Eight Burning Questions as the 2020 PGA Tour Season Tees Off

Daniel Rapaport
Sports Illustrated

Our long national nightmare is over. The PGA Tour’s offseason has reached its merciful end after two long and painful weekends without a tournament. Give yourself a pat on the back—this was a difficult time, but you’ve officially reached the light at the end of the tunnel.

While the general sporting public’s attention will not shift to golf until January, the 2019-20 campaign begins on Thursday with A Military Tribute at the Greenbier, the first of a record 49 (!) events between now and the 2020 Tour Championship.

Here are eight storylines to keep an eye on as golf heads into a new decade.

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What will we see from Tiger Woods?

Last season cannot be considered anything but a smashing success for Woods, who pulled off the impossible by winning the Masters and adding a 15th major championship (and fifth green jacket) to his haul. But after that magnanimous day in April, Woods did…not a lot. He didn’t play much, making only six starts after Augusta. And he didn’t do much in those six starts, posting just one top-10 as well as two missed cuts and a withdrawal.

The uncertainty reached another level when Woods revealed last month that he’d had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, the same knee he famously tore up before winning the 2008 U.S. Open. He’s expected to return in time for the the Zozo Championship in October—he still seems set on making that the only event he plays between now and December, which should tell you how lucrative that trip to Japan will be—but it’s certainly alarming to see Woods go under the knife in any capacity at this stage of his career. After a largely injury-free 2018, in 2019 he has dealt with a neck injury, an oblique injury, a stiff back and now the knee.

So what will 2019-20 have in store for Tiger? We know he’ll play another limited schedule—I’ve been told that 12-13 events is the target number. What will we see in those starts? Will it be the swaggering, youthful-looking guy who stared down the world’s best players to win the Masters? Or was the tail-end of last season a harbinger of darker times ahead? And from the less-theoretical, more-practical corner: Will he pick himself for the Presidents Cup?

What will come of the slow play conversation?

Slow play is nothing new on the PGA Tour. But the combination of PGA Tour Live, which allows fans to watch a player’s entire round, including the downtime between shots, and social media, which allows players to publicly call each other out, has ratcheted the outrage up more than a few notches.

Bryson DeChambeau emerged as the scapegoat after two videos from the Northern Trust showed him taking a painful amount of time to execute routine shots. He is certainly one of the slower players out there. But he is a symptom, not the problem. What, then, is the problem? It’s not a lack of rules. The PGA Tour has a perfectly fine pace-of-play policy: once you’re out of position, you’re put on the clock. If you get a bad time while on the clock, you are penalized a stroke. But a rule is nothing if it’s not implemented, and the Tour has handed out exactly one stroke-play penalty since 1995…and that came at the two-man team event in New Orleans. Not exactly Sunday at a major.

The DeChambeau videos—more specifically, the outrage from his fellow players and on social media—put a spotlight on the toothless enforcement of the policy, forcing the PGA Tour to say they’re going to re-assess how they handle slow play. Days later, the European Tour announced an aggressive four-point plan to tackle the issue. Does the Tour intend to follow a similar path, or was the statement meant to simply placate the mob until the controversy simmers?

It boils down to this: Until a big-name player is penalized down the stretch of an important tournament—like what happened in the U.S. Open tennis final, when Rafa Nadal was given a time violation while serving for the tournament—nothing is going to change.

Who will end the year at world No. 1?

In 2019, Brooks Koepka cemented his place as golf’s alpha male by winning his fourth major and becoming just the fifth player to finish in the top five of all four majors in a single year. So he’s the clear Player of the Year, right?

Ehhh. There’s a sizable segment of golf fans and writers who believe Rory McIlroy deserves the award. Despite not really factoring in any of the majors, McIlroy had the best statistical season (in terms of strokes gained overall) of the decade. In 19 PGA Tour starts he posted three wins, 14 top 10s, 16 top 25s and won the FedEx Cup. If it’s possible to have a great year without winning a major in today’s majors-over-everything climate, McIlroy just did it.

Kopeka holds the top spot in the world rankings, but McIlroy is No. 2 and in hot pursuit. McIlroy has also made it clear that it is very much a goal of his to get back to world No. 1—he said recently that he feels he is the best player in the world. You better believe Koepka, who needs just the smallest perceived slight to fire himself up, took notice. The two players are less than one year apart (364 days, to be exact) in age and, at 29 and 30, both have five-plus years of elite play left in them. Perhaps Brooks-Rory will emerge as the successor to the Tiger-Phil rivalry of the 90’s-2000’s.

Can Jordan Spieth return to being Jordan Spieth?

Imagine if, before the season, you were told that Jordan Spieth would lead the tour in one-putt percentage and putts per round, finish second in strokes gained putting…and won zero times with just four top 10s in his 23 starts?

The three-time major champion remains marred in a disturbingly long slump; he still hasn’t won anywhere since the 2017 British Open. The eye test shows a two-way miss with both the driver and the irons. The stats back up that hypothesis: he finished the season 176th in strokes gained off the tee and 145th in strokes gained approaching the green. Spieth was able to post a few good finishes, including a T3 at the PGA, thanks to some historically great putting weeks that masked swing deficiencies. Still, he has dropped to world No. 33 and is in serious danger of missing the Presidents Cup, which would be the first time he didn’t make a U.S. team (either Presidents or Ryder) since turning professional in December 2012.

