When the PGA Tour season resumes on June 11 at Colonial it will have been 91 days since the Players Championship was officially cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. That’s a long time, long enough to forget a lot of what happened before then during the 2019-’20 golf season, especially with much more important things occupying our minds.
Fear not, golf fans, avid or fringe. You’ve come to the right place. What you’ll find here is our attempt to refresh your memory on some of the more interesting things that took place on Tour during the early months of the wraparound campaign, from September into March. You’ll quickly remember just how off-the-rails good the season was without a major even being played. We can only hope it picks up where it left off at the Charles Schwab Challenge. As good as the field is, we like the chances.
First-time winners (and a notable second-time champion) owned the early months
With the way 2020 has gone, September 2019, when the new PGA Tour season formally started, feels like a decade ago. But it began with a maiden victory for Joaquin Niemann, one of the tour’s rising stars who got lost in the shuffle of the Wolff-Hovland-Morikawa madness.
After collecting seven top 10s on tour between 2018 and the end of 2019, Niemann, who wouldn’t turn 21 until November, claimed a win at The Greenbrier. Niemann immediately passed the first-time winner’s baton to Colombia’s Sebastián Muñoz (Sanderson Farms), who passed it to Lanto Griffin (Houston Open), who passed it to Tyler Duncan (RSM Classic), who passed it to Cameron Smith (Sony Open).
Just before the season paused, Viktor Hovland (Puerto Rico Open) and Sungjae Im (Honda Classic) joined the club. And while he already earned his first win the previous season, we didn’t forget about Cameron Champ, who got victory No. 2 at the Safeway Open in a field that included Justin Thomas, Marc Leishman, Adam Scott and Bryson DeChambeau. In other words, 2019-’20 has been a big year for the “the PGA Tour is deeper than ever” crowd. Sorry, old heads.
Photo by Rob Carr
Joaquin Niemann of Chile celebrates a birdie putt on the 18th green to win A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier held at the Old White TPC course on September 15, 2019.
Kevin Chappell becomes 10th player to shoot 59 on the PGA Tour
Shooting a 59 is impressive. Doing it in your first PGA Tour start in 10 months after undergoing season-ending back surgery is downright legendary. That’s what Chappell did in the second round at The Greenbrier, becoming just the 10th player in Tour history to do so. An emotional Chappell explained why the round meant so much more than a place in the record books afterwards: “Ten months ago I was sitting on the couch, couldn’t walk. So many people had a lot to do with getting me back out here and getting me competitive."
By not winning the tournament, Chappell’s 59 could prove to become a forgotten one, but it shouldn’t when you consider what it took for him to get there.
Tony Romo shot an under-par round on the PGA Tour
In his previous three Tour starts, Romo missed all three cuts, and his scores looked like this: 77-82 (Corales Puntacana), 79-80 (Corales Puntacana), 76-74 (AT&T Byron Nelson). When he got his fourth crack at the Safeway Open in September, the skeptics were (understandably) as vocal as ever. How many more chances does this former NFLer get? Romo briefly muted the haters, shooting a two-under 70 in the opening round in Napa. For a tournament where the winner routinely shoots a 72-hole total around 20 under, it was nothing special, but it was also two shots better than Hideki Matsuyama and five better than Phil Mickelson. A second-round 78 caused Romo to fall down the leader board (an even par round and he would have made the cut), but his first under-par round in a PGA Tour event was worthy of praise.
Photo by Jonathan Ferrey
Tony Romo reacts to a birdie on the 10th hole during the first round of the Safeway Open.
Jason Day and Henrik Stenson got back in the “win” column
Why the quotes? Well, neither former major winner’s “win” was in an official PGA Tour event, though Stenson’s victory at the Hero World Challenge did earn him World Ranking points. As for Day, there were no OWGR points available in MGM Resorts The Challenge: Japan Skins. But a win is a win, even more so given that each has been in the midst of a drought. Stenson’s last full-field victory came at the 2017 Wyndham Championship, Day’s at the 2018 Wells Fargo. There’s no question they both have plenty of good golf left (Day is only 32!), but, as the group of young, first-time winners has proven, it ain’t getting any easier.
A legendary streak comes to an end
Among Phil Mickelson’s many incredible accomplishments, his most underappreciated was a 26-year stay inside the top 50 of the Official World Golf Ranking. Lefty first entered the top 50 on Nov. 23, 1993, and did not fall out until November 2019 at the WGC-HSBC Champions, where a T-28 finished dropped him to 51st.
