In many ways, it seems Rory McIlroy might have been the golfer most negatively impacted from a competitive perspective when the PGA Tour shut down after one round at the Players Championship in March because of the COVID-19 outbreak. He was on a tear before the stoppage. Since winning the Tour Championship and seizing his second FedEx Cup title in August, the Irishman made 10 starts combined on the PGA Tour and European Tour, including a win in the WGC-HSBC Champions, and returned to No. 1 in the world with a remarkable seven other top-five postings.
A monster year? It sure seemed in the realm. And there are those who will argue that it could still be.
On a conference call with reporters on Thursday, four Golf Channel commentators touched on a number of subjects, including Tiger Woods’ health and the coming weekend without the Masters. Most compelling was the debate about how this extended downtime will either help or hurt McIlroy.
It’s unclear when exactly the PGA Tour will resume play, although a partial schedule was introduced earlier this week that sets up a the first-ever Masters in November. Additionally, the PGA Championship, U.S. Open, FedEx Cup Playoffs and Ryder Cup are now all packed into an eight-week window in August and September.
When golf is played again, there are some who think the new condensed schedule is still suited well for McIlroy.
“You think of Rory McIlroy, how he has the ability to play so well, amazing golf over a three-, four-, five-month period of time,” said former PGA Tour player and Open Championship winner Justin Leonard. “If we were able to play the schedule laid out right now, I think it does favor a guy like Rory McIlroy, who can get on a run and keep putting himself in contention.”
Former Tour player Notah Begay III isn’t so sure.
“I think it is a bad break for Rory,” Begay said. “Any time you’re forced to take time off playing the kind of golf he was playing, it’s like, ‘I finally got this thing where I want it, and now I can’t run with it.’ I think it’s a bit of a hinderance as far as, OK, how long is it going to take him to get back at running the same sort of pace he was running at now.”
Speaking of running, or Pelaton-ing, it figures no one will be in better shape that McIlroy when competition returns, and it’s generally agreed that will be a sizable advantage considering the stamina it will take to get through the jammed schedule.
Not to be discounted either is how well McIlroy has played late in the season. He’s won 27 times combined on the PGA Tour and European Tour, and seven of those victories have come in September or later.
“Rory seems to be playing—which is hard to believe—as close to playing the best golf of his life,” Brandel Chamblee said. “His high watermarks were ’11, ’12, ’14. Last year was extraordinary. Won the Vardon Trophy again, and this year seems like he hasn’t lost any of the momentum he had last year.
“So, yeah, I think it is setting up to be another epic year for Rory, and I would have thought, and I think most people would agree, he’s easily a favorite to win his next major championship at some point this year.”
Currently, the first major is the PGA Championship at Harding Park, Aug. 6-9. The U.S. Open at Winged Foot is Sept. 17-20, and the Masters is Nov. 12-15.
Intriguing, of course, is the prospect of McIlroy hitting Augusta on a hot streak, with the chance for the four-time major winner to complete the career Grand Slam after not being able to do so in the past five Masters.
Does the fall setting re-wire McIlroy’s psyche at a major he so badly wants to win?
“That might change a little bit of the approach,” Begay said. “He might have already won [a major] by then, so it actually could benefit him a couple of ways from a mental standpoint.”
In terms of Woods, there is a general consensus that the break has been good for him. He hasn’t played since the Genesis Invitational at Riviera in February, and his back wasn’t still ready to go for the Players Championship.
Begay, a close friend of Woods, said the 15-time major winner’s back wasn’t responding as well as he’d like leading into the Players and that he needed more rest. Begay characterized Woods as “relieved” with that the bulk of the most important tournaments would come later in the year.
“He’s like, ‘I’m not rushed. I don’t feel like I’m having to do anything that is on a specific timeline,’ “ Begay said.
Woods will be center stage is a surreal way this weekend. On Sunday, CBS will broadcast in its entirety last year’s incredible Masters victory. That follows a Saturday replay of Phil Mickelson’s 2004 major breakthrough at Augusta. Golf Channel has wraparound programming, including Mickelson’s post-round press conference and an encore of “Golf Central Live” on Saturday, and the “Golf Central Live” pre-round and post-round shows from 2019 on Sunday.
Included in the CBS broadcasts will be recently taped interviews with Woods and Mickelson done with golf anchor Jim Nantz.
“What two better players would you want to have in that situation to know what was going through their minds?” Leonard said. “Because nobody in the world knows what’s going through Phil Mickelson’s mind, and then, you know, you’ve got Tiger Woods’ insight into what he was thinking. I can’t think of two better modern-day players to have in that kind of situation.”
A couple of previews: