(CBS DFW/CBS Local) — The sports world welcomes back golf, and just in time. The PGA Tour returns to action tomorrow with the Charles Schwab Challenge, three months after suspending the Players Championship and the season in light of the coronavirus. Fans, who were on hand for the first and only round of the 2020 Players, will not be in attendance at Colonial Country Club.
But most of the PGA Tour’s best players will be teeing off for what promises to be a unique and, at times, surreal viewing experience. (That is, if spectator-free NASCAR or German soccer are any indication.) Sports-starved sports fans will have to follow all the action on television or online. If The Match: Champions for Charity last month is any indication, they’ll be anxious to tune in. “It’s going to be a very different atmosphere,” says CBS Sports lead golf analyst and six-time major champion Nick Faldo.
The field at Colonial, expanded from 120 to 148, feels like that of a major, with players looking for a quick return to form. It will include all of the world’s top-five players and 16 of the top 20. Many of the big names will play together Thursday and Friday as well, with super groups like Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka (ranked #1, 2 and 3 in the world respectively) and Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Justin Rose (ranked #5, 13 and 14 respectively).
Tiger Woods won’t be among them, however. The Big Cat, who struggled with his health and his swing early this year, looked good paired up with Peyton Manning against Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady. But he will likely keep to a scaled-back schedule, especially with all the big events packed into the second half of the year. Charles Schwab didn’t make the list.
Woods’ absence aside, the field is the strongest Colonial has ever welcomed. And that strength extends well beyond the top 20, with Rickie Fowler (#27), Jordan Spieth (#56) and Phil Mickelson (#61) all looking for a quick restart to the season. Kevin Na (#30), last year’s winner, will be looking to defend against a noticeably stronger field. Justin Rose (#14), who in 2018 won the Fort Worth Invitational, as it was then known, also returns.
Colonial is a classic course that plays much as it did when Ben Hogan was winning tournaments on it. It plays as a par-70, extending just over 7,000 yards. Filled with tree-lined fairways, every hole is distinct. The best known and most feared among them are holes three, four and five, commonly known as the Horrible Horseshoe. This three-hole stretch ranks among the PGA Tour’s hardest. The fifth, a 481-yard, par-4 with a narrow approach, is particularly challenging. Shot-makers do well here, and, of course, the Charles Schwab field is filled with shot-makers this year.
Heat may be another factor. Daytime temperatures in Fort Worth are predicted to inch toward 100 degrees as the tournament progresses. Those sorts of conditions favor players who have dealt with them. “I’m picking the Texas boys, because it is brutally hot here, says Faldo. “They’ve been here practicing… they’ve been out here a lot, getting acclimated to everything.”
Rust may very well be another factor. Dustin Johnson looked a little rusty in his charity event with Fowler, McIlroy and Matthew Wolff back in early May. McIlroy and Fowler seemed to be in better form. But only so much stock can be placed in an exhibition match. “They’ve never had a break without competing, since they were teenagers, where they would’ve had three straight months at home,” says CBS Sports golf anchor Jim Nantz.
Picking favorites is tough given this unprecedented set of circumstances. The PGA Tour, or any sports league, has never returned to action in a pandemic after a three-month mid-season break. Still, certain players top the rankings for a reason, and early 2020 tournaments and previous editions of this tournament could offer some clues. Let’s look at the favorites:
>>STREAM: Charles Schwab Challenge
Rory McIlroy (15-2):
McIlroy has never played at Colonial, but he is still the best player in the world. And of his 18 career wins, eight came on courses where he had not previously competed. He placed in the top five in each of his four tournaments in 2020.
Jon Rahm (12-1)
Rahm finished in the top 10 in each of five tournaments this year. He’s also found success at Colonial. While he missed the cut last year, Rahm tied for fifth at the Fort Worth Invitational the year before and tied for second at the Dean & DeLuca Invitational in 2017.
Justin Thomas (16-1)
Thomas was somewhat inconsistent to start the year, alternating top-10 finishes and missed cuts. His best showing came at the Sentry Tournament of Champions back in January. Like McIlroy, Thomas has never competed at Colonial.