The PGA and Korn Ferry tours are back in action this week for the first time since mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the sport (at least at the elite level). We break it all down for you here, in this WE'RE BACK, BABY edition of the Monday Scramble:
1. Eighteen of the top 25 players in the world – including each of the top five – will tee it up this week at the Charles Schwab Challenge.
TAKEAWAY: It’s easily the best field in tournament history, and the depth of star power in the Tour’s restart event tells us a few things:
• These guys are itching to play;
When the Tour announced its plan to return April 16 it was viewed as aspirational. At that time the virus was still ravaging the country (we’re up to more than 110,000 dead) and nearly every state was under strict stay-at-home orders. Every state has since opened up, to varying degrees of success, and the opening event at Colonial, as well as the following four events, will be played without spectators. Players were strongly encouraged to take an at-home test before they even made the trip to Fort Worth, Texas, and both players and caddies will be subjected to another test once they get in town. Once they’re cleared, they’ll only have to take a daily temperature screening and fill out a questionnaire.
That policy is more relaxed than, say, hockey’s proposed plan, which is calling for its players to be tested before each game, a stipulation that would reportedly cost the league about $2-3 million. But with a host hotel, chartered flight and limited on-site access, the Tour is confident (hopeful?) that it can mitigate the risk as much as possible.
2. The return of the PGA and Korn Ferry tours brings with it an entirely new set of rules and challenges.
TAKEAWAY: It’ll be fascinating to see how the players adjust to the new protocols, but here are some of the questions we have leading into Week 1:
Will the stars struggle without the energy of a big crowd? Will players lose more balls without as many spotters or volunteers around to help locate errant shots? Will a scaled-down TV production affect the product?
With the world watching, will caddies forget to wipe down a bunker rake or flagstick, or will players slip up and shake hands? Will anyone notice (or care) if players and caddies ignore social-distancing guidelines after the rounds?
Heck, will someone test positive?
Here’s another big one, at least in our world: Will the players still be able to tell their stories? Both my colleague Rex Hoggard (PGA) and I (KFT) will be back on the road this week, bringing you stories from the first major pro tournaments in nearly three months. Access, and thus our coverage, will be decidedly different.
For starters, only about five members of the national media will be on-site at Colonial, and all interviews must be facilitated by a Tour media official and conducted in a flash area that will be “extremely limited.” Otherwise, reporters are prohibited from approaching players on their own, and the practice area and locker room are off-limits.
In all likelihood this will only be a short-term issue, but check back in this space next week for a full recap of the experience.
3. The Official World Golf Ranking will restart this week beginning at Colonial, despite the European Tour and other worldwide circuits being at least a few months away from returning.
TAKEAWAY: Jon Rahm can become world No. 1 with a win this week provided that Rory McIlroy finishes worse than solo third or a four-way tie for second. (Man, it feels good to have to think about these scenarios again.)
But this news wasn’t well-received across the pond, with several complaining on Twitter that restarting the world rankings with the European Tour off until late July was unfair. Well, keeping the rankings on ice until then (and potentially longer, if they wanted to wait for other smaller tours) wouldn’t be fair either – especially with the Colonial event offering 72 world-ranking points to the winner, the strongest field anywhere since the 2019 FedExCup playoffs.
The impact long term should be negligible. The OWGR has already said that majors and World Golf Championship events will use the frozen rankings from March 11 to determine their fields in 2020, so no one is losing a spot in a big event. And even for a tournament like the 2021 Olympics, six majors will be played before qualifying is over, so there’ll be plenty of time for players to position themselves for the Games.
It’s not that big of a deal.
4. The Memorial Tournament, scheduled for July 16-19, became the first PGA Tour event to announce that it will allow fans.
TAKEAWAY: The first five events will be held without spectators – including the tournament the week prior to The Memorial, also held at Muirfield Village – before allowing a maximum of 8,000 people on-site for Jack Nicklaus' annual gathering, according to a report by the Columbus Dispatch.
The Dispatch, which previewed a draft of the tournament’s safety plan, said that fans must wear masks (in 90-degree heat – yikes), be subjected to temperature screenings before entering the course and must maintain social distancing throughout.
