Questions abound for '21 after Covid-19 hits major golf

Augusta (United States) (AFP) –


Dustin Johnson's victory at the 84th Masters completed a major golf year disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic that produced historic winners, but also posed major questions for 2021.

Golf leaders were forced to cancel the 2020 Open Championship and other majors were rescheduled, the shuffled lineup capped by an autumn Masters five months before its 2021 edition is planned in its usual April spot.

"What was really heartening about the whole thing is that the organizations really worked together in the best interests of the sport," Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said. "I think we came up with a pretty good result."

The PGA was shifted from May to August and the US Open moved from June to September, both staying on scheduled courses.

The Open Championship was planned for Royal St. George's in July but called off in April. It's set to be played there next year, with the PGA set for Kiawah Island in May and the US Open at Torrey Pines in June, presumably after a Masters in April.

While Ridley plans for the 2021 Masters despite "a health crisis unlike the world has faced in our lifetimes," no one knows what's coming before April, from vaccine hopes to tighter lockdown laws.

The United States is bracing for a grim winter amid skyrocketing coronavirus cases, with one million new infections in less than a week taking the total number past 11 million, with more than 246,000 fatalities.

"I'm hopeful we'll see improved conditioned regarding this virus, but April is less than five months away, so there's certainly no assurance of that," Ridley said.

"We'll have to give it some lead time for April, so we're just going to make the decision based on the best information possible. But we do have hopes the tournament in April will be closer to normal than it is right now."

Spectators were banned from majors, leaving an awkward silence to replace the cheers of fans, but 2,000 people a day were allowed at a Masters tuneup in Houston, a first US step to awakening the roars despite the virus.

"I'm encouraged by what took place last week in Houston," Ridley said. "We'll be interested to see kind of how that went."

The US PGA Tour shut down in March for three months, returning in June without fans and finding safety protocols that have allowed events to continue.

"This year is unlike anything we've ever experienced," 15-time major winner Tiger Woods said. "We're lucky to have the opportunity to have our sport continue to go."

Golf participation is growing, people seeking an outdoor activity easily allowing for face masks and social distancing.

"Our sport is actually growing right now," Woods said. "Circumstances that have allowed our game to grow and flourish."

First-time major wins were produced by Americans Collin Morikawa, making only his second major start, at the PGA Championship at Harding Park and Bryson DeChambeau at the US Open at Winged Foot.

The US Golf Association was forced to scrap its normal qualifying events and create a select field for the US Open, staged in suburban New York in one of the first major US Covid-19 outbreak areas.

- 'At a crossroads' -

DeChambeau unleashed an impressive display of his power-driving game on the way to a six-stroke victory, imposing his will upon Winged Foot by bashing balls for distance and location without regard to the usual punititve US Open rough.

The notorious experimenter had bulked up his body and scientifically analyzed his clubs to produce a week so good that many feared his style would shatter the sport and render many courses obsolete.

While he failed to conquer Augusta National as many feared, the USGA and R&A study on distance due in April is being eyed intently by Ridley, who says, "we are at a crossroads as relates to this issue."

"We're coming closer to a call to action," he said. "As it relates to our golf course, we have options, and we will take the necessary action to make sure we stay relevant."

Top-ranked Johnson was pleased the Masters took place, setting a 72-hole Augusta National record 20-under par 268 to win his second major and a coveted green jacket. The PGA Player of the Year also won the Tour Championship in September.

"I know 2020 has been a really strange year," he said. "But it has been good to me."