In this week’s playoff edition, we celebrate golf’s ability to reach the most unlikely of post-seasons and settle in for a grueling stretch of high-profile tournaments that will define Tiger Woods’ season.
Playoffs. Let’s face it, three months ago, as the world was plunged into an unprecedented pandemic, the idea of playing the FedExCup playoffs fell somewhere between unlikely and out of the question.
Not only was the PGA Tour able to piece together a truncated and safe schedule, The Northern Trust marked the third consecutive week on Tour with no positive tests, but unlike other sports, there have been no concerns about the competitive viability of the season.
Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, Webb Simpson and Bryson DeChambeau top the regular-season points list with plenty of compelling story lines down the line, including Tiger Woods at 49th in points and Rickie Fowler 88th.
The 2019-20 season will always stand apart from others as the year golf and sports were frozen in time by the coronavirus, but the Tour’s return to competition worked and this week’s playoff opener is proof that something approaching normal is possible.
Late-season grind. That Tiger Woods opened his playoff push with a middle-of-the-pack 68 at TPC Boston wasn’t exactly worth celebrating, but his presence in The Northern Trust field and beyond is a reason for optimism.
Although he’s normally coy to the extreme with his upcoming schedule, Woods told reporters this week he plans to play four out of the next five weeks if he’s able to qualify for the Tour Championship. It will mark the first time he’s played three consecutive events in two years.
“That's the way it's going to have to work out. We're all getting used to the schedule. This is weird for every one of us,” he told the Associated Press.
Even more encouraging was news Woods made a scouting trip to Winged Foot in New York on Monday to prepare for next month’s U.S. Open.
Whether Woods is still capable of winning at the highest level is no longer a question (see: 2019 Masters). What is worth questioning is his ability to maintain a schedule and endure prolonged periods of competition. The next five weeks will go a long way toward answering the latter.
Tweet of the week:
I’m going to play the Champions event this Monday. I’ve been playing well and I want to play. I wish I was playing in Chicago next week but excited to play my first Champions event.— Phil Mickelson (@PhilMickelson) August 21, 2020
Lefty has been one of the game’s most reluctant seniors in recent months, but he seemed to warm to the idea of playing the over-50 circuit. It will be interesting to see how far his interest in the PGA Tour Champions will go.
Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)
Party crasher. When Augusta National rescheduled this year’s Masters to November, it also froze the qualifying process and stipulated that anyone who won a Tour event this summer or during the fall would earn a spot in the 2021 tournament.
Although the move made sense at the time given the uncertainty of the Tour’s restart and the daylight restrictions that come with a November Masters, Daniel Berger has made a compelling case for why Augusta National should reconsider the decision.
Thanks to a victory at Colonial and three top-15 finishes in his last four starts, Berger has moved to 18th in the world ranking, seventh in the FedExCup race and is an outside contender for the Tour’s Player of the Year Award.
“I’m not sure what else I have to do at this point to get into Augusta,” Berger said this week. “I’m a little baffled that I haven’t had more opportunity to at least hear from some of the guys over there and have a chance, obviously. The field was set, but – I don’t know if I could say I deserve a spot, but I feel like I’m playing well enough to earn a spot into the Masters.”
One of the many things that makes the Masters so special is the exclusivity of the field, but given how fluid the season has been since the restart, a little special dispensation for Berger is in order.
Playoff Exit. Whatever beef remains between Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson is just background noise at this point. More pain and lingering injuries forced Koepka to withdraw from this week’s playoff opener and end his 2019-20 season.
Koepka has struggled for nearly a year with a left-knee injury, and even after a 3 ½-month pandemic shutdown he was clearly not 100 percent healthy when the Tour restarted its schedule in June.
Along the way he showed flashes of his signature greatness but he struggled on Sunday at the PGA Championship with a chance to add to his major collection and he missed the cut last week at the Wyndham Championship.
Rory McIlroy offered some pro bono advice: “It’s never a good time, but it’s a better time than any other to get it right. ... I think it’s smart on his part to do that and hopefully come back healthy and come back ready to play.”
Given Koepka’s affinity for the majors, a quick return for next month’s U.S. Open wouldn’t be out of the question but on this McIlroy’s assessment is the only viable route. Like many, Koepka would be better off putting 2020 in the rearview mirror.