would be wise to see how the Tour gets stricter going forward. 

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: The more testing the Tour does, the more positive tests it will get, at least for a while. And that’s OK, to a point. There is a tipping point. I don’t know what it is. The Tour has to be figuring out what it is.

Dylan Dethier, senior writer (@dylan_dethier): Other sports leagues should know that they will have to be accountable for the individual actions of their players and be ready to proceed accordingly. Jay Monahan seemed ready for positive tests, and his ability to take them in stride — while rallying the rest of the Tour to do the same — worked better than I would have expected.

2. Sunday’s final pairing at the Travelers was a contrast in styles — the straighter, shorter and arguably more tactical style of Brendon Todd (who averages 280 yards in driving distance) vs. the grip-it-and-rip-it approach of Dustin Johnson (306 yards). In the end, DJ came out on top. As a golf fan watching from home, which style of golf is more compelling to watch? 

Zak: DJ is more compelling, and it’s not close. Did you see that drive he hit on 18? Every shot is intriguing, as you saw with him down the stretch. Todd’s tee shots largely felt inconsequential. That’s no fault of his own, but you asked the question about compelling. DJ is the answer. 

Sens: Agreed. On top of his power, DJ also has a well-documented capacity for little brain cramps — such as his OB on the short par-5 down the stretch today — that make for good rollicking entertainment. 

Dustin Johnson

Dustin Johnson wins the Travelers Championship for 21st career PGA Tour victory

By: Nick Piastowski

Piastowski: Watching BOMBS is always more fun to watch. Baseball built a whole campaign around the long ball, and golf seems to be promoting it, too. But, man, Todd’s rhythmic swing was mesmerizing sometimes, too. 

Bamberger: DJ’s swing is so purely athletic. As was Nicklaus’ and Arnold’s and Hogan’s. DJ, of course. But that doesn’t mean the ball doesn’t go too far because it does. 

Dethier: The contrast is what’s important. The little guy vs. the big guy. DJ’s game is only impressive because Brendon Todd exists, too. Watching Webb Simpson sac-bunt his way to victory last week was incredible. It’s all relative, which means not every driver can be above average.

3. With U.S. Open qualifying shelved, the USGA announced its exemptions for this year’s event at Winged Foot. In addition to the customary exemptions (such as for the winners of majors and other prestigious events), the 2020 provisions guarantee spots for 13 amateurs, 10 players from the Korn Ferry Tour and a handful of top performers from professional circuits in Japan, South Africa, Australasia and the United Kingdom. They also make room for a greater number of players from the Official World Golf Rankings; the 2020 field will include the top 70 and ties from those rankings, as of March 15, instead of the usual top 60. Fair system?

Zak: I think it’s a very equitable system! The USGA played by the numbers and will create a very U.S. Open-feeling field. That was the goal, and they achieved it! Psyched for Winged Foot.

Sens: Nothing’s perfect. Even with qualifying, there can be questions as to whether the best or most ‘deserving’ players got in. Given the circumstances, they’ve come up with a pretty darned good alternative for drawing a representative field. 

silhouette of u.s. open winner

With U.S. Open qualifying nixed, here’s how the 2020 field will come together

By: Josh Sens

Piastowski: Given the pandemic, it’s a good system. It obviously won’t replace the magic of qualifying, but it appears the USGA put a lot of thought into getting a diverse field, and that’s a good thing. 

Bamberger: It sounds heavy on American players, but I’ve given this no study and I’m sure there were thousands of people-hours devoted to this at Liberty Corner, N.J. Bless their souls.

Dethier: I didn’t get the chance to toss my ill-fated application in the ring, which counts as a massive bummer. On the bright side, I saved $200! There is no replacing the “open” piece of the U.S. Open, which means this year’s event will be that much the worse as a result. But yeah, I think they’ve done a nice job all things considered.

4. Before this week’s Travelers Championship, Bubba Watson said certain playing partners could influence his play by a couple of strokes. Is Bubba being overly sensitive, or would most players cop to being susceptible to irritating playing partners?

Bamberger: Don’t think it’s an either or. Bub is sensitive. Who cries more than Bubba? I don’t imagine most players would agree with him.

Zak: I think both can be true. Bubba is probably being over-sensitive, but I’m sure players get in their heads often enough from playing with certain others. Something tells me Dustin Johnson doesn’t give a damn who he’s playing with. 

