News & Opinion

OK, class, it’s time for PGA Tour’s midyear report

Bryson DeChambeau at 2020 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open
Bryson DeChambeau powers his way to the top of the PGA Tour’s midseason class.

Bryson DeChambeau sets curve midway through a 2020-21 season that’s long on talent, tee balls and timeless champions

These are historic times, people. Just look around.

The NCAA basketball tournament somehow began without Duke and Kentucky (while CBS host Jim Nantz bravely held back the tears).

A volcano erupted in Iceland after 6,000 years – in other words, before Dick Vitale.

The National Football League sold its TV rights through 2033 for $100 billion (about half of Tesla founder Elon Musk’s estimated net worth).

ABC will televise the Super Bowl in 2023 for the first time since 2006. (Quick, somebody dig up Howard Cosell.)

And the PGA Tour’s split season is about to hit the halfway point, even though spring has just arrived and April hasn’t.

It’s a lot to take in. The scope of the PGA Tour season is vast and will be half over, as of this week's WGC Match Play. Which means it’s time for another helping of Half-Vast Mid-season Awards, a tradition unlike any other (but not in good way) …

Bryson DeChambeau. As Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson exit stage left, DeChambeau is the new straw that stirs the drink in golf, and it is one doggone long straw. Like Woods and Mickelson, DeChambeau merits a daily mention in every tournament that he plays. Not just because he won a U.S. Open last September or the recent Arnold Palmer Invitational but because he is, dare we say it, “out-sciencing” his opponents and out-hitting them. He ranks first in driving distance, scoring average, eagles and FedEx Cup points, three of which matter. He is the tour’s No. 1 attraction. Don’t miss The Bryson Aerial Circus if it comes to your town. Grade: A-plus.

Dustin Johnson. He’s had a relatively quiet 2021, but Johnson won the only Masters played in November and iced his future World Golf Hall of Fame spot. By the way, only Woods and Greg Norman have held the No. 1 world ranking longer than Johnson, who has spent nearly 2½ years there. Who’s going to take it away from him? Hard to say, but nobody makes the game look easier on a regular basis than D.J. Grade: A.

Justin Thomas. Mark him down as No. 1 in the World Golf Resiliency Rankings. He had some disappointing close calls – T-8, U.S. Open; T-2, Zozo Championship; fourth, Masters – before the sky fell on him. A TV microphone caught him using a homophobic slur to berate himself in Hawaii. A storm of criticism rocked his world, caused him to take sensitivity training, and then barely a month later, his beloved paternal grandfather passed away. The clouds parted on a trying year in March when he shot 64-68 on the weekend to win the Players, a victory that might be greater than his 2017 PGA Championship due to the circumstances. Expect more to come. Grade: A-minus.

Jon Rahm. A former world No. 1, Rahm has been close to breaking out again but instead has broken out a second, a fifth and three sevenths this season. His consistency is impressive. No one wants to play him in the Ryder Cup in September. Grade: B+.

Jordan Spieth. You could’ve won a small fortune by betting Spieth wouldn’t win another tournament for the next 3½-plus years after his scintillating 2017 British Open title at Royal Birkdale. He has been perplexed and discouraged, but three top-5 finishes of late indicates he’s on the rise. He had chances to win and couldn’t close, but, hey, it’s progress. Don’t count him out of the Ryder Cup team just yet. Grade: B.

Tony Finau. He is not a guy who wins the big ones, or not even the medium ones. His only “W” came in a 2016 opposite-field event in Puerto Rico. He finished 14th or better in eight of 11 starts this season, including a pair of seconds, but hasn’t been able to close out a second win. Still, he has stamped out $22.4 million in earnings in seven seasons, the kind of career that 250 other pros would take in a heartbeat. At 31, he has time. Grade: B.

Rory McIlroy. Remember when McIlroy overcame an opening 75 to tie for fifth at the Masters? We don’t, either. We do recall him admitting, shortly after shooting 10 over par to miss the Players cut, that he messed up his swing while chasing distance in an arms race with DeChambeau. He seems like an old 31. It’s been seven years since he won his fourth major championship, and no top player is worse with a full wedge in his hands. What’s really up, Rory? Grade: A for honesty, C- for performance.

