FORT WORTH, Texas – Even under ideal circumstances golf can be a lonely sport.
Unlike other athletic endeavors, there’s no team to lean on during competition, and five hours between the ropes is as solitary as professional sports gets. The only respite for most PGA Tour players is a rare Sunday in the hunt when crowds swell and the echoes throughout the course – not the digital leaderboards – tell the story.
Players knew this Sunday, the first Tour Sunday in 105 days, would be different.
Everyone understands that the ongoing pandemic will keep fans away for the foreseeable future, and for the first three days at the Charles Schwab Challenge, it almost felt like business as usual.
Just not on Sunday.
The stark contrast began early, when third-round leader Xander Schauffele teed off just after 1 p.m. local time with only a pair of volunteers offering some uninspired applause. At the first green, six lookie-loos gawked through the property fence as the final group played along, and another half dozen crowded behind the second tee.
By the time Schauffele and Gary Woodland made it to the third fairway, the only sound was country music wafting up from somewhere off property.
The voyeurs were more organized on the back nine with grandstands across a city street from the 15th fairway and a slightly smaller – but no less boisterous – grandstand behind the 16th tee that included the extra touch of having an announcer introducing each player: From the University of Texas, Jordan Spieth.
“Making a putt on the 18th hole to tie the lead and not hearing any roars is a little bit different,” said Daniel Berger, who outlasted Collin Morikawa in a playoff to win the Tour’s first event back. “Certain areas that are usually matted down from thousands of fans walking through weren't there, and certain holes where the grandstands weren't there, just gave you a little different feel than in years past.”
But golf fans are a resilient bunch, and as a TV-only product the sport certainly put its best foot forward with a leaderboard that was plucked straight from the Tour’s central casting – Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Bryson DeChambeau. Four months of inactivity, it was determined, did nothing to shake up the status quo.
On the surface, it was as if the game had never gone into a 91-day quarantine. But then the screen flashes to fairways and greens surrounded in emptiness.
As the first bona fide competition in three months reached a frenzied conclusion, Tour commissioner Jay Monahan was temporarily distracted by a conference call with reporters. He talked of a “sustained return” and “phenomenal start.”
And he addressed the elephant missing from the room.
“To not have the fan roars, to see the way players are responding when they're making birdies and there's not noise, I mean, that's a new reality for all of us,” Monahan said. “As an obvious fan, I feel the intensity, and I think that's what fans are experiencing, as well.”
To Monahan’s point, even without fans there was drama – real drama; not the stuff sports has tried to manufacture over the last three months. There was a comeback, a collapse, a victory and a heartbreak. You know, all the stuff that makes sports, well, sports.
Though McIlroy and Thomas did little to inspire, as many as six players held at least a share of the lead before the final group even reached the turn, and the ebb and flow continued into the back nine.
Spieth, the area’s native son who appears poised to break free from a slump that’s haunted him for the better part of two years, was 13 under through 13 holes and two shots back before hitting his tee shot at No. 14 out of play. Always one for dramatics, however, he rolled in a 35-footer for bogey to remain in the hunt, though only briefly as he bogeyed the 17th hole – the same hole that derailed DeChambeau’s chances and left the bulky pro T-3 – and finished in a share of 10th.
Moments before, Spieth’s playing competitor, Morikawa, holed a 50-footer for birdie to tie Schauffele for the lead. Morikawa shot a pair of 67s on the weekend to get to 15 under and into a playoff with Berger, who closed in 66, his Tour-best 28th round of par or better.
Schauffele seemed poised to join them – or even beat them outright. After hitting his approach into the water at the par-4 15th hole, Schauffele kept within striking distance by sinking a 31-footer for bogey. A hole later, he converted a birdie from 25 feet to rejoin the lead at 15 under.
All that give-and-take carried on for over an hour, but it was two putts that defined the circuit’s return to competition.
At Colonial, Nos. 3, 4 and 5 are famously known collectively as the “Horrible Horseshoe,” where good intentions often leave as broken dreams. After Ben Hogan, it’s the club’s calling card, so it was painfully apropos that Sunday’s outcome rested partly on what could only be called a horrible horseshoe.
Having just made two straight crucial putts, Schauffele watched as his 3-foot par attempt at the 17th hole caromed around the lip of the cup and shot back at him. The bogey proved to be the difference for Schauffele, who settled for a share of third with DeChambeau, Rose and Jason Kokrak.
Then about 30 minutes later, on the same hole, Morikawa faced a slightly longer par attempt in the playoff. With Berger having just gotten up and down for par, Morikawa endured the same ruthless result – a lip-out bogey, which cost him his second career Tour victory.
For Schauffele and Morikawa, not having fans was probably for the best.
“If there were more oohs and ahs I’d probably be more pissed off right now,” Schauffele smiled.
But if the lack of cheers is the only critique of an otherwise flawless return to competition, then the silence should be deafening. When the Tour unveiled its plan to return to competition more than a month ago, there was no shortage of pessimism, and given the landscape at the time, perhaps those concerns were justified.
But following a week without a single positive test for COVID-19 and a finish that checked all the right boxes, the game’s return felt almost historic.
“Obviously being one of the first sports back, live sports and everything, not having fans, I think we have a responsibility on our shoulders to really make sure we do everything, follow the rules, follow the guidelines,” Morikawa said. “For the most part I think we all did pretty well. We're going to have to watch what we do because at the end of the day, I wanted to just give myself a hug, give my caddie a hug, just the entire week. It was a grind all week.”
Social-distancing guidelines would frown on that kind of close contact. (Remember, two club lengths means two club lengths.) But after a week of nervous uncertainty, the entire Tour deserves a metaphorical hug.