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2020 Colonial: A season unlike any other prepares for reboot

Sungjae Im 2020 Arnold Palmer
South Korea’s Sungjae Im brings a hot hand, relatively speaking, into Colonial this week. He won the Honda Classic before placing 3rd at Bay Hill before the plug was pulled on the season. Im, who is No. 23 in the world ranking, will face a field that features the top 5 in the world and 15 of the top 20.

There’s no such thing as a hot hand after a 3-month layoff, but if there were, Sungjae Im and Rory McIlroy would look pretty good

Pardon the interruption, but golf is back. A three-month pandemic pause comes to an end this week when the Charles Schwab Challenge, aka Colonial, puts the ball into unmasked air in Fort Worth, Texas.

Things are different. Already an issue in golf, with conversations about governing the ball ever present, distance is now a personal concern. Galleries will look different because, well, there won’t be any for the first five weeks on the PGA Tour. Volunteers carrying “Quiet” signs have been furloughed. Fist bumps are out; nasal swipes are in. The PGA Championship will be first major of the year, for cripes’ sake!

No question, Thursday is the first day of the rest of the PGA Tour’s life. That said, context is vitally important in golf – a sense of history, a perspective, an accounting. It fills the conversation, keeps us regular, separates us from the animals.

So, yes, Jim Nantz might say this 2020 season is “a season unlike any other.” But this week also represents the midway point of the year, and perhaps it helps our return if we treat it as such, do some assessment and bring things up to date as we reset. So, here we go …

Who’s hot: Well, it has to be Tyrrell Hatton … at least, it was. He is the most recent winner on the PGA Tour, although his victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March doesn’t really seem like yesterday. Hatton followed with a first-round 69 at TPC Sawgrass before they pulled the plug on the Players Championship and likely much of Hatton’s season in America. Hatton, of England, will be like a number of top foreign players who won’t be playing early in the restart because of U.S. travel restrictions associated with coronavirus.

South Korea’s Sungjae Im also gets consideration. He won the Honda Classic the week before the “Arnie” and then finished third at Bay Hill, so that’s heat-retaining. But in the panoramic view, Rory McIlroy has been radiating for a while. Going back to a Tour Championship victory to conclude last season, he has no worse than a tie for fifth in his past nine PGA Tour-related starts. McIlroy, a four-time major champion from Northern Ireland who ranks No. 1 in the world, also ranks No. 1 among oddsmakers this week.

His recent run includes a McIlwin in the TaylorMade Driving Relief, the made-for-TV event last month that raised $5.5 million for coronavirus relief. S’true, a subsequent event featuring Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson raised $20 million, so for the team of McIlroy-Dustin Johnson it was more like winning a state four-ball, but it goes down as a win-win for COVID-19 relief.

Who’s not: You’d have to say, after a long run of consistency, it’s been a rough patch for Justin Rose. During his previous two PGA Tour seasons, Rose had 18 top-10s among 25 top-25s and missed only two cuts. But since January, he has three missed cuts and posted only a T-56 on the PGA Tour tracker. He has fallen from No. 1 in the world in early 2019 to No. 14 today. There’s an age-old explanation for the slump: equipment change. But Rose has dropped the new deal and returned to more familiar sticks, so we shall see this week.

Now, if you’d prefer to send a left-handed batter to the plate, Mickelson deserves a nod. He has missed cuts in four of his past five PGA Tour starts, with a third at Pebble Beach in between. Mickelson and pants-splitting partner Tom Brady did pair well in the aforementioned TV event, so as a relief pitcher, he’s been terrific.

That said, the Mickelson-Brady team finished second in a two-team race and, sick calves notwithstanding, Mickelson has been scuffling. Maybe he can find new life at 50 when he makes the turn on June 16.

This category demands a shout-out to Brooks Koepka, as well. He has gone from No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings going into the BMW Championship last August to No. 213 this week. That’s 212 places in 10 months, but who’s counting?

Who’s both hot and cold: Ben Hogan is the only player with back-to-back wins at Colonial, which has hosted the PGA Tour since 1946. He did it twice (1946, ’47 and 1952, ’53), hence the “Hogan’s Alley” moniker. And as the 2019 champion, Kevin Na is the only player in the Fort Worth field with the momentum it takes to join Hogan. That’s one side of the story. The other side is that Na’s top finish since winning the Shriners Hospitals event in Las Vegas last October is a T-9 in February’s WGC Mexico. So, momentum is in the eye of the Ben Hogan, or rather, the beholder.

Who’s bigger: Bryson, or should we say “Bison,” DeChambeau. Taking some heat over pace of play from Koepka last August, the Bry-guy decided that if he couldn’t play as fast Koepka, he could damn sure work out as much. DeChambeau has added some 40 pounds to his physique and nearly 20 yards to his driver. Last year (302.5), he was T-34 on the Tour in driving distance; this year (321.3) he is No. 1.

That said, with his next PGA Tour trophy, Tiger Woods will surpass Sam Snead for the most career wins (they both have 82). You don’t get any bigger than that.

Who’s better: Sticking with Woods, he appeared in excellent form – to say nothing of the cargo shorts – during “The Match.” Woods closed his pre-pandemic year is less-than-encouraging style, carding 76-77 on the Genesis Invitational weekend and then pulling into the pits with a sore back. He hit every fairway and looked marvelous in a fundraiser on his home course.

But Woods is not in the Colonial field – and he might not compete until the Memorial Tournament in mid-July – so inquiring minds will wait to see whether the impressive form translates to championship competition.

Likewise, the time off might have been good for Koepka. The reigning PGA champ is trying to put a left-knee injury behind him. Three months off could go either way for one’s playing form, but it has to be good for a rebuilt knee, right? There will be more immediate feedback from Koepka. He is in the field this week.

Who’s best: Probably Vijay Singh. After all the vitriol he absorbed when his name appeared on the entry list for this week’s Korn Ferry Challenge at Dye’s Valley at TPC Sawgrass, he decided to withdraw from the event. A winner 34 times on the PGA Tour, the 57-year-old Singh is ineligible for the Colonial event this week and considered making his return with the Korn Ferry crowd. It didn’t go over well with others, most notably Brady Schnell, who insisted that Singh was denying an up-and-comer a chance to advance. Schnell later apologized, but the sentiment was out there.

It’s a funny thing. A Major League Baseball veteran can go down to Triple-A, make some rehab starts, get a few at-bats, shake off the rust. No issue. Tournament officials can give a sponsor’s exemption to Jerry Rice or Steph Curry. Understood. But Vijay Singh considers playing in a Korn Ferry event, and all hell breaks loose.

Singh must have decided, all parties concerned, it’s probably best that he just sits it out.

And finally, who’s happy: Golf fans, for sure, and it’s safe to say that all sports will be glad to see Thursday arrive. It won’t look quite the same, nor will it feel quite the same, either. But the top two U.S. tours are back, and the top five players in the world – McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Koepka, Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson – are teeing it up.

Granted, it won’t include Vijay Singh, but it’s a start.

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