DORAL, Fla. – Schedules have changed, from the cleanliness of a single calendar to the confusion of a fall lineup followed by the creation of the circuit’s new wrap-around edition, but some things always remain the same.
Although the PGA Tour is some 15 events into the 2014-15 season, for most top players Thursday at the WGC-Cadillac Championship is opening day.
With apologies to the folks at the Frys.com Open, where the season “officially” started last October, and the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, which kicked off the new year on Tour in January, Doral has been the real start of the season for some time.
Consider that Adam Scott will tee off in just his second Tour event of the season, and his first in 2015 and on U.S. soil, on Thursday. That he does so 1,046 points behind leader Jimmy Walker on the FedEx Cup points list doesn’t change that fact.
Consider that world No. 1 Rory McIlroy will play his first weekend on the Tour this season at Doral. That's all the proof one needs that for all the realignment, for all the tinkering and adjustments made by the Tour in the name of progress, this is the week the players atop the marquee circle on the calendar.
“I’ve been off four weeks,” Matt Kuchar smiled broadly as he worked off the rust on Doral’s practice tee late Monday.
While that might not be what officials at Tour headquarters would like to hear, the alternative is unrealistic.
For players like McIlroy and Scott and even Kuchar, who played six times this season before taking his pre-Masters hiatus after the Waste Management Phoenix Open, year-round golf is not exactly a best practices option when it’s the four major championships that demand peak performance.
In fairness to the modern professional, it’s hard to argue with the less-is-more strategy when it comes to what is virtually a yearlong schedule.
Many credit Tiger Woods for the approach. Even before he was sidelined with injury in recent years he played at least 20 events in a single season just five times and never more than 21.
But Woods didn’t pioneer the idea. From 1971 until he retired Jack Nicklaus never played more than 19 Tour events in a single season and Greg Norman teed off in fewer than 19 Tour events every year of his Hall of Fame career.
Which has led players, the headliners who top everyone’s list of major contenders, to adjust accordingly.
While most players say the quality of golf course is their No. 1 factor when deciding to play an event, Doral, which was redesigned by architect Gil Hanse before last year’s event, largely defies conventional wisdom.
“Last year was rock hard because of a brand new golf course. I happened to just survive it, make a few putts,” said Bubba Watson, who finished second to Patrick Reed in 2014 at Doral.
“I look forward to the challenge. When you come here, the challenge of the wind, the challenge of the golf course, the speed of the greens are really, really quick right now, and so you get here, you get excited about the challenge.”
In short, Doral is a long way from Palm Springs, which was the traditional starting point for Tour types, something of a soft opening considering the easier conditions in the Coachella Valley, before the advent of what has become the major championship season.
Yet while the new and improved (Black and) Blue Course may not be an instant classic in many players' minds, its position on the schedule a month before the Masters has made it the Teflon Championship when it comes to participation.
For Scott, who hasn’t hit a shot that mattered anywhere in the world since December’s Australian PGA, it’s a question of location, not on the map but on the schedule.
Scott plans to play the next three weeks before taking a two-week break after the Arnold Palmer Invitational to make his final preparations for the Masters.
McIlroy, who missed the cut in his 2015 debut last week at the Honda Classic, will follow a similar routine, trading a start at the Shell Houston Open, which he has played the last two years, for Bay Hill in two weeks.
“I feel like I've got a nice schedule going into Augusta,” McIlroy said last week. “I'm not playing too much, but I'm playing just enough that I should be as sharp as possible going in there.”
While the idea of a top player missing nearly one third (Doral is the 16th of 47 Tour events this season) of a season would seem outlandish in other sports, it is golf’s new reality.
However the Tour decides to break down its season, for players like Scott, Thursday at Doral is opening day.