As 2020 gets put behind us (Thank God), so does the strangest year that the PGA Tour has ever witnessed. From COVID-19 and empty galleries to thrilling finishes and new stars, it was enough to intrigue us, and deflate us, like never before.
The new year poses a lot of questions, many which really have no answers, especially regarding the COVID crisis. The ability to get back to normal play will still present its challenges, and watching Tiger Woods play in the final years of his career should be something we cherish and absorb before we see the “new Woods” enter the game.
As the Sentry Tournament of Champions truly kicks off the 2021 season on Thursday, here are the top-5 questions heading into the 2021 season.
1. Will Things Get Back to Normal?
Since the first round of the 2020 Players Championship which was called off the following day, the game has seen a barrage of cancellations, re-schedulings, disruptions, empty crowds, COVID tests, and just complete oddity. Of course, it’s not just in golf, but in every sport all around the world. But the question entering 2021 is whether the year will be a continuation of 2020?
The answer likely lies somewhere in between with a better outlook once 2022 arrives. Don’t expect cancellations like 2020, and galleries will more noticeable at tournaments, although nowhere near at the same capacity as in the pre-pandemic world. The Masters will go on in April, not November but the roars will still be a far cry from years past. There will likely be four majors played this year, all on time, and Shane Lowry will have to finally give up his Claret Jug unless he can repeat the same magic he did in 2019. But you will still see players withdrawing because of pandemic concerns or positive tests, and things just “won’t feel right.”
That should all change, though, based on what’s going on in the vaccine world. The quicker the rollout, the faster things return to status quo. Expect galleries to start filling up as the year progresses with those vaccinated holding tickets, and expect golfers to get their vaccinations sometime in the spring or summer and get back in the regular swing of things, no pun intended (well, okay, maybe a little).
After what happened at the Capitol on Wednesday, one can only hope that sports, and just life in general, goes nowhere but up from here.
No. 2: Will Tiger Win Again?
When Tiger Woods won the ZOZO Championship in November 2019 and tied Sam Snead’s record of 82 PGA tournament wins, it seemed only a formality that he would get to No. 83 sooner rather than later.
Well, it’s becoming later.
Woods has not only been absent from the winner’s circle since his 82nd win, he hasn’t even sniffed it. Since a T9 at the Farmer’s Insurance Open a year ago at Torrey Pines, Woods has competed in eight sanctioned tournaments, his best finish being a T37 at the PGA Championship. The body which appeared improved heading into 2020 has seemed to suffer a setback. There doesn’t seem to be a tournament that goes by where you don’t see Tiger suffering from some discomfort.
Eventually, Tiger will get to No. 83. The stars will align and he’ll put together four good rounds and sit atop the record books for most PGA tournament wins. As for catching Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major championships, that record is quickly becoming nothing but a pipe dream as the years continue to pile up. Getting to No. 16 is seemingly a long shot in itself.
But whether Tiger holds up some championship trophy is still a question mark. Woods will again play a very abbreviated schedule, and his priorities seem to be going elsewhere, and with good reason. His son, Charlie, seems to have an immense talent in the game reminiscent of his father when he was 13, and Woods is the force behind that talent. We saw Charlie hit ridiculous shots at the Father-Son PNC Championship last month, something we hadn’t seen from someone that young since, well, his “Pops”.
It won’t be long until Charlie Woods will be saying the same words his father did in 1996: “Hello World!”
No. 3: Who wants to be Number One?
Tiger Woods once held the World No. 1 ranking for 281 straight weeks--in other words, more than five years! He also once held it for 264 straight weeks during a separate time in his career. During the 2020 PGA Tour season, five different golfers occupied the top-spot in just the matter of months of playing time: Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, and Dustin Johnson.
Even more amazing is how it switched hands as if nobody wanted to be the best–a total of seven times! Ready for this? Koepka started the year number one before McIlroy took it from him in February 2020. He held it for five months (not counting the time in between the layoff) before Jon Rahm won The Memorial Tournament and became World No. 1. He only kept it for two weeks because Justin Thomas claimed it the first week of August. Thomas’ reign lasted a total of one week as Rahm took over the No. 1 spot again. But that only lasted two weeks as Dustin Johnson hit the gas pedal and stormed ahead to No. 1 and only solidified it the rest of the Tour season.
Whew! Got all that?