Rickie Fowler. It’s embarrassing to have more TV commercials than anyone on tour while owning only five tour wins, no major titles and no finish better than 20th in 14 tries this season. He’s not making excuses, nor is he barking back at any knighted critics who cheap-shot him. He’s trying to find his way out of this slump. As the gentlest soul and most popular player on tour, he’s got a lot of support. Grade: D-.

Phil Mickelson. Most of his 2021 finishes sound like a quarterback’s cadence: “Thirty-five, forty-four, fifty-three, seventy-six … hike!” At 50, he still is only two years removed from a win at Pebble Beach and eight months from a runner-up finish at the Memphis WGC event, but all the weight and nutrition work and effort to reclaim lost clubhead speed isn’t paying off. Meanwhile, he won two of three Champions Tour starts. Anyone else detect two trends? Grade: D+ (PGA Tour), A+ (Champions Tour).

Tiger Woods. If only the 10 he posted at Amen Corner’s 12th hole in November was the worst thing that happened to him. Woods played only three times this season, had another back surgery and rarely has looked healthy for more than a few weeks in a stretch since his stirring 2019 Masters win. A horrific one-car accident in February badly injured his right leg. Never mind his future in golf; his future health is at risk as he begins a long recovery at home in Florida. Grade: I (for Interrupted).

Other awards:

The Helping Hands Trophy: Did he or didn’t he? Only Patrick Reed knows for sure, but many viewers and fellow players were suspicious about the furtive manner with which he felt around his golf ball in the rough and the ensuing free drop he was allowed to take at Torrey Pines en route to winning the Farmers Insurance Open. Maybe it was only a publicity ploy, but one online betting site refunded all losing wagers placed on other pros because of the shadow cast by Reed’s actions. Even CBS’ typically-up-with-golf host Jim Nantz noted, “The optics aren’t great.”

The Frequent Flier Cup: The best new TV innovation was the camera-toting drone that flew around Augusta National and provided stunning, never-before-seen views. Even famously curmudgeonly tournament chairman Clifford Roberts might have come close to cracking a smile.

Best Recycling Effort: Sorry, Waste Management Phoenix Open, the recipients are Stewart Cink and Brian Gay for returning to the winner’s circle. Gay won the Bermuda Championship in a playoff at age 48, his first victory since 2013. Cink, 47, captured the Safeway Open for his first title since the 2009 British Open, a span of 4,074 days.

Best Tournament of the Half-Vast Season: The spectacle that is the Players at TPC Sawgrass didn’t disappoint. At least half a dozen players thought they had a chance on Sunday, but superlative play by Thomas and a tense finish that enabled him to hang on over Lee Westwood and Bryson DeChambeau was exactly the drama and suspense that TV networks love.

The MIA (Missing In Action) Cup goes to Bryson DeChambeau, whose 330-yard-ish drive at the Masters’ third hole went missing because it plugged in soft turf. You mean mud? Nossuh, theah is no such thang as mud at Augusta National, suh!  Harris English earns honorable mention because despite teeing off in the U.S. Open’s second-to-last final-round twosome, with TV cameras on him, he hit an opening tee shot that glanced off a tree and never was found due to thick rough. No spectators, no alert course marshals and a 2019 USGA rules change that cut search time from five minutes to three.

Best Social Justice (no, not that kind): Harris “Lost Ball” English captured the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua at the start of this year despite having earned a spot in the event without winning an event in 2020. The T of C format, normally reserved for winners only, was changed due to the pandemic to allow all 30 qualifiers from the season-ending Tour Championship. It was his first win in 192 starts over seven years.

The Longest Defining Moment: It came at the par-5 ninth hole at Winged Foot in the U.S. Open’s final round. Bryson “The Incredible Bulk” DeChambeau hit a 375-yard drive into the fairway. Matthew Wolff, paired with DeChambeau, put his tee shot in the fairway at 388 yards. Too bad Happy Gilmore wasn’t in the group.

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