Column: Tales from the tour in a pandemic-shortened year

Justin Thomas and Viktor Hovland ended the first and last tournaments with birdies. Along the way, the PGA Tour staged 37 events that allowed 91 players to earn $1 million or more.

It only sounds like it was a normal year.

Far from it.

There was no golf for three months. There were no roars for the last nine months. No one was announced as the “Champion Golfer of the Year” for the first time since 1945.

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, golf stopped and golf returned and golf finished. And even with the shutdown, on quiet golf courses, there were still plenty of tales from the tour that went beyond birdies and bogeys and virus test results.

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Tim Smith of the San Diego Police Department has been part of the security detail for Tiger Woods for more than a decade at Torrey Pines. He has seen a lot, starting with seven victories at PGA Tour events and a U.S. Open title that required 91 holes.

Smith was walking along the gallery ropes on the par-3 eighth hole when a man blurted out, “Dollar that Tiger misses the green.” Smith stopped and said to him, “Make it $20.”

Woods hit 7-iron to the front part of the green, safely on the putting surface.

Smith collected the $20 bill, and then he took a few steps to the right and handed the money to a young boy in the crowd.

Smart move. Dumb bet.

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Plaques on the golf course are sometimes more about the player than the moment.

For all his victories, Dustin Johnson remembers two shots above the rest. One was his 6-iron to the 18th at Oakmont when he won the 2016 U.S. Open. The other was a sand wedge from the edge of a fairway bunker on the 18th hole in the Mexico Championship that secured victory in 2017 in his debut at No. 1 in the world.

Johnson was back at Chapultepec this year going over details of that shot. “I was standing out of the bunker, the ball was way below my feet and I’m hitting a three-quarter sand wedge, which you never really want out of a sand trap,” he said. “That was one of the better shots I’ve had on 18 winning a golf tournament.”

As he spoke in his news conference, images appeared on social media of a plaque unveiled near a bunker at Chapultepec. But it was on the ninth hole, not the 18th.

It was for Tiger Woods from the year before.

Woods hit a slice with a 9-iron around a tree with so much side spin that it zipped 10 feet by the hole. He two-putted for par in the second round and was six shots out of the lead. He finished the week 13 shots behind Johnson.

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Jordan Spieth lost too many tee shots and lost his ability to contend. He did not entirely lose his sense of humor.

Spieth was grinding as hard as ever on the range before the final round of the Mexico Championship. Some 15 feet behind him, two acquaintances were talking about golf. One of them had to cancel on a Saturday morning outing and asked the other how it went. Apparently, not very well. One said to the other: “It’s amazing. I haven’t played golf in 47 days and I go out there and expect everything to be just like it was.”

Spieth suddenly backed off his 7-iron and walked over to them.

“You know what’s weird? I’ve played golf 42 out of the last 47 days and I feel the same way,” he said.

And then he showed a slight smile and went back to work.

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Commissioner Jay Monahan was at Colonial for the PGA Tour’s return following the pandemic-caused shutdown. There were meetings, as usual, along with catching up with a few players. And then he did a virtual news conference. Questions ranged from how many positive tests would force another shutdown and what the tour had planned in response to social injustice campaigns.

One question stumped him: Have you seen any impressive shots?

“You know what, I’ve been so consumed in the conversations I’ve had that I haven’t had a chance to see a lot of shots, although Bubba’s bunker play looked particularly good to me this afternoon,” Monahan replied.

Bubba’s bunker play?

Monahan later said he was walking by the chipping green when he saw Bubba Watson hole a bunker shot. He figured that would be good enough for a question out of left field.

On Saturday, Watson came up short with a wedge and went into a bunker on the second hole. He then holed it for birdie. This was passed along to Monahan, who replied in a text: “Told you! So funny.”

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The silence of not having fans put Steve Sands of NBC in an awkward position during the hectic final moments at the BMW Championship.

Jon Rahm closed with a 64 at Olympia Fields and headed to the range to stay loose in case Dustin Johnson birdied the 18th hole to force a playoff. That looked unlikely with Johnson facing a 45-foot putt down the ridge. Sands also was on the range getting ready for the winner’s interview.

Johnson made the birdie putt. With no big roar, and because the range is on the other side of the clubhouse from the 18th green, Rahm had no way to know.

Sands knew and wasn’t sure what to do.

Finally, Rahm looked over at him to ask what happened.

“He made it,” Sands said.

“What?” Rahm replied.

“He made it,” Sands repeated.

It stood out as one example of how much the golf environment changed. It ended well for Rahm. He made a birdie putt from 65 feet moments later for the win.

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Dustin Johnson was slow to realize the joke was on him. But he never forgot.

Four years ago at Augusta National, during a Tuesday practice round with Phil Mickelson, the three-time Masters champion asked Johnson what plans he had that night. Johnson didn’t immediately understand why he was asking.

The Masters Club dinner for champions was that night. Mickelson would be there. Johnson would not.

Lefty shared the story with the media the next day and suggested it went over Johnson’s head. “Might have been too subtle,” Mickelson said.

The response this Nov. 15 was not.

Johnson, who set the 72-hole Masters record and won by five, said he sent a text to Mickelson before leaving Augusta National that day.

“I know what I’m doing on Tuesday night now,” Johnson said, finishing with an expletive and a big smile.

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Ryan Palmer hit the first tee shot when the PGA Tour returned on June 11 at Colonial, where Palmer is a member. He missed the cut that week but did well enough the rest of the year to make it to the Tour Championship for the first time in six years.

Only four players had a higher 72-hole score at East Lake than Palmer, who received a $466,000 bonus for finishing 23rd. Nothing was about to spoil his mood.

Before leaving, he went out to the ninth green as the leaders were coming through and sought out Commissioner Jay Monahan. Palmer gave him a fist-bump and a word of thanks. The PGA Tour managed to finish the season and start a new one. There was no stoppage. There was no reduction in prize money.

For so many years, the PGA Tour slogan was, “These guys are good.” Palmer was among those keenly aware that in this disruptive year, these guys had it good.

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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