Welcome back. It’s been a while.
Nearly three months have passed since Hideki Matsuyama’s opening 63 was scrubbed from the record books at The Players and the world’s best golfers headed for the exits in Ponte Vedra Beach. It’s a significant understatement to suggest that much has happened since.
But with the PGA Tour schedule drastically reshaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s time to get back to work this week at the Charles Schwab Challenge. A stacked field will participate in the Tour’s return to official competition, with the top five players in the world joining a host of former champions and star-studded contenders.
Before the first socially-distanced swing Thursday morning, it’s important to remember exactly where the professional game stood when the game’s best last gathered. After all, some big names were riding high en route to TPC Sawgrass, while others were notably still searching.
Since so much time has passed (and let’s be honest, you may have forgotten some of the salient details), let’s take a moment to reset the landscape ahead of this week’s much-anticipated return at Colonial.
Who (was) hot
Rory McIlroy: The world No. 1 reached that lofty perch for a reason. McIlroy entered his unexpected hiatus on a run of seven straight top-5 finishes, one that dated back to October and included his victory at the WGC-HSBC Champions in China. McIlroy ranks sixth or better this season in four different strokes-gained categories and was off to a scintillating start to the new year.
Jon Rahm: Rahm had moved to within arm’s reach of McIlroy in the world rankings, a strong testament to his ability given the results McIlroy was compiling. But Rahm has basically been a top-10 fixture since the U.S. Open nearly a year ago, with more worldwide wins (3) than finishes outside the top 13 (2). The Spaniard had four top-10 finishes in five starts this year, including a T-3 result in Mexico in his most recent start before the pandemic struck.
Webb Simpson: Simpson may have been playing his best golf since lifting the U.S. Open trophy eight years ago. A playoff victory in Phoenix highlighted a run of five straight top-10 finishes that also included a playoff loss at the RSM Classic. Simpson has found a way to overcome his lack of length off the tee with some stellar iron play and putting, moving all the way up to sixth in total strokes gained when the Tour hit the pause button in March.
Who (was) not
Brooks Koepka: Koepka was slowed by injuries last fall, then even slower out of the gates once the calendar flipped to 2020. An offseason surgery to fix a balky knee was followed by an abrupt withdrawal from the CJ Cup in October, and Koepka hasn’t cracked the top 10 since last year’s Tour Championship when he was unable to keep pace with McIlroy at East Lake. Koepka might face a bit more of an uphill battle than some of his top-ranked counterparts, given that his sluggish start left him an eye-popping 213th in the FedExCup standings in March. That’s right behind the likes of Satoshi Kodaira, Morgan Hoffman and John Merrick, and it means that the former world No. 1 has his work cut out for him simply to move into playoff contention in this truncated season.
Jordan Spieth: For some big names, the hiatus may have provided a welcome chance to hit the reset button after a spring spent searching. Count Spieth among that group, as the three-time major champ found glimmers of hope but struggled to string two straight rounds together, let alone four. Nearly three years removed from his most recent win, he fell all the way to 56th when the world rankings froze in March and currently ranks an abysmal 161st on Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green. A T-9 finish at Pebble Beach was the only time in five starts that he cracked the top 50.
Phil Mickelson: Another major winner facing more questions than answers was Mickelson, who finished third in both Saudi Arabia and Pebble Beach. But those jolts of optimism were sandwiched between a quartet of missed cuts in his other 2020 starts, as Mickelson made early exits at both Riviera and Bay Hill in his two most recent starts and failed to qualify for the WGC-Mexico Championship two years after winning the event. Mickelson turns 50 in a week and still speaks optimistically about his swing and the “bombs” it produces, but the results have been sporadic at best for months.
Who (was) surprising
Sungjae Im: There were several players who were outperforming expectations prior to COVID-19 entering the lexicon, and they include Im who went from Rookie of the Year to FedExCup leader in a matter of months. His breakthrough victory at the Honda Classic served as a high point, but he promptly followed it with a third-place showing at Bay Hill in his most recent start. Im is one of the Tour’s most consistent tee-to-green players, and he has quickly moved from relative anonymity to a spot inside the top 25 in the world rankings and the deserving tag of one of the circuit’s rising stars.
Scottie Scheffler: Scheffler’s quiet rise through the world rankings netted him his first Masters berth later this year, yet another accolade for a player who in February became the only Tour rookie to qualify for the WGC-Mexico Championship. Scheffler has been rock-solid this year, racking up 10 top-30 finishes in 13 starts including a third-place showing in Palm Springs when he began the final round with the lead. Scheffler is eighth on Tour this season off the tee and stayed sharp during his hiatus, winning a charity event in Dallas. He seems likely to shed whatever lingering rust might remain in short order.
Max Homa: Homa broke through for his maiden victory at last year’s Wells Fargo Championship, but he was in the midst of an underrated run of spring finishes as he neared his first Masters appearance. Homa racked up three top-10 finishes on the West Coast, including a T-5 finish at Riviera, and he finished T-24 or better in each of his final five starts before The Players. Homa had gone from 100th to 37th in strokes gained putting in the span of a few months, and should he retain his touch on and around the greens he’ll likely be a regular fixture on Tour leaderboards in the coming weeks as he seeks win No. 2.