Professional golf thrives amid a pandemic, Bryson DeChambeau becomes the most-talked-about player in golf, Dustin Johnson reasserts his dominance, the majors produce a few surprise winners and we hand out some awards in this season-ending edition of Monday Scramble:
1. After a three-month shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, the PGA Tour (followed by the European Tour, LPGA and PGA Tour Champions) return to competition and enjoy a successful, albeit quieter, 2020 season.
TAKEAWAY: Penning this column a year ago, none of us could have imagined what this 2020 golf calendar would look like. But sitting in the media building at the 2020 Players Championship – not yet wearing a mask, not yet positioned 6 feet away from colleagues – and typing about the cancellation of golf's fifth major and the next month of events, it felt like the rest of the year was doomed.
That it was not is a massive credit to the PGA Tour brass that developed and implemented a safety plan that made golf one of the first competitive sports to return. Though massive questions existed at the time, the Tour’s protocols were refined over time and provided a template for other sports as we all adapted to a new normal. Kudos as well to the players, who took the pandemic seriously and made sacrifices large and small for the greater good of the Tour.
Now, what can we expect for 2021?
Probably more of the same, at least for the first few months. The Phoenix Open, with an expected 8,000 fans a day, is the only tournament with a robust attendance plan. Tournaments during the Florida swing are also likely to loosen up their restrictions. Will the Masters have patrons? The guess here is yes, though not nearly its usual numbers. Same goes for the other majors, assuming the virus’ impact can be mitigated through vaccines and therapeutics. The Ryder Cup, in late September, might be the closest we feel to normal, with the hope for a full return in 2022.
2. After reshaping his body and game, Bryson DeChambeau delivered with a tour de force performance at the U.S. Open, capturing his first major.
TAKEAWAY: At this time last year, DeChambeau was in the midst of perhaps the most ambitious transformation we’ve ever seen, packing on 50 pounds of muscle and dialing up his swing speed in an effort to become the longest hitter in the game. He’d done the math (obviously) and come to the conclusion that he’d have the greatest advantage if he could consistently pound it 350 yards.
And he was right.
DeChambeau hinted at what was possible with a few encouraging results before the shutdown, and then he emerged from the three-month break with even more muscle and speed, culminating with his overpowering win in Detroit, where he led the field in both driving distance and putting. Still, skeptics remained, wanting to see if Bryson could show up in the game’s biggest events, where there’d no doubt be a premium on accuracy.
DeChambeau recorded his first top-10 in a major at the PGA Championship, validating his new approach, and then put it all together at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Exploiting a USGA setup flaw with too-firm fairways that were hard to hit for both the 275-yard hitters and those at 325, DeChambeau wailed away on driver, leaving himself with the shortest club possible from the cabbage. From there he wedged, pitched and putted beautifully, chasing down fellow bomber Matthew Wolff and winning by six.
There isn’t much beauty in Bryson’s game, but it’s undoubtedly effective. A crackdown on distance may eventually be coming, but until then he’s going to continue to push the limits and improve every other facet of his game. Don't be surprised when he's even better in 2021.
3. After enduring one of the worst stretches of his career in 2019, Dustin Johnson looked better than ever this year, winning the Masters for his second major, capturing the FedExCup and cementing his position as the No. 1 player in the world.
TAKEAWAY: DJ might be the only person in the world who isn’t ready for 2020 to end; he closed out his year with these respective finishes: T2, 1, 2, T3, T6, T2, 1. From a strokes-gained perspective, he was at Tiger levels of brilliance. Forget the spring of 2017, when he came soaring into the Masters before his freak injury. This was the best his longtime swing coach Claude Harmon III has ever seen him play.
And to think, a year ago, it seemed for all the world that DJ was being passed by his former SoFla pal, Brooks Koepka, who’d ripped off four major titles since 2017. But while Koepka battled injuries throughout 2020, Johnson took better care of his body, refined his swing and putting stroke, and developed a new routine on the greens with the help of brother/caddie Austin that led to his Player of the Year campaign.
It wasn’t just that he won the events either – he trounced his competition, first by 11 shots in Boston and then by five at the Masters.
Now 36, there’s little reason to believe DJ will slow down anytime soon.
4. From Collin Morikawa to Sophia Popov, the majors produced some indelible moments and worthy (if surprising) champions.
