All the big stories, questions, answers and uncertainties in golf in 2021

The year has changed, but golf on the PGA Tour will be largely as we saw it when 2020 came to a close: virtually no spectators, weekly COVID-19 testing and possible withdrawals, Dustin Johnson as a solid No. 1 in the world, Bryson DeChambeau bombing tee shots, and never-ending speculation about where Tiger Woods will play and his level of competitiveness.

After a 13-week break because of the pandemic in 2020, the PGA Tour resumed in June and played 23 straight tournament weeks with the only interruption coming for Thanksgiving. It was a rather remarkable feat, given all the COVID-19 challenges that included player and caddie travel to different locations and no bubble like several team sports employed.

The show resumes at this week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii — normally just for the previous year’s tournament winners but this time including those who made the Tour Championship, in order to expand the field — and is expected to go without interruption through the FedEx Cup playoffs and Tour Championship in August.

The powers that be have a better handle on how to deal with the coronavirus in a competitive atmosphere, and the possibility of rapid testing and the various vaccines allows for hope that by sometime in the spring or summer, bigger groups of spectators will be allowed back.

In the meantime, here are several storylines to follow as the PGA Tour’s wraparound season resumes.

Tiger’s quest for 83

A year ago, it seemed simply a matter of time before Tiger Woods eclipsed Sam Snead’s PGA Tour record of 82 victories. He had won convincingly in Japan to tie Snead. He finished fourth at the Hero World Challenge. He was the best player at the Presidents Cup in Australia, where Woods was the U.S. playing captain.

He then tied for ninth in his first event of 2020 … and never sniffed contention again.

Woods complained of back stiffness on the weekend of the Genesis Invitational, where he finished last among those who made the cut. Then he skipped a couple of tournaments dealing with those issues prior to the pandemic shutdown. He pronounced himself good to go when golf resumed, but Woods waited more than a month to return. And he simply was never the same.

Whether it was the mental strain of dealing with the pandemic, the difficulty of getting fired up with no spectators to provide buzz, back issues, a lack of preparation or some combination, the game’s No. 1 attraction struggled, never finishing better than 13 shots from the winner. He missed the cut at the U.S. Open and his best finish was a tie for 37th at the PGA Championship.

He celebrated his 45th birthday on Dec. 30, and it must be sobering to know that only five players — one of them more than 100 years ago — has won a major championship at this age or older.

And so most of the same questions remain for Woods: Can he be physically able to practice and prepare, which gives him the best chance to succeed? When feeling well, Woods is still quite capable of winning. The problem is how often will he be in that state? He’s likely to return later this month at the Farmers Insurance Open, where the Torrey Pines venue will also be home to the 2021 U.S. Open.

Testing and more testing

Nothing has changed as it relates to how the PGA Tour will conduct tournaments in the pandemic environment. It adjusted its protocols as time passed and will require players to test at home prior to travel to an event and again at the tournament site before being allowed access to the golf course. The same holds for caddies.

Although the Tour avoided major problems in 2020, it still had several high-profile players test positive for COVID-19 and miss tournaments, including Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott and Tony Finau. Sergio Garcia, who won the Masters in 2017, missed the tournament — and his first major championship event since 1999 — because of the coronavirus.

The biggest issue the tour faces is complacency. Like the rest of us, players and caddies are tired of the hassles the pandemic has wrought. They’ve had a good run and it’s easy to let your guard down, especially amid friends and colleagues. Testing will continue, and there inevitably will be positive cases that lead to withdrawals.

Spectators

Like most of the other sports, spectator-less golf tournaments have gotten old. The roar of the crowd and seeing fans line the ropes is sorely missed. Although some tournaments will be allowed to admit a small number of spectators, it won’t be anything like normal for at least the first two months of 2021 — and likely beyond.

That includes at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, generally the most-attended tournament, with upward of 100,000 people on site for the Saturday round and huge numbers throughout the week.

The tournament is looking at having up to 8,000 spectators a day, which would be by far the most admitted at any event since the resumption of play. If the coronavirus numbers calm down, it is also likely we will see a slight loosening of restrictions when the tour returns to Florida in March. At the Players Championship — the first event canceled — it is likely there will be something along the lines of what happens at the TPC Scottsdale.

And the Masters?

The year’s first major is less than 100 days away — approximately 50 days removed from Johnson’s victory at the postponed Masters in November. While it was neat to see all of Augusta National without spectators, it’ll be so much better if they can be back. The noise helps make the Masters the Masters. It is unlikely, however, that a full house will be permitted.

But how about 10,000 per day? That’s about the number that traversed the grounds for the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur on the Saturday prior to the 2019 Masters. Perhaps that can work again, with some increased version of rapid testing — as chairman Fred Ridley suggested the club is studying. We should have answers by the end of the month.

DJ rolls on

It will be interesting to see how Johnson fares this week in Maui in his first start since winning the Masters. This is typically a tournament where he performs well, and the venue is well-suited to him. He might be excused if motivation is waning after an incredible year that saw him win his second major championship, the FedEx Cup and two other tournaments. Johnson might not have wanted to see the year end. But now he’s right back at it, and a title defense at the Masters is not far off.

Brawny Bryson

Bryson DeChambeau transformed his body in 2020, and the results were impressive. Not only did he gain more than 40 pounds, but he put on muscle and started hitting the ball extraordinary lengths. DeChambeau led the PGA Tour in driving distance, averaging just over 322 yards. That means he gained about 20 yards from his average in 2019.

The result saw DeChambeau make some par-4 holes look silly. He won the U.S. Open by six shots and was the only player at Winged Foot under par. And yet he struggled at the Masters, where the long ball sometimes got him into trouble.

Don’t expect that to change him. DeChambeau appears more committed than ever, and whether it results in more victories will be fascinating to watch.