Consecutive missed cuts after that sent him to 86th, and one couldn’t help but wonder if his time as one of the game’s elite was finally up. In typical Mickelson fashion, he promptly rose to the occasion, posting back-to-back third-place finishes in Saudi Arabia and Pebble Beach, which helped him climb back up to 55th. He’s currently No. 61, and he’s set to turn 50 on June 16. But his desire to continue to contend with the young guns remains as strong as ever, which could push him back inside the top 50 in 2020.
Photo by Zhe Ji
Phil Mickleson in action during 2019 WGC HSBC Champions.
Between Halloween and Thanksgiving, you could argue the best golfer on the planet was not Rory McIlroy. It was not Tiger Woods. Not Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson or Justin Thomas. It was actually … Brendon Todd?
That’s right, nobody was hotter than the Toddfather, a nickname the former Georgia Bulldog earned by winning two straight tournaments—and almost a third—which would have been a staggering feat for any player, let alone one who was considering giving up the game a year earlier.
After claiming his first tour victory at the 2014 Byron Nelson, Todd was mired in a seemingly endless slump. Swing yips, missed cuts, coaching changes, thoughts of retirement, you name it, Todd powered through it. His tireless work paid off once more with victories at the Bermuda Championship and Mayakoba Golf Classic. The next week at the RSM, Todd had a prime chance for the hat trick when he held a share of the 54-hole lead, but a final-round 72 dropped him to solo fourth. In six starts since, Todd has made every cut, his most recent finish a T-18 at Bay Hill.
Photo by Michael Reaves/R&A
Brendon Todd won two straight tournaments and nearly a third.
The Patrick Reed chaos begins at the Hero World Challenge
We don’t mean to insult golf fans by saying you may have “forgotten” about Reed’s penalty at Tiger’s event in early December, but it’d be silly to completely gloss over it. Plus, the Reed mess quickly turned into the most controversial story of the golf season, and it just happened to occur right before the Presidents Cup (we’ll get to that in a moment).
Despite the controversy of his own creation at the Hero World Challenge—when Reed appeared to brush sand away from his ball on practice swings—the former Masters champion still had a great first half of the season, which is kind of what he does. Reed finds a way to invite criticism, then he immediately blocks it out, puts his head down and lets it fuel him.
A month after BunkerGate, Reed found himself in a playoff at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he first got a taste of some vicious heckling (Presidents Cup not withstanding). A few weeks later he tied for sixth at Torrey Pines, then won the WGC-Mexico, his second career WGC title. Winning solves everything, right? Not quite. Weeks later at the Players Championship, Reed had a fan removed and it was caught on tape, more proof that wherever he goes, the Bahamas Brush will follow.
Endless controversy at the Presidents Cup
No matter how hard it tries, the Presidents Cup will always be playing catch up to the Ryder Cup. We could bore you with a very long list of reasons why, but it really boils down to two: a lack of competitiveness between the American and International teams, and a dearth of controversy. Controversy sells, and the Ryder Cup has it in abundance every two years.
The Presidents Cup has had little, if any, in its short history, but the 2019 edition at Royal Melbourne sure attempted to make up for lost time, and it may have had Reed’s Hero World Challenge antics to thank. There was the Reed-Cameron Smith “love tap.” There was the altercation between a fan and Reed’s caddie, Kessler Karain. There was Reed taunting the crowd with a shoveling reference (are you sensing a trend here?). There was Justin Thomas expressing his displeasure with not being given a short putt, a day after his extremely boisterous, Terrell Owens-inspired celebration. There was slight tension between the captains, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els. There was Woods removing his cap before his winning putt dropped to beat Abraham Ancer in Sunday singles, then Woods dropping the mic on him in the victory press conference. Then there was the International squad coming legitimately close to winning for just the second time in the last eight Cups.
The Presidents Cup, for what felt like the first time in its existence, was a competitive, controversy-filled event. For that, it should be applauded, and hopefully the 2019 edition can be built on (as long as that Reed guy keeps coming back).
Photo by Icon Sportswire
Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods celebrate during the 2019 Presidents Cup.
Our editor-in-chief almost won the AT&T Pro-Am (!!)
You might call this sucking up, I’ll just call it FACTS. Paired with eventual winner Nick Taylor, our fearless leader at Golf Digest, Jerry Tarde, tied for second in the amateur portion of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Who beat them? Kevin Streelman and NFL receiver Larry Fitzgerald, now two-time winners at Pebble.
