In any other year on the island of Maui, PGA Tour players would find their loyalties divided. Should they hit a few more balls on the range or join the kids in building sandcastles on the beach?
Playing in the Sentry Tournament of Champions in the first week of January is the reward for extraordinary work in the previous year. It promises a full week of play, loads of cash and the chance to watch gorgeous sunsets from the lanai. It is a well-earned working vacation.
Except that in 2021, the TOC is nothing like it’s been in the past. For some, it must feel like the dog days of summer are already upon us. There are golfers who have already played nine times in this (hopefully) one-of-a-kind campaign.
The PGA Tour has played a wraparound schedule since 2013, but not like this. Due to COVID-19, two majors have already been staged—the September U.S. Open and November Masters—and there will be six total in this 2020-’21 season year. (That is, with the coronavirus willing, of course.) Everything is up to the future path of COVID-19 and the vaccines that began arriving to the public in late December.
In this tour “super season,” a dozen official tournaments have already been contested, and there are 38 still to be staged—the end coming on Sept. 5 at the Tour Championship. Cushions in the standings have been established and early holes dug. There have been some shocking winners and victories that come as no surprise at all.
So we offer a refresher on where the tour has been and where it’s headed in early 2021:
DJ races to early FedEx Cup lead
Dustin Johnson has never been the FedEx Cup points leader heading into Maui because he’s had the luxury of taking a real vacation. Other than playing the WGC-HSBC Champions and the Woods-hosted Hero World Challenge, Johnson can usually be found on a boat in the early winter.
But in this lengthened year, the World No. 1 is already comfortably atop the FedEx Cup table—ahead of Bryson DeChambeau by 252 points—and he knows how valuable that is after using his cushion in the Tour Championship to take the title in 2020.
In three starts this season, DJ has three top-six finishes—T-6, U.S. Open; T-2 Vivant Houston Open; and his triumph in the Masters. Though the Maui field is larger than normal this year, expect Johnson to only pad his FedEx lead; he has a top-10 in every TOC start the last five years, including a win in 2018.
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What new game-improvement project will Professor DeChambeau have taken up in the seven weeks since we saw him in Augusta?
At Kapalua, DeChambeau will make his first start since a ragged T-34 in the Masters, where he disappointed as the pre-tournament favorite. But that stumble was eclipsed by the bulked-up Bryson’s domination of the course and the field in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot two months earlier. And other than Woods, DeChambeau is the most compelling figure of 2021. Can he keep moving the needle—on the scale, on his driving distance and on his polarizing popularity?
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In the current FedEx Cup top 10, there are only two players without victories in the new season—Justin Thomas, who already has three top-10s in five starts, and Matthew Wolff, who’s high on the board thanks to his solo second in the U.S. Open. (Wolff struggled late in the year and missed the cut in the Masters.)
On the entire tour, there is only one player with four top-10s thus far: Harris English, who was fourth in the U.S. Open, didn’t qualify for the Masters and won the unofficial QBE Shootout with partner Matt Kuchar.
Canadian Corey Conners has three top-10s, and—this one’s a surprise—so does James Hahn, who didn’t have a top-10 in the previous two seasons.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, Sungjae Im is among a rather large group of players who already have competed in eight events, and the Road Warrior is 20th in the FedEx Cup standings, on the strength of a T-2 in the Masters. Im, who won the Honda Classic last March, played “only” 26 times in 2020—because of the coronavirus stoppage. He started 36 times in 2019.
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The tour enjoys touting that those who excel in the pre-January portion of the season usually hold a nice spot come season’s end. But there’s seemingly been less a bump for the grinders in the extended start that has seen the stars play more (thanks to those two fall majors). In the top 30, only Im and Adam Long have played eight times. Among the next 40, only 10 have competed that much. Feel very sorry for Mark Hubbard, who is the only golfer in the top 160 to have played nine times, and he stands at 129th.
The season goal is to make the top 30 for the Tour Championship, and it’s early, but among the more notable names who have ground to gain: Rory McIlroy (currently 37th), Tony Finau (40th), Webb Simpson (42nd), Bubba Watson (49th), Brooks Koepka (52nd), Patrick Reed (60th) and Jason Day (76th).
The big guns in big early trouble: Justin Rose (113th), Collin Morikawa (124th), Rickie Fowler (135th), Jordan Spieth (166th) and Phil Mickelson (187th).
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How much will Tiger play?
The last time we saw Tiger Woods in action, it was about as pleasing as it gets. The decision to play with 11-year-old son Charlie in the PNC Championship was a masterstroke—for their own relationship, Charlie’s golf growth and fans who continue to appreciate getting a glimpse of Tiger the man, not just the competitor. He smiles more, fumes far less and there is an ease with which he carries himself. Never underestimate what that 2019 Masters victory did to satisfy Woods that he’d accomplished all he needed to.
