KAPALUA, Hawaii – Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele were discussing the quality of a certain golf shot, not belonging to either one of them, when the conversation turned into the self-deprecating variety.
“If you want to know how to hook a 3-wood into the garbage, I can help with that,” Thomas said.
“If you need to know how to three-putt,” Schauffele countered, pointing toward the 18th green at Kapalua.
Thomas hit such a shot last year in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and it nearly cost him. He made bogey on the last hole, which appeared to open the door for Schauffele until his three-putt par led to a three-man playoff that Thomas won.
But that was last year.
It's time to look ahead, and considering how 2020 unfolded, the hope is it can only get better. Here are five topics to consider before Hudson Swafford hits the first shot of the new year:
Rickie Fowler was asked the last time he heard someone cheer for him. Not a few claps from volunteers or staff members at a golf course, but a real, throaty cheer. He thought back to Thursday at The Players Championship, the day before COVID-19 shut down golf.
“It was a bad round, but I have to think there was maybe a good shot in there,” he said.
Golf hasn't been the same without them. Schauffele was asked when he thought they might return and he said, “Hopefully, as soon as possible.”
There will be a small gathering of people seated around the 18th green at Kapalua, but they can't go anywhere else. No fans in Honolulu or in California (the Genesis Invitational hasn't announced a plan, but considering the circumstances in Los Angeles, no fans can be expected). The Phoenix Open is planning for 8,000, a fraction of its normal crowd.
The next decision falls to Florida, about two months away, which is starting to feel as though it's right around the corner. The big question is Augusta National. And no one is more concerned than Ryder Cup officials.
THE RYDER CUP
No other golf tournament relies so much on noise than the Ryder Cup, which is why it was postponed from last September. This time, it might not have a choice but to play with or without fans.
But who plays?
The top six going into 2021 are Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Collin Morikawa and Schauffele. U.S. captain Steve Stricker gets six picks this time, and he's still eight months and four majors away from getting a sense of who will be there and who should be there.
Tiger Woods is at No. 17 and is not playing very often. Is he worth another pick? Phil Mickelson has played in every Ryder Cup since 1995 — Morikawa wasn't even born then. He turns 51 in June and is approaching the two-year anniversary of his last win. Since the last Ryder Cup, Lefty has finished a combined 84 shots behind in the five majors he made the cut.
American golf is deep. And young.
THE BATTLE FOR NO. 1
By counting the FedEx Cup and not the raw score at the Tour Championship, Johnson won or was runner-up in six of his last seven tournaments. The exception was a tie for sixth at the U.S. Open.
That's why he's not only No. 1 in the world, but has the largest gap over No. 2 since Rory McIlroy at the start of 2015.
McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas all have had moments of brilliance. Sustaining it over the course of the year has been the hard part. No one since Woods in 2009 has stayed at No. 1 an entire year.
Jon Rahm and Thomas are behind Johnson, and both are capable of big years. Bryson DeChambeau is swinging faster and faster and promising to reach new frontiers.
March looms as a significant mile marker for deciding the fate of the Olympics. Regardless of who represents which country, it could be a huge setback for golf if it wants to build momentum from its successful return to the Olympics in 2016. It needs the gold medal to really mean something.
It does to Justin Rose. He won in Rio de Janeiro, but the one-year delay didn't help his chances of returning. Rose went into last year at No. 8 in the world, the highest-ranked player for Team GB. Now he is No. 35, the fifth-ranked British player, and countries only get more than two players — a maximum of four — if they are among the top 15.
The battle to wear the Stars & Stripes figures to be fierce as ever, especially with 11 Americans among the top 15. That starts with Johnson, who had no intention of playing at the start of last year because he didn't want to be worn out heading into the FedEx Cup postseason.
As for Woods? He started last year at No. 8, fourth among Americans. Now he's at No. 41. His Olympic flame is flickering.
A year ago, breaking the PGA Tour record with victory No. 83 seemed more like “when” than “if.” Now it's probably somewhere in between, and only because he's Tiger Woods.
The pandemic was disruptive, as was his health in March (Woods didn't play for a month before golf shut down). After he started the year by breaking par all four rounds and tying for ninth at Torrey Pines, Woods never contended. In the next seven tournaments where he made the cut, Woods finished on average more than 18 shots behind the winner.
The record is still one victory away. And he's still Tiger Woods. But it's not getting any easier. Only three players older than Woods (45) have won a major — Jack Nicklaus, Old Tom Morris and Julius Boros.