Professional golf at the highest level returns next week with the restart of the PGA Tour season at the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. With so much time off – roughly three months since the Players Championship was cancelled after one round – because of the coronavirus pandemic, the world’s top golfers are certain to be eager to resume competing, pursue their livelihoods and feel some sense of normalcy. Eagerness and readiness aren’t interchangeable, however.
In anticipation of the restart, the question many observers have is a simple one: what kind of golf can we expect to see? Given most players have been practising at home in recent weeks, the usual aspects of the game – hitting bombs off the tee, striping irons into greens and scraping in nervy three-footers – should be readily embraced and, largely, executed to a familiar high standard.
The primary challenge that awaits, then is more mental than physical. Bobby Jones once said that “competitive golf is played mainly on a 5½-inch course: the space between your ears”, and that certainly hasn’t changed. What has changed is the environment in which that competition is conducted. In a post-COVID-19 world, where tournaments will be played with a new set of realities governing them that will take some getting used to, requiring a new way of thinking and an increased level of patience. Some guys will adjust faster than others.
“Basically, how guys prepare for competition isn’t going to change. These guys know how to get ready to play golf, and they know what to do when the gun goes off,” Dr Bob Rotella said. “Obviously, things going on in the world have affected their daily lives, and it has affected the rhythm of their season, their practice and so forth, but they can’t let that get in the way of their proven methods and mindset. Having said that, human nature dictates that everyone is different.”
“Inside the ropes, it’s going to change the least. Playing the game is still playing the game,” Dr Mo Pickens agreed. “But whatever the way things were at the last event we played, we aren’t going to see that coming back, maybe ever. A ‘normal’ week is going to be different. We will still have the travelling circus, but it is going to be a different circus.”
A memo sent to the players last week and obtained by Golf Digest outlined some of the differences players can expect at Colonial. Those include an initial coronavirus test upon arrival, another on Saturday, daily temperature checks and other safety measures such as grab-and-go meals. A 37-page document the tour released on May 12 outlined numerous precautions, including player interactions with caddies and equipment personnel.
There could still be other modifications, too, depending on the site. At least the first four events on the revamped schedule will be conducted without spectators in attendance.
“There are three kinds of people in the world, and we are going to see how those three groups handle things early on,” said swing instructor Sean Foley, who is equally attuned to the mental side of golf. “Some guys are going to struggle, because they can’t handle the changes and think everything is a pain in the ass. All they see are the negatives. They’re the ‘victims’, people who perceive themselves as the only ones who are suffering. Then there are the guys who need time to figure things out. They will adjust, but maybe need a week under their belts, maybe more.
“And then you’ll have this group of guys who are going to find the opportunity in this. Guys who are more like Brooksie [Brooks Koepka], who have the virtue of acceptance and say ‘whatever’ and realise that the paradigm has shifted and adjust to it. They accept the challenge and any potential adversity.”
For the players Pickens works with, the point he has expressed is to accept that tournament week is still evolving, and it’s likely going to continue to do so even after the restart. “So what I say to my players is to find a way to put yourself in a setting you might already know,” he said. “[The situation] could be like junior golf, where you show up, warm up, and go play and there is no one around to watch you. No frills. You might never go in the locker room. It might be like a British Open where you get five or six guys together renting a house, you get a chef, stay in all week, and maybe that isn’t a bad thing to do now. But the key is to be ready to change your mindset and be ready to have to make more plans for what you do in your day. The comforts of the tour and travel aren’t all going to be there.”
When it comes to sharpening their games, Pickens, based in Sea Island, Georgia, where a number of tour players live, has harped on several messages. He has emphasised to players taking an approach much like their offseason, breaking down statistics and concentrating on perhaps one discipline. He has outlined a program that includes 12 practice sessions over six days with a mandatory day off, and with variations to prevent staleness. He also has encouraged more walking as the restart nears. “It’s amazing how important that is, both for the fitness aspect and getting back into that competitive rhythm after regularly playing out of a cart,” he said.
Rotella goes back to believing that players largely know what they need to do to get ready. His emphasis is all about “pitfalls” in attitude.
“I’ve told guys, ‘Don’t try too hard.’ Others you have to tell them don’t get too caught up or lost in their golf swings,” Rotella said. “Others you just want them to concentrate on one aspect of their game that they are trying to improve upon as a way to not put pressure on their whole game. For the most part, I should think it’s their short games. And yet others, they might try to be too perfect because their expectations are pretty high based on so much time working on things. I can see some guys over-preparing or picking their games apart, and they have to fight that.
“Then it’s just a matter of remembering their routines and sticking to them regardless of whatever else is going on in the tournament.”
Or not going on, which, at least for the first month, will be the presence of spectators and their accompanying reaction to shots.
“The PGA Tour might not like to hear this, but while players have an awareness of fans and can feel the presence of fans, they are so good at getting lost into their own little worlds that they really don’t notice them that much as they play from shot to shot,” Rotella said. “Would they rather have a gallery watching them so they can show off and be cheered? Yeah. But when they play at home against their buddies, they are going at it and trying hard, and there are no fans. Same thing. I think the adjustment isn’t going to be that great. And by the way, it’s not like no one is paying attention. That TV camera is still there watching.”
“Some guys do feed off a gallery,” Pickens said. “I wonder if a guy like Phil Mickelson will enjoy it as much without fans. I can see where some players aren’t going to be enthused about just playing golf. Other guys don’t like the crowds and the fanfare and signing autographs, or interviews, and they will think it’s phenomenal to just play golf and be done.”
The main thing, insists Pickens, is for players to be open to change and enjoy the return to the thing they love to do. “You’ll want to be a little more self-aware than you were earlier,” he said. “You need to have a thankful attitude and an accepting attitude, but you have to have an intentional attitude to where you are doing what needs to be done.”
In other words, a change of outlook is crucial to success going forward. But so is a commitment to not changing the things that work.
Talk about mind games. And golf is hard enough already.
“I’m looking forward to the human experiment that is about to unfold in front of us with golf as the laboratory,” Foley said. “I keep seeing this reference of a return to normalcy, and let me tell you, we aren’t ever going back to what we view as normal ever again. You can either get stuck in that rut of wanting to go back to the way things were, or you can adapt and move forward. It’s going to be fascinating to watch who adapts and figures it all out.”