Well, except for one thing. No. 83. Woods enters 2021 with an eye on the biggest prize still reasonably within reach—an 83rd win that would push him past Sam Snead for most wins on the tour.
There’s another number hanging over Woods: his age. Tiger had another birthday on Dec. 30, and a time-marking one at that—No. 45. Five years to being PGA Tour Champions eligible (and, man, does that make some of us feel ancient). It also reminds us that Woods is very likely seeing only a crack in the window of opportunity left to contend with the young guys.
A big factor is how few competitive reps he gets these days. Woods played only seven official tournaments and 32 rounds on tour in the 2019-’20 season—winning in his first start at the Zozo Championship back in late 2019—and three more events when the wraparound 2020-’21 campaign began in September. Since a T-9 in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in late February, though, he doesn’t have a finish better than T-37.
All signs indicate that Woods will start his calendar year on Jan. 28 at Torrey Pines, where he’s won seven Farmers Insurance Opens and presumably will return in June for the first U.S. Open played on the South Course since his memorable triumph in 2008. With the Torrey Pines rough at near-major length during the Farmers, starting in San Diego hasn’t been as productive for Woods of late, with last year’s top-10 finish the only one he’s posted since his last win there in 2013.
After Torrey, the Genesis Invitational in Los Angeles (Feb. 18-21) seems a near-lock, with Woods’ foundation hosting, though we know how Riviera has tortured Tiger: The winless streak has reached 14 tries and it’s not moving in an encouraging direction. Woods shot 76-77 on the weekend last year.
After the West Coast Swing, the schedule gets trickier. In 2020, Woods skipped the WGC-Mexico Championship (where he tied for 10th in 2019), and it’s hard to imagine him going to Mexico City in the ongoing pandemic. That leaves only the Arnold Palmer Invitational before the Players Championship (March 11-14), but Tiger has played at Bay Hill only once since winning there in 2013. If he’s feeling good, Woods could slip in the Honda after the Players, but his more likely next start will be the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play (March 24-28) as the last stop before Augusta.
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The state of galleries on tour
For the first couple months of 2021, at least, most tour events aren’t going to look much different than they have for the last six months. At every tournament except for the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the plan is to have very few spectators onsite. The non-working people allowed on the grounds will number in the hundreds, and most will be tied to either corporate sponsors or event organizers.
The tournaments will stage pro-ams, which is somewhat helpful to their financial bottom line, but the loss of ticket revenue and larger corporate sales will produce cash-flow setbacks that will take the events years to make up.
As for the Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale, it will serve as something of a test case for when larger crowds might return to tour events. The Thunderbirds have been the most aggressive marketers in pro golf, drawing huge crowds, including 20,000 alone at the rowdy 16th hole. The coronavirus has dampened that, but they are still building a one-story structure at the 16th while selling general admission tickets for Wednesday-Sunday. The price: $100-$125, and as of Jan. 2, all the days were sold out except for Wednesday’s pro-am. The Thunderbirds have declined to reveal how many tickets are being sold for each day. They are requiring masks to be worn onsite except for eating and drinking, but how that will be enforced remains to be seen.
The Phoenix Open’s approach comes at a time when COVID-19 numbers are not going well. Maricopa, the enormous county that includes the cities of Phoenix and Scottsdale, is like other regions of the country experiencing sharp rises in coronavirus cases and deaths. In its Dec. 29 update, the county said there were 5,019 deaths for the year attributed to COVID-19—up more than 50 percent from Dec. 23. Deaths rose to 5,233 by Jan. 2. Hospitalizations in Maricopa reached an all-time high of 4,526 on Dec. 29.
Scott Jenkins, the tournament director of the Phoenix Open, told Golf Digest in November that he believed the open space of 192 acres at the facility, as well as a mask requirement, would keep fans safe.
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Old guys rule
Stewart Cink. Sergio Garcia. Brian Gay. Who saw any of these geezers winning before the year was out? We joke (mostly) about them being old, though Garcia is the youngest at 40. The 47-year-old Cink found a vintage he liked in Napa with his surprising victory in September’s Safeway Open, and in November, Brian Gay—at 49!—won for the first time in seven years in Bermuda.
It was Garcia’s victory in October’s Sanderson Farms—putting with his eyes closed—that was the most curious and stirring. Only a week earlier, the Spaniard dropped out of the top 50 in the World Ranking for the first time in a decade. Too, it was his first win in the U.S. since Garcia’s shocker in the 2017 Masters. With three victories on the European Tour from 2017-’19, we certainly hadn’t written Sergio off, but the PGA Tour latest win was a signal he isn’t going quietly into his 40s.
With the depth from the 20-somethings these days, it’s increasingly harder for anybody 35 and older (unless you’re Dustin Johnson) to seize a week, but there were five winners older than 35 in the first 12 events of the wraparound season. It says a lot about how guys are keeping their bodies and their games in shape, and that being game worn can be a good thing.