TAKEAWAY: On the men’s side, Morikawa summoned the best shot of his life on the 70th hole of the PGA Championship, hitting his patented butter-cut drive to 8 feet to set up a go-ahead eagle that made him a major winner in just his second career Grand Slam appearance.
The women made a splash too, from Popov capturing the Women’s British Open just a few months after toiling on the mini-tours, to Mirim Lee chipping in from everywhere to beat two stars at the ANA Inspiration, to A Lim Kim going birdie-birdie-birdie at the end of the U.S. Women’s Open to take the title from a grieving Amy Olson.
It's interesting to reflect on the fact that six of the seven champions this year had never won a major, the lone exception being Johnson at the Masters. Were these major crashers more at ease without the usual fans and pressure? It’s a reasonable theory. But there’s no asterisk on those leaderboards – if anything, there’s an exclamation point. They managed to peak amid the most unusual circumstances.
5. Playing only sparingly, Tiger Woods failed to break Sam Snead’s record for most PGA Tour titles and tumbled down the world rankings in 2020.
TAKEAWAY: So much for those heightened expectations following Woods’ finishing flourish to 2019, when he routed the field at the Zozo Championship and then was the best player on either side at the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne.
During a forgettable campaign, Woods played just nine events (taking an extra month off following the Tour restart), recorded a single top-10, didn’t finish within eight shots of an eventual winner, failed to factor in any of the three major championships and ended the year at No. 40 in the world rankings – down from No. 6 to start the year. All the while, he continued to show his age (45 this week), feeling spry one day and then unable to move freely the next. That’s the nature of a fused back, of course, but it also underscores how perfectly everything needs to align for Woods to contend these days.
Woods never seemed all that frustrated by his on-course woes, taking a wider perspective. He said how different 2020 was for everybody, given the new protocols. He expressed gratitude for having another major moment at the Masters, this time being able to enjoy it with his kids. And in perhaps the biggest surprise of all, he teed it up at the PNC Championship with his 11-year-old son, Charlie – the first time in Tiger’s career that he wasn’t the biggest attraction. Charlie showed plenty of game, too, not to mention a maturity that belied his tender age.
Woods is no doubt transitioning into the elder-statesman role, but it’d be nice to see him maximize however many swings his brittle body has left.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
Best Debut: Phil Mickelson on the PGA Tour Champions. Can’t win ’em all if you don’t win the first two, and Phil the Thrill is currently batting 1.000 on the senior circuit. Here’s a radical idea: Phil should go all-in on the Champions Tour, committing himself full time. On the PGA Tour he’s never been No. 1 – never won a money title, never been Player of the Year, never been world No. 1, never won a FedExCup title. Fifty years old and in the best shape of his life, he should try to become the best senior player ever – he only needs (*checks notes*) 44 more victories to claim that title.
Best Movement: Pro golfers as voices for social change. From Cameron Champ to Kirk Triplett to Augusta National (with the decision to tab Lee Elder as an honorary starter in 2021), the sport that is often viewed as decades behind the times took a big step forward this year, offering hope that the future is more inclusive and diverse than its past.
Best Year of Anyone Who Wasn’t Player of the Year: Justin Thomas. He won twice, lost in a playoff and had another runner-up finish, and in his retelling was a few final rounds away from a monster year. Previously one of the best closers in golf, JT will get his Sunday scaries straightened out and win POY in 2021.
Best Moment: Dustin Johnson tearing up at Augusta National. This correspondent was right there as DJ wiped away tears as he tried to put into words what his Masters triumph meant to him. Seeing golf’s most unflappable man break down, Tiger Woods leaned into Johnson’s swing coach Claude Harmon III and whispered: “The green jacket will do that to you.” That single moment told us more about DJ than 13 years of interviews.
Best Breakout Performer: Collin Morikawa (plus cameos from Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff). Much was expected from this heralded college class of 2019, and yet they’ve exceeded even the loftiest expectations. Morikawa won the PGA and the Workday in a playoff; Hovland won twice on the PGA Tour; and Wolff, the youngest at 21, posted top-5 finishes at the PGA and U.S. Open. All three are ranked inside the top 15 in the world – just a year and a half after starring in college! – and should make their Ryder Cup debuts next fall.
