PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Twenty-seven.
That’s the number of people surrounding the 18th green as Luke List brushed in a 2-footer to clinch the Korn Ferry Challenge, the first tournament on this circuit in 15 weeks.
That must have been strange, right, playing in front of so few people? List might not be a fan favorite on the PGA Tour, but he’s at least used to competing in front of somebody, even if that patron is downing beers in a hospitality tent, oblivious to the action. But in a way, this surreal Sunday at TPC Sawgrass’ Dye’s Valley Course reminded him of his last pro title. That came eight years ago, at the South Georgia Classic, on what was then known as the Nationwide Tour (two umbrella sponsors ago!).
“That was in Valdosta, Georgia,” he chuckled, “so I’m not sure if there were more people there or here.”
Talk about a full-circle moment for List, 35. Three months ago he was here, in the shadow of the PGA Tour’s headquarters, at the Tour’s flagship event, on the Tour’s crown jewel, competing for a purse that awarded $2.7 million to the winner. (This week’s haul: $106,000.) He shot 70 that day, and by the time he returned to his rental house and flipped on the news, he had a feeling golf was about to be shut down indefinitely. List drove back to Augusta, Georgia, and didn’t touch a club for three weeks. He played “Mr. Mom” to his young daughter before returning his attention to his golf game.
“He worked his ass off,” said his caddie, Dykes Harbin. Sweating it out in the gym. Continuing to go through the system he built with swing coach Jamie Mulligan. Grinding on the practice green with putting guru Marcus Potter.
“We’ve been working on making him more complete,” Mulligan said. “He’s always been known as a basher, and he’s so polished now where winning on a course like this is indicative of that.”
Typically, final rounds on this tour produce life-changing moments. Talented guys who just needed a break and now were one step closer to achieving their lifelong dream. But that didn’t happen here Sunday. Ranked 180th in the world, List is a card-carrying PGA Tour member. Has been every year since 2013. He has more than $7 million in Tour earnings, and six sponsors are plastered all over his shirt and hat.
But List’s 2019-20 season has underwhelmed. He’s 124th in FedExCup points, and with so many top players eager to compete after 13 weeks away, List couldn’t sniff the invitational field at Colonial. He wasn’t even guaranteed to have a spot in this Korn Ferry event until last week. Looking to gauge the state of his game, he won for just the second time as a pro and nabbed the 500 Korn Ferry Tour points he hopes he will never need when cards are determined again in fall 2021. On Monday, he’ll be in Hilton Head. Where he belongs.
This week, though, List was a long way from his Tour brethren, and not just in the physical sense. At The Players, the clubhouse parking lot is filled with gaudy, blacked-out SUVs and souped-up sports cars. Among this group of not-yets and have-beens, there were more Kia Optimas, Chevy Impalas and Ford Fusions than BMWs. With social-distancing guidelines in place, Will Zalatoris, the 54-hole leader, didn’t have another player within 10 stalls of him; his closest competition, in fact, was a graying man of about 60, who slashed away in one of the two Reserved Founder/Charter areas on the range. A Tour official doubled as a first-tee announcer, if only to maintain order. Hovering around the tee box were a Tour photographer, a Tour videographer, two PGATour.com employees, three Tour officials and six backpack-wearing volunteers who had parked themselves in the shade. The only noise came from a nearby house as two young kids squealed and cannonballed into the pool and the family’s white lab shook himself dry.
Still, inside the ropes – well, technically, they didn’t have any ropes this week – the players felt the familiar pressure to perform. “Once they announce your name, you’re ready to go and you still get butterflies,” List said.
He made three birdies in the first four holes to grab the lead, then headed to the back nine hoping to hang on in the freshening winds. There won’t be fans on-site for at least the first month, but a few homeowners walked to the edge of their yards and peered into binoculars. Another rolled up on a beach cruiser and followed along for a hole. Oh, there was at least one interested observer: Dressed in a white polo, blue slacks and dark sunglasses, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan walked the back nine with the final group, leaning on an umbrella and chatting with rules officials. (Don’t worry – they’re all inside the “bubble.”)
Unlike PGA Tour events with their omnipresent leaderboards and ShotLink data, there was no obvious way for players in the hunt to know their status. Late on the back nine, Zalatoris’ caddie asked a TV field producer for an update, but List and Harbin focused on themselves, believing they were either in, or near, the lead based solely on the presence of the cameras. When Joseph Bramlett birdied the 16th and 17th holes to trim the deficit to one, List actually headed to the last thinking they were tied. “I said, ‘I think we’re one up,’” Harbin said. “We went in with the mindset to birdie the last hole, and par was good enough.”
Other than an unconvincing “Wooooo!” in the distance, the celebration consisted of a flag wipe-down, a few fist and wrist bumps, and then a five-minute walk back to the TPC Sawgrass Performance Center, where List officially signed for his 12-under 268.
“A win is a win no matter where you are,” he said.
“It’s always freakin’ fun to win,” said Mulligan, who drove from South Florida on Sunday to support List. “It makes you smile in a way that’s different.”
Also different was how the trophy presentation unfolded Sunday afternoon. On the manicured lawn behind the clubhouse, Korn Ferry Tour president Alex Baldwin and List stood in front of a row of six cameramen and photographers.
“This is absolutely a moment I’m so grateful for,” she said.
It’d been 100-plus days since the Korn Ferry Tour competed.
It’d taken untold meetings and unprecedented coordination to relaunch the tour.
And now they were back, with List, a bonafide Tour player, earning the first title of the COVID-19 era.
To avoid any unnecessary contact, List scooped up the crystal trophy himself, smiled for the cameras and turned to acknowledge the faint cheers behind him. After three months, the sight has almost become normal. Four employees were leaning over the balcony, arms raised, masks on.