The Tour has never seen such a roulette of sorts concerning the No. 1 ranking, although it has been more fluid of late. From June 2018 until Februaury 2020, Justin Rose, Koepka, and Johnson traded No. 1 back and forth 13 times! But seeing it change hands five different times in the matter of months is unprecedented.
It makes Tiger Woods’ run from 2010 until 2015 that much more impressive. Woods has been No. 1 a total of 683 weeks in his career. Only three golfers in history have spent an entire calendar year as the No. 1 golfer: Nick Faldo (1993), Greg Norman (1996), and Woods (2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009).
Johnson currently holds a sizeable lead in the world rankings now, a 2.5-point edge, over Rahm aided by his finish to 2020. In his last seven tournaments, Johnson has gone T2, 1st, 2nd, 1st, T6, T2, and 1st. Those three first place finishes include a win in the Fed Ex Cup Playoffs, The TOUR Championship, and the green jacket at Augusta. Not bad.
Rahm, Thomas, and McIlroy all sit at 2, 3, and 4 in the world respectively while Koepka has plummeted down to 12th in the world.
No. 4: Will Bryson Continue to Change the Game?
Some are enamored with the way Bryson DeChambeau has altered the evolution of golf with his ability to overpower a golf course with muscle and brute force. Others have challenged that it presents a danger to the game and that bodybuilding could become a necessity to try and keep up with the ever-changing technology and lengthening of courses due to DeChambeau’s 400-yard drives.
For now, it is what it is. DeChambeau’s power is undoubtedly mesmerizing and fun to watch, but he’s not yet winning tournaments at a rate where Tour officials are overwhelmingly concerned or constructing meetings about how to “Bryson-proof” a golf course. Dustin Johnson is still the dominant player in the game and DeChambeau has not yet hit that talent level. The Masters illustrated that.
But DeChambeau will continue to try and push forward and get stronger and longer. Instagram posts are published from his “lab” where he keeps adding speed to his driver and length to his game. He still hits the gym and is working to bulk up ala John Cena and Dwayne Johnson, determined to become the Hercules of golf.
The saying still holds true: “Drive for show, putt for dough.” DeChambeau’s goal is to change that motto to where you drive for the dough.
No. 5: Who Will Breakout and Who Will Comeback?
The PGA Tour had its fill of young stars emerging in 2020. Collin Morikawa won the PGA Championship at just 23 years old. Matthew Wolff, 21, nearly followed it with a U.S. Open in September. Sungjae Im, 22, showed the world his talents at The Masters. We also saw the rise of other young names like Abraham Ancer, Scottie Scheffler, and Cameron Smith.
So who breaks out in 2021?
It may still be a year too early to be talking about Brandon Wu, a Stanford product, and Takumi Kanaya, who appears to be the next Hideki Matsuyama from Japan, but as the season goes, they may begin to get some noteriety as they play in some PGA Tour events. Short term, though, Joaquin Niemann is on the verge of seeing stardom.
Niemann, just 22 years old from Chile, already has three years experience on Tour and a win to his name. He comes into the 2021 season ranked No. 45 in the world. But he’s yet to truly breakout, mostly because of his inability to finish in tournaments. At just 22, it shouldn’t be surprising. The talented young star continues to progress, however, and any connoisseur of the game would tell you it’s not a matter of if, but when. Not built with size like Bryson DeChambeau, his incredible fast swing alone aids to his big length, and he’s one of the best ball strikers on Tour.
As for comeback player, one would assume that there will be a big bounce back season from Rickie Fowler and Brooks Koepka. Fowler was an absolute mess in 2020, dropping all the way to No. 56 in the world after ending the 2019 season in the top-10. Fowler hasn’t posted a top-10 in a year now, a far cry from the player that has nine PGA Tour wins. Koepka, on the other hand, dealt with injuries, both his knee and his hip which deterred his game. Feeling healthier heading into 2021, Koepka has his eyes on resuming his status as the best major championship player in the game today.
Jordan Spieth? It’s a wait-and-see game with him. However, this is a critical season for the three-time major champion and former world No. 1. He needs to show a heart beat or else his confidence could be destroyed as he moves into the next stage of his career. We’ve seen it happen before with the likes of David Duval and Anthony Kim at a young age. It doesn’t take much for the train to come off the tracks completely. He needs to find a way to get it back on.