News & Opinion

PGA Tour’s ‘Ironmen’ carve up fall season

Don’t label those eager pros as turkeys for playing early and often, because it all could be gravy by season's end

This is the week of the Ironman. And Ironwoman.

There will be Turkey Bowls played later this week in backyards and school playgrounds around America. They are touch-football games that have become traditions, featuring guys and gals who probably ought to know better. They will kick off the day after Thanksgiving (or maybe Saturday). Long before Black Friday gave us Walmart stampedes, Turkey Bowls gave us Black and Blue Friday.

In the Midwest, where I’m from, the ground might be tundra for this all-important tilt. If it’s sleeting, snowing or freezing cold, so much the better. Turkey Bowls are for Ironmen (and Ironwomen) only.

Decades ago, my group annually climbed the fence to play tackle football (yes, wearing no equipment) on our actual high school field, the home of the fighting Chemics (I’d rather not say where; Google it, if you must). Somehow, I avoided serious injury. Possibly because some said I was the reincarnation of Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch on the field. More likely, it was dumb luck.

A different kind of Ironman Challenge is under way at a public golf course I frequent just north of Pittsburgh. Play all 18 holes at Birdsfoot Golf Course in Freeport, Pa., by the end of November for $25 with a cart, stop in the golf shop after the round and you will receive a certificate good for a free round of golf later this year, or next year, or anytime. It does not expire. It’s a smart marketing gimmick. With a warm spell forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday before the weather turns lousy on Thanksgiving Day and the golf season dies with a painful whimper, Birdsfoot should be slammed with Ironmen and Ironwomen.

2019 Tour Championship
South Korea’s Sungjae Im, who led the PGA Tour in starts with 35 in the 2018-19 season, sets a high standard for wannabe Ironmen this season.

Now is a good time to tip the cap to the Ironmen of professional golf. The 2020 PGA Tour season already is in progress, wrapping itself around two calendars like those chocolate-covered pretzels I’ve got to quit pounding down during the holidays.

The PGA Tour has hosted 11 tournaments over 10 weeks. There was one doubleheader, when the inaugural Bermuda Championship was played for the rank-and-file members who didn’t qualify for the same week’s World Golf Championships event in Shanghai. So, there were a maximum of 10 events in which a player could compete, starting at the Greenbrier in West Virginia in September, with stops in places such as Napa Valley, Las Vegas, Houston, South Korea, Japan and Mexico before finishing in lovely sunny, cool weather at Sea Island in Georgia.

There was no Cal Ripken of the fall. Nobody played all 10, but golf is different than baseball. The better the player and the lower his world ranking, it seems, the less he has to play. Among last season’s top 20 money winners, only No. 18 Chez Reavie played as many as 28 events. Most of the others were in the high teens to mid-20s.

The European Tour’s toughest Ironman was Steven Brown, who led the tour with 32 starts but ranked only 76th in earnings, despite scoring his first career victory, in October at the Portugal Masters. Sometimes, Ironmen finish first.

The real Ironman of the Year for 2019 also was the PGA Tour’s rookie of the year: Sungjae Im, 21, of South Korea. Im played his way onto the PGA Tour by finishing No. 1 the previous year on the (now Korn Ferry) Tour.

Im made sure that he didn’t get cheated as a rookie. He played in 35 PGA Tour events, made the FedEx Cup playoffs and advanced all the way to the Tour Championship, where he tied for 19th. He played more golf than any of the top 50-ranked players in the world. The average number of starts by the rest of the Tour Championship field was 22.5. Im beat that by almost two touchdowns.

Im missed only nine weeks through the end of the PGA Tour season, and three of them were because he didn’t qualify for the events: Sentry Tournament of Champions, Masters and U.S. Open. He skipped Las Vegas so that he could fly to South Korea to play in a tournament, the Korean Tour’s Genesis Championship, which he won.

Im’s demanding multi-continent year made me think of Dana Quigley, golf’s all-time Ironman. He played in 264 consecutive senior tour tournaments, and 278 in a row counting only tournaments for which he was eligible to play. Now there’s a record that never will be broken or even approached.

Im was such an Ironman as a rookie that he didn’t even have a U.S. residence. He simply moved from hotel to hotel. I’ll bet that he’s already Titanium level with Marriott.

I don’t see anyone matching Im’s mark this season, but here are some leading candidates for 2020 Ironman of the Year. Twenty-three players competed in eight of a possible 10 tournaments. They’re led by Brendon Todd, who won back-to-back tournaments and made a run at a trifecta at the RSM Classic. Lanto Griffin, who scored his first career victory at the Houston Open, also played eight times.

Other notable eight-timers include veteran Kevin Streelman; Sam Ryder, not to be confused with the seed merchant who started the Ryder Cup; Rob Oppenheim, no Manhattan Project jokes, please; Maverick McNealy, former Stanford star; Henrik Norlander, a 32-year-old Swede who played on Augusta State’s back-to-back NCAA championship teams in 2010 and 2011; Patrick Rodgers, another ex-Stanford star trying to rebound from wrist and thumb injuries that fouled up 2019; and Doc Redman, 21, who’s not an actual doctor.

These budding Ironmen prove why the PGA Tour needs this newly extended fall season. There’s a lot of talent out there, and the stars of tomorrow have to get their first wins somewhere. An unknown from Drake University won the 2004 BellSouth Classic, then became better known when his second win was the 2007 Masters. Zach Johnson played 30 events in 2004 and 2005. He, too, was an Ironman.

So, this week, let’s all hail the Ironmen (and Ironwomen), whether they’re on a golf course or a snow-covered backyard-turned-football stadium.

I will accept the Ironman challenge myself this week. I’ll let you guess whether I’ll do it on the links or lope majestically along the sideline like a gazelle named Barry Sanders in my local Turkey Bowl.

Here’s a hint: I’m on Medicare.