Three months. 13 weeks. 91 days. That’s how long it’s been since the PGA Tour canceled The Players Championship back in March, ultimately beginning an extended pause to the season schedule due to the coronavirus pandemic.
After a long layoff, golf makes its return this week as the PGA Tour begins a re-vamped schedule at the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas. As most of the professional sports world continues to be on hold, golf will be one of the first sports to tackle post-pandemic challenges and it has the opportunity to be a trailblazer in returning the sports landscape to some sense of normalcy.
The tournament at Colonial Country Club will feature an absolutely loaded field, with 148 players set to tee it up at Hogan’s Alley. All but five of the top 20 golfers in the Official World Golf Rankings will be in action this week, including all of the top five.
Here’s a look at what to keep an eye on this week in Fort Worth.
What safety measures and protocols will be in place?
The players are returning to a completely different PGA Tour than the one they left in Ponte Vedra Beach back in March. Spectators will not be allowed at any of the first five events, there will be limited media on site and the PGA Tour, led by commissioner Jay Monahan, has laid out an extensive list of health and safety protocols that players must adhere to.
When players and caddies arrive at Colonial, they’ll all undergo COVID-19 testing. Once the tests come back negative, players will be granted access to many of the usual practice and clubhouse areas that they are accustomed to. If a player or caddie tests positive, they will not be allowed to compete. Players and caddies will then be temperature screened each day throughout the week and those traveling to next week’s event in Hilton Head, S.C., will take a saliva test following the third round, prior to traveling to the RBC Heritage.
Along with the COVID screenings, players have been asked to adhere to social distancing guidelines when possible and avoid contact with other players and caddies.
Will any players test positive? It’s really the great unknown as we head into unchartered territory for the Tour and sports in general. Sheer numbers would suggest at some point a player or caddie, who is asymptomatic, will test positive. The PGA Tour is hopeful that its plan to isolate and quarantine that player will keep the golf season from crumbling like a house of cards.
Who will come out of the gates sharp?
Before the Tour hit the pause button on the 2019-20 season, Patrick Reed had won the most recent WGC event in Mexico, Adam Scott had vaulted back into the top-ten rankings after a win at the Genesis Invitational and the hottest golfer on the planet was Rory McIIroy.
After winning the WGC-HSBC Champions in November, McIlroy had reeled off five consecutive top five finishes and the No. 1 golfer in the world was getting ready to defend his Players Championship title at TPC Sawgrass. Before the pandemic, McIlroy and many of the top tour pros were ramping up their game in preparation for the Masters. Now they’ll be forced to find their game after a three-month layoff.
“The hardest thing for me is going to be getting back into it. Every shot counts," says World No. 4 Justin Thomas. “I sometimes feel rusty after two or three weeks off, let alone three months. I know that it’s gonna be weird but at the same time, it will be weird for everybody.”
Thomas, like many of the tour pros, was able to practice and play extensively during the layoff, once state restrictions on golf courses were lifted. But a little competitive rust is inevitable. Who will come out of the gates ready win? I expect the top tier talent to make a statement over the first few tournaments.
Will there be a new No. 1?
The three-month layoff couldn’t have come at a worse time for McIlroy, who was primed to head to Augusta in April and try and complete the elusive career grand slam. Now he heads to the Charles Schwab Challenge where he’ll make his Colonial debut, with the No. 1 ranking on the line.
McIlroy just took over the top ranking in mid-February and has already been pushed by Spaniard Jon Rahm, who can capture the number one spot with a win this week in Fort Worth. The golf course sets up perfectly for Rahm, who prior to the coronavirus pandemic had reeled off top ten finishes in seven of his last eight worldwide starts, including wins in Dubai and Spain.
Rahm says he used his workouts during the layoff to help him stay in a good mental space, and that despite the magnitude of what’s on the line this week the tournament will have a strange feel to it. “It will be odd,” says Rahm. “Could you imagine if someone makes a 30-foot bomb on eighteen to win the tournament…and then there’s nothing…crickets.”
Who will win?
Winner: Brooks Koepka. Finished second at Colonial in 2018 following a pair of 63s
Value: Jordan Spieth, 2016 Champion. Could the long layoff turn into a re-birth for Spieth?
Sleeper: Ryan Palmer, Colonial CC member, finished T-6 in 2019