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PGA Tour gears up for its big-game season

Jon Rahm 220 Memorial preview
Spain's Jon Rahm hits a practice shot Wednesday at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. This week's Memorial Tournament marks a fresh start for players such as Rahm (from right), Graeme McDowell, Ian Poulter and Tony Finau as the PGA Tour's biggest events loom in the coming weeks.

With only 3 weeks until season’s 1st major championship, Memorial Tournament serves as starting point for PGA Tour players with grand visions

Shane Lowry is in the wrong time zone this week, probably feeling something akin to jet lag, as if his mind is in one place and his body in another. And who knows where the Claret Jug is, because this was supposed to be British Open week.

“It’s strange. I should be at [Royal] St. George’s today as the defending champion,” Lowry said from Dublin, Ohio, where the Memorial Tournament gets underway today (tee times). “But It’s a very strange time at the minute, isn’t it?”

Indeed, we’re having to function in a space where reality is surreal, the old normal has been replaced by the abnormal, no one has any idea what the new normal will look like and we’ve gone a whole year without a major championship. But Lowry offers a bit of perspective.

“We’re very lucky to be back playing golf and working for a living, and I’m grateful for that,” said the 33-year-old Irishman.

However, if you’re one of the best players in the world, it would be best to shake out the fuzz between your ears and generate some sense of urgency because it’s big-game season in elite-level golf.

The golf world has been turned on its head, and we would be ending the major-championship season this week had it not been for the pandemic. There is no British Open this year, and the first major of 2020 begins in three weeks with the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco.

So, if you will, consider this week’s Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village as 2020’s version of the Players Championship, the prelude to the first major and the fifth (or so) biggest tournament on this year’s calendar.

The field is one of the Memorial’s strongest in memory, with nine of the top 10 players in the Official World Golf Ranking entered. And, perhaps more of a headline, Tiger Woods is playing for the first time on the PGA Tour since February.

If players who haven’t found something approaching their “A” game yet in the six-week Tour restart, now would be the time to start looking for it in earnest. Because the WGC-FedEx St. Jude is the week before the PGA Championship, and two weeks after the PGA begins the three-week run of the FedEx Cup playoffs. And the U.S. Open is two weeks after the Tour Championship.

In other words, there are big events in seven of the next 10 weeks on the Tour’s revised schedule.

Rory McIlroy is still the No. 1 player in the world but not thanks to his current form. Dating to the the season restart at the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial in June, McIlroy has finished T-32, T-41 (RBC Heritage) and T-11 (Travelers Championship). He seems to have missed having spectators behind the ropes.

“I haven’t necessarily been in contention the last few times that we’ve played without fans, but if anything, I’ve realized that it’s very hard for me to keep focus out here,” he said. “I feel like when there’s fans and there’s that energy and the atmosphere, it’s easy to get into that mindset that you need to get into. That’s what we’re used to; that’s what we do.

“But when you don’t have that, I felt the first three weeks my mind was wandering a little bit. It’s sort of easy to lose focus, easy to lose concentration. I think some of the mistakes I was making was because of that.”

Woods will experience the absence of fans for the first time this week, which is bound to be a new experience for someone who normally draws thousands every time he plays. He was asked whether college in the mid-1990s was the last time when he played in front of no spectators. “There were still a few people who followed me in college,” he said with a wry smile.

Jon Rahm, the No. 2 player in the world, hasn’t fared any better than McIlroy. He missed the cut at Colonial, finished T-33 at the Heritage, T-37 at the Travelers and T-27 at last week’s Workday Charity Open but did post a final-round 64.

Justin Thomas, ranked No. 3, lost in a playoff last week to Collin Morikawa after giving up a three-shot lead with three holes to play in the final round. Dustin Johnson (No. 4) only recently found any form with a victory at the Travelers, and No. 6 Brooks Koepka continues to search for his game.

Webb Simpson (No. 5) is a winner since the restart, taking apart Harbour Town at the Heritage. And Bryson DeChambeau is the hottest player on Tour since the restart, with a victory at the Rocket Mortgage and three other finishes in the top eight, which has vaulted him to No. 7 in the world.

In other words, if your name isn’t DeChambeau, you’ve got some work to do. Johnson, for his part, is neither worried nor afraid.

“Right now, I feel like if I'm playing my game,” he said. “[DeChambeau] can hit it as far as he wants to, and I don't think he's going to beat me.”

For all of the jarring and unsettling circumstances of the last few months, one thing hasn’t changed: The lowest score still wins.

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