No-one ever stood and cheered when the football club chairman took his seat in the director’s box, just as no-one should ever feel the urge to reach for the pom-poms when the commissioner of the PGA Tour makes his way towards the microphone.
The guys running the show – and it’s almost always guys – get paid big bucks to do their job, so they can do without anyone gushing from the peanut galleries. Besides, would you really want to spend too much time applauding the PGA Tour, an organisation so obsessed with protecting its “brand” that it sits back and does little while Patrick Reed takes a blowtorch to the spirit of the game? No thanks.
Still, it was hard to not feel at least grudging admiration for the PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan as he delivered his annual “state of the tour” press conference on the eve of this year’s Players Championship. This time last year, he was the ashen-faced harbinger of bad news, announcing that his beloved flagship event – the so-called ‘fifth major” – was being abandoned after 18 holes due the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
He carried a different air this time round.
I’m proud to be back here a year later – proud of our players, proud of all the caddies, everybody that has worked so hard to get us back to this point in time, and, candidly, to do so in a really inspiring way.
Can’t miss viewing
Some might argue about the use of the word “inspiring” to describe the tour’s handling of the COVID protocols, especially in the first few weeks of its return, when its so-called “bubble” seemed about as air tight as a teabag. But the system appears to have found its rhythm, and the numbers don’t lie; the number of positive tests amongst the players has been remarkably small. And fans are back on site, albeit in limited numbers.
More importantly to golf fanatics stuck at home with nothing better to do than wait in front of the TV and hope for a Sunday night (or afternoon, depending on your time zone) thrill ride, the golf itself has been fantastic. Sure, there have been a few winners who the general public might not have been able to pick out of a police line-up but real golf aficionados got a kick out of Max Homa winning at Riviera, a golf tournament he first attended as a seven-year-old kid with his dad, and Daniel Berger painting pictures with that funky swing of his on his way to victory at Pebble Beach.
And for those who can only relate to household names, there was last Sunday at Bay Hill, with Bryon DeChambeau and Lee Westwood slugging it out all the way to the not-so-bitter end. Throw in another vignette from the Jordan Spieth comeback tour and it was ‘can’t-miss’ viewing. When was the last time anyone could say that about the regular PGA Tour schedule and not be laughed out of the court of sporting opinion?
De Chambeau, McIlroy and Johnson
The good news is that is probably more to come this week at TPC Sawgrass. I write “probably” because there was a stretch in recent Players history when the tournament was (look away now, Fred Funk and Stephen Ames) as bland and boring as the winners it produced. The quirks of Pete Dye’s layout and it’s relative lack of length produced a more democratic contest back then. But it also failed to identify the best players with authenticity regularly in the way that golf’s biggest and best venues did.
Moving the tournament back to March, where the weather is cooler and the course plays longer, has altered the balance. Length off the tee is not quite the decisive factor but it does confer an advantage in a way that it didn’t in the Stephen Ames era.
If we accept that TPC Sawgrass is now better equipped to identify the best players then it is surely the case that the leaderboard come this Sunday afternoon will be juicy.
That means De Chambeau. It means McIlroy and Johnson.
Justin Thomas has gone through a quiet couple of months while his old junior golf pal Jordan Spieth has been ripping the joint apart with his brilliant (and occasionally not-so-brilliant) play.
Take a punt
Colin Morikawa has never officially competed at the Players (his opening round 68 from last year has been wiped from the record) but his consistent brilliance will surely see him into contention come Sunday. Throw in Fleetwood, Hatton, Cantlay, Sergio and Adam Scott, both past winners at Sawgrass.
Try picking a winner out of that lot. Or if you are like me and are on the look-out for a little adventure take a punt of Matt Fitzpatrick. He’s in decent form, clearly, after a run of three top-15 finishes.
He isn’t especially long but he’s certainly long enough to compete with the big boys, and he’s the George Harrison of putting – quietly magnificent. He has yet to win on the PGA Tour but has long had the look of a PGA Tour winner.
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