Bryson got BIG (and it paid off)
We’re not here to remind you about DeChambeau’s new fitness regimen. Even those who don’t follow the game closely have more than likely seen the incredible Bulk’s journey on Instagram. What we will note, however, is that it became far more than just a way for Bryson to show off some abs. His dedication actually led to on-course results, which is exactly what the Mad Scientist was going for. When he sets his mind to something, he usually accomplishes it.
When the coronavirus brought the Tour season to a stop, DeChambeau was the leader in driving distance and ranked third in strokes gained/off-the-tee. Compare those stats to last year, when DeChambeau finished the season ranked 34th and 24th, respectively. His newfound swing-out-of-your-shoes, go-for-broke, 200-plus-ball-speed mentality almost led to multiple wins as well. He had a T-4 at Shriners, T-5 at Riviera, let one slip away at the WGC-Mexico (runner-up) and then made a charge on Sunday at Bay Hill, ultimately finishing fourth. He’s weird, he’s quirky, and he sometimes rubs people the wrong way with how he goes about playing golf. But he continues to prove that he’s not going anywhere, so we better get used to him.
Photo by Cliff Hawkins
Lee Westwood’s resurgence
Lee Westwood’s “comeback” was very similar to Matthew McConaughey’s “McConaissance.” It wasn’t that he’d fallen to the depths of the Official World Golf Ranking; he just got caught up making a bunch of bad romantic comedies for a while (how’s this analogy going so far?).
After falling all the way to 125th in the OWGR, the Englishman began his slow climb back with “Mud” (a T-2 at the European Tour’s 2018 Made in Denmark). Six starts later he had his “Dallas Buyers Club” (a win at the 2018 Nedbank Golf Challenge). He followed that up by stealing the movie in “Wolf of Wall Street” (T-4 at the 2019 Open Championship). And finally, his “True Detective” came in the form of a win at the 2020 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship this past January.
As for the PGA Tour, Westwood contended at the Honda Classic in late February, tying for fourth. We’ll call that his “Interstellar.” What’s next? That still remains to be seen for both characters in this analogy, which I absolutely nailed. Let’s hope it’s another season of “True Detective” for McConaughey and a major victory for Westwood.
Paul Azinger takes on Europe
Westwood wasn’t the only Englishman to contend at the Honda Classic. His fellow countryman Tommy Fleetwood had an excellent opportunity in the 72nd fairway, needing only a birdie to force a playoff on the dangerous, but gettable par-5 18th at PGA National.
Fleetwood’s second shot took on particular importance due to comments made by NBC analyst Paul Azinger earlier that day. Azinger, who has plenty of Ryder Cup history with Europe, essentially said that until Fleetwood closed out a PGA Tour victory, he was still an unproven player, despite plenty of evidence pointing to the contrary. “These guys know, you can win all you want on that European Tour or in the international game and all that, but you have to win on the PGA Tour."
A social-media firestorm ensued. There were columns. There were takes. After Fleetwood blocked one into the water down the right side and finished two shots back of eventual winner Sungjae Im, the debate only intensified. Euros hoping for a “shove it in his face” moment had to wait a little longer.
Turns out, that wait only lasted one week, as another Englishman, Tyrrell Hatton, earned his first PGA Tour victory in the gustiest of gusty conditions at Bay Hill. More columns, more takes ensued. Life went on.
Tiger didn’t play much
Tiger Woods has never played that much, opting to craft a schedule that prepares him for the biggest four weeks of the season his entire career. But as he continues to age and his fused back continues to play tricks from time to time, Woods has shown he’s going to play less and less with each passing year. In 2018, he made 18 starts, including all four majors, the Players and four playoff events. In 2019, he played just 12 events, including all four majors, the Players, but only two playoff events. This season Woods competed only three before the pandemic, and he chose to skip the Players.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann
Tiger Woods reacts during The Match: Champions For Charity at Medalist Golf Club on May 24, 2020.
Woods has since said that he would have been 100 percent ready for the Masters if it took place in April. And the way he looked in The Match II, one can dream he’ll be playing in all three scheduled majors this year, and perhaps he’ll sprinkle in a few tune-up events. What we do know is that this is most likely his new normal: four majors and whatever handful of events gets him ready for each one. If we see him between 10-15 times a year going forward, that’d be ideal.