News & Opinion

An extraordinary year in golf, like it or not

Masters flag and scoreboard
The Masters Tournament at Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club

Major pro tours adapt to the unprecedented challenge imposed by COVID-19 as some established stars make way for new talent

The world became all about COVID-19 in 2020. At the same time, golf is able to live with a virus better than most activities. Outdoors, distancing … they come with the territory and as a result, the industry thrived on the recreational level. 

Professionally, after a three-month shutdown, and despite a dozen or so positive tests, the PGA Tour persevered. While other sports suffered stops and starts, golf regrouped, rescheduled and resumed the year unobstructed.

That said, this certainly was not your father’s year in golf. So, let’s look at some of the stories that, properly masked and socially-distanced, have stood out:

Prime-time matches: OK, yeah, Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson probably had one sequel left, and tossing in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady gave it GOAT-grudge sizzle. Manning is easily the most entertaining of the bunch. But the second match, incorporating a tired Charles Barkley joke and the NBA’s Stephen Curry, was more like an episode of Fantasy Island than golf. Next time, have them play basketball.

A Masters in November: Without fans, without pastels, without egg salad, it seemed like a forced hand, a Masters for the sake of being able to say there was a Masters. The missing atmosphere, the absence of Amen Corner eruptions made it the least-imposing Masters for players; ditto for the U.S. Open. Given the circumstance, everyone’s doing his best. Understood. But where a major championship is concerned, the British Open probably had the right idea: wait until next year.

Bryson DeChambeau: “Bison” came out of the COVID break the way Dr. David Banner comes out of temper tantrums. And when DeChambeau won the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, power became all the rage. “Experts” predicted that Augusta National would have no chance when the Battleship DeChambeau came ashore in Georgia. Then he double bogeyed his first par 5 and finished the championship tied for 34th. By the way, tied for 29th was the 63-year-old Bernhard Langer, who is to distance what Bill Belichick is to verbosity. Langer was paired with DeChamBunyan on Sunday and beat him by two strokes. The brake-pumping moral to this story? You still have to get it in the hole.

The Match Champions for Charity 18th green
Phil Mickelson (from left) and partner Tom Brady lose to Peyton Manning and Tiger Woods, 1 up, in ‘The Match: Champions for Charity’ at Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Fla., but as the oversized check indicates, there was a bigger winner.

The regression of Tiger: On the heels of 2019 – which featured his fifth Masters title – a Big Cat revival seemed to be on. But Tiger Woods played infrequently and ineffectively in 2020. A tie for ninth at the Farmers Insurance Open in January proved to be his only top-30 result in a scant nine starts. A return to Augusta ended in a bingo number: T-38. That said, Woods turns 45 this month, and he’s had something like 45 back surgeries, so … 

Phil Mickelson Sr.: Many fantasized about “Lefty” getting even with Winged Foot, expelling his demons and winning a U.S. Open at age 50. Of course, that didn’t happen. But no one anticipated Mickelson going rogue. During a year in which his missed cuts outnumbered his top-10 finishes worldwide, 8-3, Mickelson visited the Champions Tour twice and won both times. Starved for excitement, Silverado might pray that he comes visiting more often in 2021.

Sophia Popov wins 2020 British Women's Open
Germany's Sophia Popov revels in her improbable route to victory at the Women's British Open at Royal Troon in Scotland.

Cinderella: Ranked 304th in the world, Germany’s Sophia Popov, a 27-year-old Symetra Tour player, won the Women’s British Open at Royal Troon. Her story, which includes battling Lyme disease, losing 25 pounds and missing her LPGA Tour card by one stroke, resonated with the golf world. It also put the LPGA in an embarrassing position, with Popov ineligible for the next major, the ANA Inspiration. But all’s well that ends well. Popov competed in the last major of the year, the U.S. Women’s Open, though she was destined to finish far down the leaderboard. Sunday’s final round was delayed because of weather and is scheduled to finish Monday. 

Spieth softly: Jordan Spieth is now five years removed from blowing up in 2015, when he won two major championships and nearly swept all four. And he is 2½ years removed from his last win: the 2017 British Open. His likeness is not on milk cartons or subway walls, but Spieth has slipped to No. 78 in the world ranking and has not been able to stop the bleeding. In calendar year 2020, he made 20 starts, with six missed cuts and an average finish south of 44th. Keep in mind, he’s still only 27 and – filed under “only in golf” – he is a lock for the World Golf Hall of Fame for what he did before his 24th birthday.  

Fowler power: In fairness to Spieth, he is not alone. It wasn’t a great year for a number of “names,” and that includes Rickie Fowler. Yes, the mustache was impressive, but the owner did not have a top-10 after January. Inconspicuous in the majors, struggling statistically, Fowler slid to 52nd in the OWGR and is on the bubble for the Masters in April. During 11 years on the circuit, Fowler owns no major titles and five PGA Tour wins to go with all those TV commercials. Everybody pulls for players such as Spieth and Fowler, likable people, successful in life. But Fowler’s career has a Chip Beck quality to it. All that marketing power has to fade if the resume doesn’t grow.

2020 Masters Sunday: Dustin Johnson and Tiger Woods
The celebration after the final round of the Masters was limited because of the pandemic, but Dustin Johnson did receive his new jacket courtesy of 2019 champion Tiger Woods.

D.J. way: Only COVID dominated more than Dustin Johnson. With victories at the Tour Championship and the Masters, a T-2 at the PGA and T-6 at the U.S. Open over the past few months, the 36-year-old “D.J.” is Jack Dawson, leaning over the bow of professional golf and declaring, “I’m the king of the world!” Rather quietly, Johnson has accumulated 24 PGA Tour wins and sits a PGA and British Open short of the career Grand Slam. Given how he finished 2020, it’s not crazy to think he could get both in 2021. 

Jack backs Trump: In the midst of a contentious election year, filled with vitriol and inexorable mindsets, Jack Nicklaus came out in support of President Donald Trump. Nicklaus was widely admonished by media types for having the audacity to take a stance that offended their sensibilities. All of a sudden, Nicklaus was a rich, silly old guy, and the class and character he has demonstrated throughout his public life were dismissed by many observers. The reaction, especially the mean-spirited nature of it, said more about closed minds and an intolerant culture. The good news is, Whoopi Goldberg supported Joe Biden’s candidacy, balancing the scales.

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