The PGA Tour is back in action this week at Colonial Country Club, but in the wake of a three-month hiatus the resumption of the season brings with it far more questions than answers. From parsing the favorites among a loaded field to wondering what unique visuals will arise in Fort Worth, here are the pressing topics to consider at the Charles Schwab Challenge in this week’s edition of Q&Gray:
What does the new normal look like?
The scene this week at Colonial will be a far cry from the landscape players left three months ago at TPC Sawgrass. From the lack of fans to the increased COVID-19 testing, the extra distancing measures to the overhauled locker room practices, nearly every aspect of day-to-day Tour life looks different in the wake of a pandemic. This week offers players a chance to get acclimated to what will become standard procedures for the coming weeks, and it also gives fans an opportunity to view competition (from a distance) that we’ve spent weeks trying to visualize.
Aside from the inevitable post-birdie tip of the cap to non-existent fans, or the jarring visual of seeing a course like Colonial that’s so often packed to the gills sitting almost empty, there will be plenty to glean from the Tour’s return. For those on the ground it’s a chance to learn what works well (and what might need a tweak), the first step in what officials hope will be an unusual but uninterrupted summer stretch. For those at home, it’ll be a welcome respite from months without official competition – even without the usual Sunday roars.
Who made the most of their down time?
Bryson DeChambeau never seemed more than 10 feet away from his Flightscope during quarantine, pounding balls into his driveway net with a fury. Dustin Johnson didn’t touch a club for nearly two months. The coming weeks will be a study in correlation versus causation, with varying strategies employed during the unexpected break inevitably leading to varying results once players are back on the course.
It’s not as simple as A led to B, but some patterns are sure to emerge. Will those who return to form the fastest be the ones who fastidiously clung to the in-home grind? Or will rest prove to have been the best strategy for athletes who aren’t used to hitting pause during the spring and summer months? Will big names like Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka have found the reset button after months of (largely) fruitless searching for form, health and consistency?
One event isn’t a sufficient sample size, but we should start to see some trends begin to emerge this week in the steamy heat of Fort Worth.
Can Colonial cure the Golden Child?
Jordan Spieth loves Colonial. A winner here in 2016, runner-up the year before and year after, the Dallas product typically thrives amid partisan Metroplex galleries. While those fans won’t be present this week, it’s still worth wondering if his affinity for Hogan’s Alley will be enough to set him on the right course after a sluggish start to the season.
No one has picked up more strokes against the field at this event over the last 10 years than Spieth, whose career scoring average at Colonial is a sizzling 67.79. Only once in seven trips has he finished outside the top 15. This is the type of venue where his accurate irons and mind-bending putter shined brightly in the best of times, but it’s also where he found a brief reprieve from long-term struggles a year ago. A T-8 finish last May was the second of three top-10s in a row for Spieth, a run that proved to be a fleeting glimmer of hope rather than a long-term fix.
Spieth spent the early part of 2020 searching for consistency, especially off the tee, and only cracked the top 50 once in six starts. The pandemic halted his plummet through the world rankings, but if he’s going to turn things in the right direction this seems like an ideal place to start.
Can another top-5 player slip into the plaid jacket?
Six years ago, Adam Scott became the only current world No. 1 to win at Colonial. Two years later it was Spieth, who captured the title in dramatic fashion as world No. 2, and two years later Justin Rose landed in Fort Worth ranked No. 5 and left with the trophy along with a handful of scoring records.
There are plenty of options who could extend the even-year trend that has seen some noteworthy names etched into the Wall of Champions that lines the first tee. Each of the top five players in the world will participate in the Tour’s return this week, headlined by world No. 1 Rory McIlroy in his tournament debut. Justin Thomas is playing here for the first time as well, while Dustin Johnson makes his first appearance since 2014.
But two top-ranked stars have some recent history to suggest they might contend despite the unexpected layoff. Jon Rahm was red-hot before the pandemic struck, and he finished second and T-5 in his first two trips to Colonial. The latter result came in 2018, when Koepka was a runner-up behind Rose’s record-setting pace. They’re the top players in the world and they’re all back this week, headlining a loaded field with hopes of returning to work by lifting the Tour’s first trophy in nearly three months.