Still just 26 years old, he still has more-than-plenty of time to right the ship, but he’s no longer the leader of the 20-somethings. If Spieth can return to striking the ball like he did from 2013-17, he surely can reassert himself among the game’s elite. The putting is there; the rest of the bag simply needs to follow.

Who will emerge as golf's next rising star?

This time last year, Cameron Champ was just a long-hitting graduate of the Web.com Tour. (Pour one out for the Web.com Tour, replaced by the Korn Ferry Tour but never gone from our hearts). Matthew Wolff, Viktor Hovland and Collin Morikawa were adjusting to the first couple weeks of the school year.

Fast forward 365 days and three of the four are PGA Tour winners. All four are household names in the golf world.

All this goes to say: today’s stars are born quickly. By this time next in 2020, perhaps there will be a new Matthew Wolff. Newly minted professional burst onto the scene ready not just to compete; they’re ready to win. While we may not see another group arrive together like the Class of 19 (Wolff, Hovland and Morikawa) did, surely someone new will make himself impossible to ignore. Who will it be? Cole Hammer, the world no. 1 amateur and rising sophomore at Texas? Askhay Bhatia, the 17-year-old phenom opting to turn professional and skip college? Or someone completely off our radar?

What will the reaction be to the Distance Insights project?

In May of 2018, in response to the steady increase in driving distance across golf’s professional tours, the USGA and R&A launched the Distance Insights project, an effort to better understand the causes of the upward tick and its effect on the game.

We don’t need a double-blind study to see the distance explosion’s impact. So many holes, and so many courses, have been rendered completely obsolete by a generation of players that can fly the ball 320+ yards. Take Medinah, for example, a course that has hosted five major championships. At one of those majors, the 1975 U.S. Open, the winning score was three over par. In response to the distance gains, Medinah has been lengthened to over 7,600 yards while keeping its punishing rough. At the BMW Championship last month, Justin Thomas brought Medinah to its knees and shot 25 under par. He dominated what used to be one of the hardest golf courses in the world.

That week shined a new light on the distance debate. Adam Scott summed up the current state of affairs perfectly: “They just, they haven’t figured out yet that long means nothing to us. You can’t build it long enough.”

What, then, will be the course of action when the Distance Insights findings are released in the fall? Something needs to change. That much is clear. Is the solution smarter designs that discourage players from pulling driver 12 times a round? An emphasis on firmer greens to punish shots from the rough? The simplest (but most drastic) option is a rollback of the golf ball to put an upper-bound limit on how far it can travel. That’s the quickest fix, but also the least feasible given the power of equipment companies.

How will the jam-packed schedule be received?

The re-imagined PGA Tour schedule, highlighted by the PGA Championship’s move to May, was received with mixed reviews in its debut season. Some liked the Triple Crown-like cadence of the new schedule; others, including a number of prominent players, voiced concern that everything is too jumbled.

This year is going to be even more hectic, thanks to the Olympic Golf tournament, which will take place just two weeks after the British Open, and the Ryder Cup in September. Here are the crucial dates for next year’s golf calendar:

March 12-15: Players Championship

April 9-12: The Masters

May 14-17: PGA Championship (TPC Harding Park)

June 18-21: U.S. Open (Winged Foot)

July 16-19: British Open (Royal St. George’s)

July 30-Aug 2: Olympic Golf Tournament (Kasumigaeski)

Aug 13-16: Northern Trust (TPC Boston), first FedEx Cup playoff event

Aug 27-30: Tour Championship

Sept. 25-27: Ryder Cup (Whistling Straits)

It’s not quite a sprint, because sprints don’t last six months…but it’s also not a marathon…so we’ll compromise by saying this schedule is like a 400 meter dash—there’s simply no let up for what feels like forever. From March through September, there’s never more than a month between huge events. That will force players to pick and choose which tournaments they want to play in order to peak at the right time.

On the bright side, there is more of a defined season (and, importantly, more of an offseason) than ever before. From the Masters through the Ryder Cup, golf will never fully leave the sporting public’s conscience. But the non-major tournaments—the Quail Hollows and Honda Classics of the world—get the short end of the stick here. The world’s best simply can’t play every week, and every tournament not listed above is basically expendable.  Don’t be surprised if you see a number of parties complain in Year 2 of the new normal.

Can the U.S. win the Ryder Cup?

The Ryder Cup isn’t technically part of the PGA Tour season, but it will be a topic of discussion throughout the entire season. On one hand, U.S. golf is the healthiest it’s been maybe ever: 13 of the top 20 in the world rankings are American, and 14 of the last 19 major championships have been won by Americans. On the other, the U.S. has won just three of the last 12 Ryder Cups, including a humiliating 17.5-10.5 defeat last year at Le Golf National.

Enter Steve Stricker. The soft-spoken Wisconsinite will be a home-captain of sorts when he leads what will be another absurdly talented American side at Whistling Straits. The problem, though, hasn’t been talent. It’s been a lack of cohesion and a lack of strategy. And this will be anything but a cake walk—Team Europe will likely feature a blend of established stars (McIlroy, Justin Rose, Francesco Molinari) and fiery up-and-comers (Jon Rahm, Shane Lowry and perhaps even Hovland).

This is a must-win for the Americans. Should they lose on home soil—on a course that will be American-ized to play around 8,000 yards with little rough—we’d be looking at a full-blown crisis.

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