News & Opinion

Expect a fall season unlike any other on PGA Tour

Golf in the fading light
Shorter daylight hours signal the arrival of fall golf, but this could be a season unlike any other.

Don’t be so quick to presume that just because it’s a new wraparound season that a return to normal soon will follow

Far be it for anyone to call 2020 “normal,” but in the sports world, some things at least are familiar, if only vaguely.

Football has started, although haltingly. The baseball playoffs have begun, although strangely, after an abbreviated season with fewer than half of the games to which we’re accustomed, along with cardboard cutouts in the seats and manufactured crowd noise. The NBA Finals have commenced after the league finished its season in a “bubble” with “virtual fans,” which no one ever would have thought could become a sports term.

And now comes the part of golf’s unwieldly pandemic scheduling, in which the 2020-21 season officially has started. However, the second event of the season was the U.S. Open, and the Masters is six weeks away, in November, words you probably never believed you’d see written. In fact, the PGA Tour schedule features 50 events in 52 weeks, including six major championships: the U.S. Open and the Masters each will be played twice. We hope.

In saner times, the fall portion of the schedule has meant that most of the stars take time off, leaving those events – such as this week’s Sanderson Farms Championship in Mississippi – for the middle- and lower-tier players as a vehicle to get some FedEx Cup points while the top players stay home.

It’s a Hudson Swafford-like time of year. Swafford, who won the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship on Sunday, captured his second Tour title after having lost significant time with injuries. Brendon Todd came back from nearly leaving the game by winning twice last fall.

It’s a time ripe with reclamation and redemption. The fall of 2019’s winners included Sebastian Munoz, Kevin Na, Lanto Griffin and Tyler Duncan. Na, you know – probably – but the others, you’d have to put in a little work to learn something about them.

However, this year, the fall events take on much more significance. The Sanderson Farms and next week’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open will be full of players searching for their own Swafford-Todd moment. But many of those players will be elbowed out the following two weeks.

The big names will be looking for opportunities to prepare for the Masters, and there are back-to-back events that likely will have significant star power. The CJ Cup is two weeks away, and its new venue will get the attention of a number of players. The tournament has moved from South Korea to Shadow Creek in Las Vegas, where it was famously said that former owner Steve Wynn gave architect Tom Fazio an unlimited budget – and he exceeded it. Justin Thomas is the defending champion, and Dustin Johnson already has committed.

And the Zozo Championship, the following week, also should draw a good field. Tiger Woods is the defending champion, despite the tournament having moved from Japan to Sherwood Country Club near Los Angeles. It just so happens that Woods’ Hero World Challenge exhibition was held at Sherwood for 14 years, and the host won it five times. (Anything smelly about that?)

Even the Houston Open is likely to get a better field than the time of year might indicate, simply because it’s the week before the Masters. Phil Mickelson, for one, likes to play immediately before a major championship.

However, there’s another reason why players need to compete in as many events as they can while there’s time.

Hate to say it – or even think it – but the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s the elephant in the room. With flu season just kicking off, many experts think we’re in for a significant problem this fall and winter in nearly all parts of the country. The immediate issue is that no one knows exactly what that means.

So, could professional golf be adversely affected by then? It depends on what other segments of society turn out to be restricted, and for how long. But you can bet that the people who run the major golf tours have examined the various scenarios, and if they haven’t, they’d better get busy. It would be a huge mistake to naively believe that business as usual is guaranteed just around the corner.

If we’ve learned anything in this long, strange year, it’s that the only thing certain is uncertainty. Golf guarantees nothing except that sooner or later, you’ll be dealt some pain. At the moment, “normal” is only a setting on a washing machine, and we’d best not attempt to make it anything else.

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.