That looks good on paper, but tournament volunteers will have their hands full corralling the crowd in the likely event that Tiger Woods makes his return to a place where he’s won five times previously. The lucky fans who do receive tickets paid good money for them ... and now you’re going to deter them from following the tournament’s main attraction? Good luck with that.
Moving forward, state and local officials will determine on a case-by-case basis if fans will be allowed. In a press release, the tournament said that it hopes The Memorial can serve as “an example of how public gathering events can be developed.”
Another way to view it: They’re guinea pigs for the rest of the sports world.
FIVE PLAYERS WE CAN'T WAIT TO WATCH ...
• Rory McIlroy: The No. 1-ranked player in the world is teeing it up for the first time at Colonial, where he'll have to dial back his high-octane game and play a little small ball. Let’s see how sharp his game is after three months away.
• Brooks Koepka: It seems like an eternity ago, but last we saw Koepka, at The Players, he was coming off a stretch of poor play and so frustrated with his direction that he called an impromptu team meeting on the eve of the fifth biggest tournament of the year. The big question: Is his knee closer to 100 percent after the break?
• Bryson DeChambeau: For all we know Big Bryson might be up to 275 pounds now, so it’ll be interesting to see how he continues to evolve into one of the longest (and best) drivers of the ball on Tour. Before the shutdown, he was finding his groove: T5-2nd-4th.
• Sungjae Im: Also red-hot was Im, the FedExCup points leader who was coming off a win at the Honda Classic and another third-place showing at Bay Hill. There’s probably no one on Tour who’s happier to be back on the road, so look for him to pick up where he left off. (Also, shameless plug for my recent feature on Sungjae and his now-full-time caddie Albin Choi.)
• Dustin Johnson: We don’t put too much stock in his uneven performance at the TaylorMade Driving Relief event, but it’d be nice to see the former world No. 1 in fine form this summer, especially after giving his achy knee a little more time to heal. At the beginning of the year, remember, he was a slam-dunk candidate for bounce-back player of the year, and there’s nothing to suggest he won’t rip off a few wins before the year is over.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
Off He Goes: Sahith Theegala. The Pepperdine senior and Haskins Award winner decided against coming back to school and turned pro last week, making his debut at an Outlaw Tour event where he opened with 62. Despite the introduction of the PGA Tour University program and precious few opportunities this summer to up-and-coming players, Theegala has decided to enter the pro ranks. He'll make his Tour debut in a few weeks at the Rocket Mortgage Classic.
Back to the Future: Jimmy Walker. For only the third time since 2008, a player will have a steel-shafted driver in play at a PGA Tour event. Walker is expected to have X100 steel shafts in his Titleist driver and fairway wood when he tees it up this week at Colonial after practicing with them for the past few months. “I just feel like it works a little better for my golf swing,” he said, according to a Titleist release.
Tough Event to Crack: Korn Ferry Challenge. The first event back on the Korn Ferry Tour looks an awful lot like an opposite-field PGA Tour event. PGA Tour winner Hudson Swafford is the first alternate!
Oldies But Goodies: Colonial. It might have the strongest field of the season – even better than the WGCs or Riviera! – but there are still a few head-scratchers on the tee sheet. David Frost, Olin Browne, Keith Clearwater and Tom Lehman are grandfathered into the field as pre-2000 champions and therefore not taking away a spot in the field, while Bernhard Langer and Scott McCarron are sponsor exemptions. (They’re the past two Charles Schwab Cup champions ...)
Tick, Tick, Tick ...: Ryder Cup decision. U.S. captain Steve Stricker confirmed last week that the fate of this year’s Ryder Cup should be determined sometime this month. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone involved on either team who wants to see this thing go ahead without spectators, but pushing back the event to 2021 is a complicated matter.
It’s a Start: Jennifer Kupcho. Her victory at the Colorado State Open was her first pro title, as the former NCAA champion readies to rejoin the LPGA circuit when it resumes in mid-July.
If Not Now, When?: Tiger Woods. Even after his encouraging display at Medalist, Tiger won’t show up at Colonial for the first event back. Maybe he tees it up next week at Harbour Town – where he can dock his yacht in the Calibogue Sound – but it’s hard to imagine that he wants to relearn a course that he hasn’t seen since 1999. He has until 5 p.m. ET Friday to commit.