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Hits and misses from an exceptional 2020 season on the PGA Tour

From Bryson DeChambeau’s power to Dustin Johnson’s dominance and a talented corps of youngsters, it was a year unlike any other

The yin and yang of golf always extends to the ranks of the best players in the world. Not everyone is great all the time, and not everyone struggles all the time. Like any round of golf, tournament or season, there always are some hits and misses. Here are a few of each from 2020:

Hits
Bryson DeChambeau: There are a thousand ways to swing a golf club, but not every way works for everybody. DeChambeau found a way by radically building and training his body that produces staggering distance relative to the professional tours that had everyone in the game talking. In the process, he found another way to play the game: hitting it as far as he could, as often as he could. He found success at the place where no one thought his approach could work, winning the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. And he fell flat at the place everyone thought he would shred, Augusta National. Did he break the game? Of course not. No one wins every week. It’s not the best way to play. It’s just a different way. Arnold Palmer always said, “Swing your swing.” DeChambeau has taken that to heart.

Dustin Johnson: Far and away the best player in the game at present, Johnson chiseled his name in the monument that recognizes the best of his era. He won three times in the 2019-20 season, including the season-ending Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup, but it easily could have been four victories in a row. He had a one-shot lead after 54 holes at the PGA Championship and shot 68 in the final round. Collin Morikawa just played better. And Johnson could have won the BMW Championship had Jon Rahm not dropped a 66-foot bomb on the first playoff hole. But his win at the Masters validated Johnson’s stature in the game. Guess who’s the favorite for the next Masters in April?

Collin Morikawa: Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland are two-thirds of the trio of early-20s phenoms destined for stardom. The other third, Morikawa, owns the first major title among the group. The 23-year-old Morikawa shot 65-64 on the weekend at Harding Park to beat Johnson and Paul Casey by two shots and become the youngest winner of the PGA. But it’s the shot he played on the 16th hole in the final round that will mark his place in major history. Tied for the lead, he drove the 294-yard par 4 to 7 feet. He made the eagle for a two-shot lead that he took to the clubhouse. Major lore in his first PGA? That’s Tiger-like.

Phil Mickelson proves that he can win against the seniors, but does he still have what it takes to contend against the kids?

Phil Mickelson proves that he can win against the seniors, but does he still have what it takes to contend against the kids?

Phil Mickelson: Winning his first two Champions Tour starts – that he used as a warmup for big PGA Tour events – convinced observers that Mickelson single-handedly could save the senior circuit, if he wanted to. He evolved into a surprisingly avid user of social media in 2020 and quickly became a must-follow. And his performances on television, both in the booth and in the two charity matches in which he participated, point to the fact that he could write his own ticket if he wanted to make TV his second career. The world is still Mickelson’s oyster. All he needs is to pry it open.

Jay Monahan, Keith Pelley and Mike Whan: The commissioners of the game’s major tours deserve a standing ovation for finding ways to salvage a season when it looked for all the world as if professional golf might be done for 2020 in March. None of the three had an easy time of it: Monahan kept the PGA Tour going with a rigorous coronavirus-testing program and despite the loss of fans and, more importantly, pro-ams. Pelley staged a number of European Tour events in the U.K. to cut down on international travel, and Whan had to navigate the difficulty of the LPGA Tour’s Asian segment of the schedule and the number of Asian players who didn’t want to travel to the U.S. All in all, it was a remarkable achievement in the strangest and most difficult of times.

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Misses
Rory McIlroy: It’s now been six years since McIlroy’s last major title, the 2014 PGA Championship. It seems like a lifetime ago, now that he’s 31 years old. Before the pandemic shutdown, McIlroy appeared to be in top form heading into what would have been the April Masters. He had four straight top-5 finishes before the Players Championship. And he’s one of the players whom the layoff hurt most. After the restart, he floundered, blaming the lack of energy that fans would have provided had they been admitted. And at the November Masters, an opening 75 meant that a T-5 was the best he could do. But is that the best he can do?

Rickie Fowler might need to call for help after another lackluster season.

Rickie Fowler might need to call for help after another lackluster season.

Rickie Fowler: Once upon a time, Fowler was Morikawa, Wolff and Hovland rolled into one. He was the phenom out of Oklahoma State destined for all manner of great things. He has won five times on Tour, including the 2015 Players Championship. But most of the golf world believes that total should be at least doubled or more. He has changed teachers and changed putters, but nothing works. Fowler needed to be in the top 50 in the world at the end of 2020 to qualify for April’s Masters. He missed the cut at Mayakoba and now stands No. 51. He recently turned 32 and looks lost.

DeChambeau at Memorial: As prominent of a newsmaker as DeChambeau was for the brilliance of his golf after the restart, he was equally newsworthy for his aberrant behavior on the course. At the Rocket Mortgage Classic, he chewed out a TV camera operator for following him during a bunker tantrum and said afterward that the media should protect his brand. And at the Memorial Tournament, on his way to making a 10 at the par-5 15th in the second round, he needlessly berated a rules official for not giving him the free drop that he wanted. He’s still young and has time to learn, if he chooses.

Tiger Woods: Not once did Woods even appear to threaten the lead in the nine tournaments that he entered in 2020. Not even the 68 in the first round of November’s Masters, and that’s because it seemed as if everyone posted a low round that day. In 34 tournament rounds in 2020, Woods shot 75 or worse eight times. Woods will be 45 at the end of December but carries himself like someone much older. He walks gingerly. He bends over carefully to pick the ball out of the cup. He always looks as if he’s on the verge of hurting himself. Nothing can hurt Woods’ legacy, but this certainly doesn’t help.

Mickelson on the PGA Tour: Mickelson, at 50, still believes he can compete with opponents half his age. Why? Because in his words, he “hits bombs” off the tee. The trouble is, he can’t find them after they land. He had a chance to win Pebble Beach and shot 74 on Sunday to finish third. He finished T-2 at St. Jude with a Sunday 67. Otherwise, despite his newfound success on the Champions Tour, Mickelson is practically uncompetitive on the big tour. In 17 events in calendar year 2020, he missed eight cuts. Maybe he should play with guys his own age.

Premier Golf League: This upstart organization, with funding from venture capitalists at Raine Group, has sought to create a professional tour with gigantic purses and stocked with elite players. Mickelson and Adam Scott expressed interest, but McIlroy said he wanted nothing to do with it. Still, the PGL thinks it can make inroads with the European Tour, but that notion suffered a setback when the PGA Tour took a minority stake in the European Tour’s media production company, which also means that the two tours will collaborate on everything related to a world tour. That should send the PGL packing.

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