Woe is Brooks

How will Brooks Koepka bounce back from an injury-plagued year? The knee problem that surfaced in 2019 and that he thought he fixed with a stem cell procedure, was aggravated when he slipped on a path and never seemed to get right in 2020. Koepka never used it as an excuse, but it was clear he was not at his best. And his results showed, as he missed five cuts and had some unique struggles.

Koepka slipped to 12th in the world after starting the year at No. 1, and after winning four majors in three years his only chance was at the PGA, where he was within striking distance going into the final round, only to shoot 76. A few weeks later, Koepka had failed to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs and skipped the U.S. Open. It seems the health of his knee is the key to a successful return this year.

JT’s resolve

As good as 2020 was for Justin Thomas, you get the sense he was far from satisfied. He won the WGC-FedEx St. Jude, but let good chances to win the Workday Charity Open and the Zozo Championship get away. He was on the fringe of contention at the U.S. Open and Masters, but he never was really in the mix, a third straight year without adding to his one major title. Still, in 20 events, Thomas had 11 top-10 finishes, with two wins, two seconds and two thirds. He puts himself there often. Look for a big 2021 from JT.

The Ryder Cup

With much consternation, the 2020 Ryder Cup was postponed to September of this year, and here’s hoping the PGA of America and European Tour are rewarded for their patience and foresight. Had it been played last September, it would have been with a small number of spectators, tops. Anyone who watched the Masters without them knows the biggest events are really impacted by crowds. There is no golf event where this more true than the Ryder Cup. The raucous environment is a big part of the show.

So what can we expect in September? Certainly by then a good number of the population should be vaccinated. That would seem a simple step toward letting the gates at Whistling Straits be overrun by spectators.

As for the competition itself, the quest to make each team renews in earnest now. More points are at stake. For the U.S. team, captain Steve Stricker will have six at-large picks, with Johnson, DeChambeau, Thomas, Koepka, Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele holding down the top six automatic spots now.

Patrick Reed, Webb Simpson and Finau are close by. Can Tiger, at 17th, make a run at a final Ryder Cup appearance as a player at age 45? It would seem he needs to be in the top 10 to warrant a pick.

For Europe, captain Padraig Harrington will get four players from the European Tour points list, five from a World Points list and then have three at-large picks. The European Tour did not award Ryder Cup points following its restart, having locked in points prior to the shutdown. Both the World list (Sentry Tournament of Champions) and the European Tour list (Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship) will restart the process.

Tommy Fleetwood leads the European list, while Tyrrell Hatton sits atop to the World list.

What about Rory?

Rory McIlroy will undoubtedly be at Whistling Straits, but well before then he is expected to bounce back from a lackluster 2020.

McIlroy had four top-10 finishes and was ranked No. 1 in the world prior to the shutdown. Although he had top-10s at the Tour Championship, U.S. Open and Masters, he never contended. And he went the entire year without finishing first or second.

Clearly the return from the shutdown had an impact. McIlroy admitted to having trouble with the fan-less atmosphere. His wife also gave birth to the couple’s first child in late August. McIlroy plans to begin 2021 later this month in Abu Dhabi.

The majors

After the Masters, the PGA Championship is scheduled for May 20-23 at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course in South Carolina. McIlroy won the first of his two PGAs there in 2012. The U.S. Open returns to Torrey Pines in San Diego, the site of Woods’ epic 2008 title, June 17-20. And The Open, which was postponed in 2020 for the first time since World War II, is set to be played at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England, July 15-18. Darren Clarke won The Open last time it was played in Sandwich in 2011.

For all of these tournaments, it is the same story regarding spectators: wait and see. Vaccines, government restrictions, testing all will play a major impact.

The struggles of Jordan

As the new year begins, Jordan Spieth is ranked 82nd in the world. Three years ago at this time he was second. Even last year, he was 44th. His slide remains perplexing, as there has been no shortage of effort and positivity coming from Spieth — whose last victory was the 2017 Open at Royal Birkdale.

What’s troubling is Spieth went all of 2020 without contending. He had no top-three finishes — in fact, his last top 3 was his tie for third at the 2019 PGA Championship. He had just two top-10s and missed six cuts.

A player to watch

Will Zalatoris was ranked 672nd in the world at the end of 2019 and had no PGA Tour status. He is now 59th and on the cusp of earning a Masters invitation if he can get to the top 50 by the end of March.

Zalatoris had three top 10s, including a tie for sixth at the U.S. Open, and has earned special temporary member status for the 2020-21 season. That means he can accept unlimited sponsor exemptions in an attempt to earn his PGA Tour card. The number of FedEx points he has earned to this point easily has him in the top 20. So he’s well on his way.

Anytime Zalatoris posts a top-10, he will earn a spot in the next full-field event, and he will undoubtedly be able to secure more exemptions. The key is a few more high finishes to work his way into the Masters.

A final (for now) word on Charlie Woods

In what was an otherwise dismal year for Tiger Woods, it was nice to see him enjoy the PNC Championship with his son, Charlie, who at age 11 showed quite the golf prowess while mimicking his famous father in almost every way. Their golf bond intensified during the global shutdown, and here is hoping Charlie’s progression — likely through more private avenues — keeps Tiger engaged.

One thing was clear, however: Tiger was not all that comfortable with the situation. His answers to questions about his son revealed little, and he understandably wanted to rein in any hype. The fact he committed to the event remains a surprise.

But here’s one takeaway that might bring him some solace: A good number of observers were moved by the scene and happy to see Tiger, at least for a short time, reveal a more private side of himself. And what kid who watched that wouldn’t perhaps be inspired to take up the game? Just as Tiger did for the masses more than 20 years ago, it’s easy to see plenty of kids tugging at their moms and dads to play golf.

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