The idea of Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson playing together on a Sunday in May, with Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff also part of discussion, would have been a pretty intriguing thought in a pre-COVID-19 world.
Make it May 17 and you are talking about a major championship Sunday, what was supposed to be the final round of the PGA Championship at Harding Park in San Francisco, with a foursome of golf’s heavy hitters and needle movers filling the airwaves.
That dream faded long ago, a result of the coronavirus pandemic that ground the world to a halt and put golf on the shelf, like every other sporting activity.
So Sunday became a first, of sorts. Live golf, with the aforementioned superstars, carrying their own bags, having one PGA Tour official handle the flagstick, and all involved socially distanced as best as possible while raising millions of dollars for charity.
For the first time since the Players Championship was canceled following the first round on March 12, golf was broadcast to the world on Sunday in the form of the TaylorMade Driving Relief, an event put together to give sports-starved viewers something to watch while also raising significant funds for COVID-19 relief efforts.
McIlroy and Johnson ended up the winners when the event had to be settled with a closest-to-the-hole competition set up on a shortened 17th hole at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Florida.
They had not won a skin since the sixth hole, but they came away with $1.1 million by capturing that final hole as McIlroy barely knocked his 9-iron shot from 120 yards inside Wolff’s to end the competition.
That produced the most drama of the day, but the winners were not really the players but their charities. McIlroy and Johnson earned $1,850,000 for the American Nurses Foundation, while Fowler and Wolff came away with $1,150,000 for the CDC Foundation.
Throw in $1 million worth of bonuses and a drive to raise funds on line and via text and the event generated more than $5.5 million in charitable donations.
“It was nice to get back on the golf course and return to some kind of normalcy,” McIlroy said.
Rickie Fowler can hear the applause from a nonexistent audience, while his partner, Matthew Wolff, is pumped after Fowler’s putt.
The golf was surprisingly ragged, even with the forced time off, as the venerable Seminole Golf Club proved up to the challenge of thwarting the world’s best. A relatively short course by today’s standards — meaning numerous short-iron approach shots for the game’s elite — Seminole nonetheless held its own and gave a hint of its prestige.
Seminole had never before opened its doors to live television coverage. Next year, it is due to host the Walker Cup — the amateur version of the Ryder Cup.
Hard by the Atlantic Ocean, the club has taken on mystical qualities over the years. It is where Ben Hogan famously prepared each year for the Masters, where two Masters champions — Claude Harmon and Henry Picard — were longtime club professionals, and where a slew of corporate moguls and golf heavyweights pay dues.
Getting to see it was part of the appeal of the event.
Among the banter highlights was an exchange that happened early on when Wolff said to Johnson, “Hey DJ, is this a waste bunker?”
Pretty good quip from a guy who wasn’t even in high school when a controversial bunker at Whistling Straits might have cost Johnson a major championship. Was that really 10 years ago? Yep, in 2010, Johnson grounded his club on the 18th hole at the Wisconsin course, thinking he was in a waste bunker. The two-shot penalty cost him a spot in a playoff won by Martin Kaymer.
But more than anything, golfers competing and getting a chance to watch them was the star attraction.
“It’s a lot of fun to get out here, do something fun and do something for charity,” Johnson said during the NBC broadcast. “Feels good to get to on the golf course and have a little competition. I know we’re all looking forward to playing some golf.”
Johnson rather sheepishly admitted earlier in the week that he had not played a round of golf since the Players Championship until May 10. And at times, his game looked a bit ragged, as did parts of the proceedings.
In a perfect world, perhaps there would be some nit-picking, but in the one we are a part of now, this event should be celebrated more than analyzed.
Not only was it an opportunity to see live golf at an iconic course, but the charitable aspect was achieved through a unique skins competition that saw big-money rollovers whenever a best-ball score was tied on a particular hole.
After a slow start for all, Fowler helped build a lead for his team, making five birdies. While his partner, Wolff, didn’t contribute much and was shaky at times, he also showed his massive driving ability, pounding a few tee shots well beyond 350 yards and earning bonus money for those long drives.
The event also attempted to set a safe practices example going forward. Everyone involved took a COVID-19 test. Players were not allowed to arrive at the course more than an hour before their tee time. To better help with social distancing, their caddies were not present, with the players instead carrying their own bags.
Rory McIlroy lets his opponents know his career accomplishments after draining a putt at the TaylorMade Driving Relief event.
Nobody grabbed the flagstick — that duty was assigned to PGA Tour rules official Mark Russell, who dutifully performed that act throughout the round. Another person was on hand to rake bunkers so there could be no issues there.
Some of those aspects will change when the real thing is set to begin again next month in Texas at the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial. Caddies will be carrying bags, tending pins and raking bunkers. Testing will occur, but not every day. Social distancing practices will be in place. One thing that will be the same: no spectators.
Soon after, it will be onto the real thing, with hopes for limited numbers of fans being able to attend golf events later in the summer.
That is still to be determined, but for now, we saw golf take a small, necessary step forward.