Punch Shot: Answering the biggest questions on the PGA Tour for 2021

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Golf Channel Digital
·8 min read
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As we've turned the page on 2020 and get ready for another year of PGA Tour golf, our GolfChannel.com writers answer some of the biggest questions for 2021:

Who will be the best player in 2021?

Rex Hoggard: Dustin Johnson. This goes beyond chalk and the 36-year-old’s current status as the world’s top-ranked player and defending Masters champion. This is about a game that doesn’t have any weaknesses. During his COVID-19-shortened 2019-20 campaign, DJ ranked among the top 20 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained: off the tee, approach to the green, total and driving distance. It’s an embarrassment of riches that is unmatched at the moment.

Ryan Lavner: Justin Thomas. The most complete player in the game – correctly – said he was a few Sundays away from a monster campaign in 2020. Knowing how hot he burns, he’ll cook again this year and be even better.

Brentley Romine: Rory McIlroy. It’s easy to forget how he started 2020 because he was pretty bad (by his standards) when golf returned in June. However, he closed this year with three top-10s in five starts, including a T-5 at the Masters, and I’m feeling very good about his prospects for the new year. I’m banking on two majors in two other wins from Rory in 2021.

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When will we see full crowds on Tour?

Hoggard: The Players. Full crowds are still probably at least a year away, but the Tour is eyeing a return to something closer to full capacity in March at TPC Sawgrass according to various sources. This isn’t so much a sentimental move based on The Players being the final event with full crowds before last year’s shutdown as it is the result of timing and location. Florida is among the most aggressive states when it comes to reintroducing crowds to sporting events, and the hope is that by the spring the pandemic will be more contained.

Lavner: Fall 2021. We’ll see some crowds in Phoenix, with an expected cap of 8,000 fans a day. The Florida events should open it up a bit, too. It’d be a surprise if there wasn’t a livelier atmosphere at the majors and Ryder Cup. But if we’re talking unrestricted tournament attendance, our best guess is the fall events (that are lightly attended anyway).

Romine: As much as I’m rooting for them to return, it’s hard to imagine any tournaments this season featuring no attendance restrictions and a normal grandstand buildout. But I think we’ll get something close at The Players, where they’ve already started assembling structures around the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass. Once the Tour gets to late April, we should see a more consistent fan presence from week to week. Full crowds? That probably won’t come until late 2021, or maybe 2022.

Golf Central Podcast: Expect these storylines in 2021

Will DJ defend his Masters title, five months later?

Hoggard: No. Johnson is the undisputed king at the moment, but the April Masters will be much different than the softer, version that DJ won in November. Although he has plenty of firepower to go back-to-back at Augusta National, under more familiar conditions the cast of would-be contenders expands dramatically and the challenge becomes that much more difficult.

Lavner: No (just playing the percentages here!). Barring some torrential rain during Masters week, Augusta will play decidedly different in April than it did last November. That’s not to say that DJ can’t master a tougher test – he’s been consistently excellent there since 2015 – but there’ll be a greater premium on precision that brings in more of the world’s best.

Romine: No. DJ will be in the mix, but winning two green jackets in six months just sounds like it shouldn’t be possible. I’ll make an early – and widely welcomed – prediction here: Rory McIlroy.

Bryson will break ____ this year?

Hoggard: The Internet. DeChambeau will continue to impress on the course thanks to his thuggish brand of golf that he continues to perfect, but he’ll also continue to make headlines for all manner of reasons. From pace of play, which will become a flashpoint early this year, to the ongoing distance debate expect DeChambeau to be in the middle of it all.

Lavner: The 330-yard driving distance mark. In limited action this season he’s averaged 337.8 yards per drive – nearly 15 yards longer than his record-breaking 2019-20 numbers. Continually fine-tuning his swing and expected to put in a 48-inch driver at some point this year, there’s no doubt he’ll be even longer in 2021.

Romine: You mean, besides a window in Chris Como’s living room? I’ll go with the 200-mph ball-speed mark. He’s done it outside of competition, but his current fastest measured ball speed on Tour is 199.55 mph, which came earlier this season. With some time off to increase speed, there’s no question DeChambeau will venture into uncharted territory with his ball-speed numbers this year. Now, how many wins that translates to remains to be seen.

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Will Rory win his first major in seven years?

Hoggard: Yes. Before COVID-19 halted play last spring and altered the competitive landscape, the Northern Irishman was on an impressive run with top-5 finishes in his first four starts of 2020 and he’d reclaimed the top spot in the world ranking. When play restarted in June, he wasn’t the same. After a much-needed break McIlroy returns to his role as perennial contender at the game’s biggest events with the Masters looming large on his Grand Slam horizon.

Lavner: No. The first quarter of 2021 will be revealing, because he looked un-Rory-like following the restart with exceedingly poor iron play. If he figured out that deficiency during the brief offseason, our answer is different.

Romine: Yes. While this answer may be more heart than head, McIlroy is still a top-5 player and pound for pound the best driver of the golf ball in the world. He’ll also get some favorable venues, including PGA host Kiawah, where he won in 2012, and U.S. Open host Torrey Pines, where he has cracked the top five in both starts since playing the Farmers for the first time two years ago.

What will be the biggest story of 2021?

Hoggard: COVID-19. Although we all want to leave 2020 and the pandemic behind, the coronavirus will continue to dictate life on Tour for the foreseeable future. As evidenced by recent issues in the NFL and college football, the virus continues to impact every walk of life, including professional golf.

Lavner: The race to make the Ryder Cup team. The battle for the U.S. squad will be typically competitive, especially with an infusion of young players like Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff and Scottie Scheffler. The European side might be even more interesting: Is this the year they finally move on from the likes of Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson and Ian Poulter, or can those aging warriors summon another charge to make the 2021 team?

Romine: I’ve also got my eye on the Tour’s new pace-of-play policy and a Distance Insights Project update by the USGA and R&A schedule for March. But it’s going to be Tiger Woods, who has an important year ahead of him. Not only is he still trying to break his tie with Sam Snead for the PGA Tour’s career wins record, but he’ll also be making what is likely final pushes at Olympic and Ryder Cup berths. It’s more likely he’ll play at Whistling Straits than in Tokyo this year, though at this point either would be a surprising accomplishment.

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What will be the biggest storyline at this year’s Ryder Cup?

Hoggard: Tears and cheers for sentimental Stricker. Steve Stricker cried when he was named captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team, and there’s no chance he doesn’t become emotional when the delayed Ryder Cup is finally played in his home state of Wisconsin this fall. The long-awaited matches will leave the captain even more choked up when the American side breaks the European stranglehold on the Cup with a rare victory.

Lavner: U.S. team unity. There could be some major personality clashes among the Americans, with Brooks Koepka needing to play nice not just with frequent target Bryson DeChambeau but also Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed, with whom he’s had issues in the past. That might be the most important task for all-time nice-guy captain Steve Stricker.  

Romine: Another European victory. The American team will be talented, but I’m still not sure the team chemistry is there. Maybe some new blood in Collin Morikawa and Matthew Wolff will change that? Also, Whistling Straits isn’t your typical stateside venue. The Europeans will get a huge performance from a rookie, match-play dynamo Viktor Hovland, but their veterans (McIlroy, Westwood, etc.) will lead the visiting side to another victory.