Bubba Watson, Jason Day

Do groupings matter on the PGA Tour? Bubba Watson says yes

By: Sean Zak

Sens: I’m sure Bubba is not alone. But he also comes off as an especially sensitive soul. No way all players are equally affected. When Tiger was at his most ruthless, you never got the sense that he was even aware of who was around him. Unless it was someone whose throat he really wanted to step on. Some players are just better at blocking out the world around them. 

Piastowski: Not that I’m anywhere near a professional golfer, but playing partners affect my play, so I can imagine it’s a thing at the highest level from time to time. Is the player silent, cold and not wanting to shoot the breeze? Or is the player welcoming, complimentary and a bit chatty? Now, you’d think as pros, they’d block it all out. But, hey, they’re not robots.

Dethier: I think it matters, but I’m not sure it matters in a way that can be equated to strokes, if that makes sense. As Nick says, you have dramatically different experiences playing with different types of friends and acquaintances. But that doesn’t mean you’ll play the best with your best friends, either. I think we’re still a ways from Strokes Gained: Playing Partners — but I’m excited to see the results when they come.

5. Collin Morikawa’s impressive streak of cuts-made-to-start-a-career ended this week at the Travelers. His run of 22 straight was second only to Tiger Woods’ career-opening 25. How much does Morikawa’s run say about what we can expect from the 23-year-old? 

Zak: I don’t think the streak tells us anything we didn’t already know. He’s damn impressive and one of the best ball-strikers we’ve seen in decades. But making cuts isn’t what matters to the highest level of the highest level. It’s wins and top 10s and closing. Despite those 23 made cuts, he’s still got plenty of work to do on the closing and winning front. I greatly look forward to watching! 

Sens: What Sean said. His tee-to-green game is insanely consistent and efficient. As we saw a couple of weeks ago, it’s his putter that sometimes lets him down. 

collin morikawa frustrated after a missed putt

Collin Morikawa had an impressive streak come to a close at the Travelers Championship

By: Zephyr Melton

Piastowski: That he’s immediately ready for the big stage. It’s somewhat rare for players to jump right in and start cashing, but Morikawa did it at a near record clip. He can already start focusing on how to close. Big things are ahead, for sure.  

Bamberger: I will answer by saying what Tiger’s various cut streaks say about him: not only an immense talent, but an incredible grinder. In his prime, Tiger was, by far, the best grinder golf has ever seen, especially on Friday afternoon after a Thursday 71. A lot can go wrong after a Thursday 71.

Dethier: World No. 29. Sheesh.

6. Phil Mickelson, 50 years young and still hitting bombs, made a run at the Travelers before fading late to finish tied for 24th. We’re setting the over-under for the number of PGA Tour wins Mickelson still has in his tank at 1.5. What side of that bet would you take?

Zak: I’ll take the under, which makes me sad! I’d love Mickelson to nab a bunch of wins in his 50s, but I think you learned something from those rounds this week. At his best, Mickelson has the fire power to win. But does he have the game to do it four times in four days? He didn’t this weekend and that just feels like much more to ask of New Phil than Old Phil. 

Sens: I’ll take the under too, though it doesn’t make me the least bit sad. He’s had a nice long run (understatement of the day). Winning’s hard. And we will still see plenty of compelling moments from the 50-plus Phil whether he nabs another title or two or not 

Mickelson smiles.

Phil Mickelson is 50: Here are 10 reasons why you have to love Lefty

By: Michael Bamberger

Piastowski: Over. Mickelson has embraced some of the science behind longevity. Football, baseball and basketball players have done the same, and those sports have seen extended excellence from some of its stars, so why not golf? Phil has also been crafty throughout his career, and I could see him making the necessary adjustments, maybe focusing on accuracy over distance (fewer bombs?!?), much like a pitcher who loses a bit on the fastball and must work on location. 

Bamberger: Over. I don’t think that focusing on accuracy will be Phil’s issue. I think it will be focus, period. Over four days. If he can play two good rounds, he can play a third good round and a fourth good round, if he can keep his head right where it needs to be. Phil should be strong and supple for years to come. His skills aren’t going to wither anytime soon. Focus will be the difference between contending/winning or not.

Dethier: Under. But when will I be able to collect on this bet? If Lefty continues on his current trajectory, he’ll still be firing Thursday 66s at age 66. I think he wins exactly one more time, at The American Express two years from now (which, you’ll recall, is what the PGA West event is called now). I hope I’m wrong.

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