Best No-Show: Jordan Spieth. A three-month break in the middle of the season was thought to help three players in particular: Tiger, Brooks ... and Jordan. Three months away from the glare of the Tour. Three months for a complete mental reset. Three months to work out the many kinks in his game. It didn’t happen. In 15 starts since June, he had just one finish inside the top 30. Changes may be afoot – he has made at least one visit to see Butch Harmon in Vegas – which is a sign that Spieth may finally be ready for a new direction other than south.
Best Obfuscation: Brooks Koepka. Lest we forget, it was King Koepka who reigned at No. 1 in the world to start the year. (His year-end spot: 12th.) Though he downplayed his various ailments throughout the year, despite overwhelming evidence – he’ll never quit the tough-guy act – he took two months off to undergo another round of treatment on his left knee and receive a cortisone shot in his left hip. He looked solid in Houston and at Augusta, but the latter injury is worth monitoring in 2021, because going under knife would basically knock him out for a year.
Best Year With Nothing to Show For It: Rory McIlroy. The former world No. 1 has gone more than a year without a worldwide win, after his surprising oh-fer in 2020. Cruising in the first quarter of the year, he struggled with his swing and focus amid a fan-less environment and underwent a massive life change with the addition of the family’s new baby girl. He looked better of late and will look to bounce back in a big way in 2021.
Best Reason to Revisit the Tour’s Rules and Regulations: Non-member major winners. Both Sophia Popov and A Lim Kim won LPGA majors this year as non-members, which meant that they weren’t eligible for full tour perks until 2021. That wasn’t a huge deal for Kim, who won the penultimate event of the season, but Popov didn’t get credit for her Women’s Open victory, leaving her on the outside looking in for a major and also the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship (with its $1.1 million first-place check). In another swing and miss, the title sponsor of the season finale gave one of its two handouts to former star Natalie Gulbis, who was supposed to retire this year but instead will hang it up after next year. She might want to rethink those plans – she finished last in Naples. By nine.
Best Duel Potential for 2021: Jin Young Ko vs. Sei Young Kim. The top two ranked players in the world battled head to head in Naples, with Ko prevailing as the Race to the CME Globe champion while Kim, who won the KPMG Women’s PGA, took home Player of the Year honors. For all the potential of Nelly Korda and the continued excellence from Inbee Park, these two players have separated themselves and should be poised for even more showdowns in the new year.
Best Oldie-But-Goodie Year: Lee Westwood. At 47, Westwood fully admitted that his best golf was probably behind him, and then he went out and won in Abu Dhabi, strung together some strong performances this fall and then (with some help) captured the Race to Dubai title for the third time, and first in more than a decade. If he keeps this up, he won’t be a vice captain at the Ryder Cup next fall – he’ll be playing in another one.
Best Storyline Sure to be Beaten to Death: Charlie Woods. After his star turn at the PNC, there will no doubt be increased attention on his junior-golf exploits, which to this point have been pretty minimal, save for the occasional video shot stealthily from the trees. If you’re wondering, a sportsbook put Charlie Woods’ odds to win a major at 825-1. He’s 11. Can we please not do this?
Best Non-Major of the Year: BMW Championship. How often do we get the Nos. 1 and 2 players in the world duking it out in a playoff? That’s what happened at hard-and-fast Olympia Fields, after DJ ran in a marathon putt to force overtime. That was only the beginning, since Jon Rahm’s impossible sidewinder on the first extra hole slammed the door and proved that this dude most definitely possesses the clutch gene.
Best Newcomer: Will Zalatoris. In early 2019 he didn’t have any status on any major tour, and by the end of 2020 he’s a virtual lock to become a full-fledged PGA Tour member and closing in on a top-50 ranking. He led the Korn Ferry Tour points race and then posted three top-10s on Tour to earn special temporary membership. On courses he’s never seen before, he’s already established himself as one of the best iron players on the planet. The arrow is pointing straight up on this guy.
Best Experience: Covering an empty Masters. This was the best viewing experience imaginable – a wide-open Augusta National, with no sight restrictions for this 5-foot-10 golf writer. To be able to have free reign, standing right on top of the tee box, watching whoever we wanted, was an experience we’ll likely never get again, at least not quite like that. Sure, the Masters lacked its usual energy and atmosphere – but selfishly, yeah, it was freakin’ awesome.