Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 6, 2018

On The PGA Tour, Sundays Never Stopped Being Great

Labor Day may represent the end of summer on the calendars of many sports fans, but New England golf aficionados who spent last weekend roaming TPC Boston as the last Dell Technologies Championship played out can confirm that there was not the slightest hint of fall in the air. To the contrary, as the top 100 PGA Tour professionals in the season-long FedEx Cup standings walked the fairways of the sprawling layout over one final Labor Day weekend, conditions felt very much like the dog days of summer. Sunday was hot but bearable thanks to a welcome breeze and tolerable humidity, but Monday was a stultifying steam bath. The thermometer rose to the mid-90s, the previous day’s zephyrs were nowhere to be found, and the air felt like soup as the humidity skyrocketed.

Still fans came in huge numbers to the course in the little Bristol County town of Norton, some forty-five minutes south of the region’s largest city from which the club gets its name. Originally the Deutsche Bank Championship from its first staging in 2003 through 2016, the tournament’s name changed when local high-tech company EMC Corporation replaced the German bank as the title sponsor just before being acquired by Dell. That corporate merger, normally a story for a newspaper’s business pages, gained relevance for the sports section when the PGA Tour decided to reduce the FedEx Cup playoffs from four tournaments to three. Dell also sponsors the World Golf Championships’ match play event, which is played near the company’s corporate headquarters in Austin Texas. Given that local connection and the limits of corporate largess, it was no surprise that New England’s Dell was the playoff event jettisoned when the Tour’s 2019 schedule was announced. Starting next year TPC Boston will be the every other year host of the first playoff event in mid-August, alternating with Liberty National Golf Club in New Jersey.

Perhaps knowledge that it will be two years before the PGA Tour returns to the area inspired some fans to turn out. But it’s far more likely that the root cause for the spike in ticket sales, with 140,000 fans passing through the gates over the event’s four rounds, was the presence in the field of Tiger Woods. The world’s most famous golfer, and in his prime the best of his generation, had not played at TPC Boston since 2013. His return to the Dell, in the midst of a far better than expected comeback from a series of back surgeries, made a Labor Day weekend trip to Norton a high priority for many casual fans who would otherwise have been busy with family cookouts.

Woods opened with an indifferent 1-over par round of 72, but improved on Friday, when he shot a 5-under 66. Only three golfers posted a better number in the second round, raising hopes that Woods might continue to move up the leader board over the tournament’s final two days. At the midpoint he was tied for 21st, seven shots behind Webb Simpson, the 36-hole leader.

That position meant that Woods, paired for Sunday’s third round with 24-year-old Bryson DeChambeau, teed off two hours before the final group. But fans interested in walking the course didn’t wait around for the leaders to start. They were lining the first fairway when Woods and DeChambeau were announced, and so began the march of the faithful, a sight that was routine on Tour a decade and more ago.

TPC Boston is extremely spread out, with several long walks between one green and the succeeding tee. One is sufficiently lengthy that players and their caddies are taken in carts, an extremely rare event on the PGA Tour. That makes keeping up with a single group more difficult than usual, but thousands did their best. One can only imagine what the human procession snaking its way along the paved cart paths must have looked like from overhead. Fans who did so may not have seen much for their trouble, as by the time those from the middle of the line on back arrived at a tee or green, the crowd was five and six deep. What they hopefully caught a glimpse of was a round in which Woods started strong, with three birdies in the first seven holes, but then moved into neutral. Three times on the back nine he hit approach shots inside twelve feet but failed to convert a single birdie. His 3-under par 68 moved him to 7-under for the tournament, but it got him just a single shot closer to the lead than he had been at the start of the day.

That lead was now held by the virtually unknown Abraham Ancer, a 27-year-old from Reynosa, Mexico, who has bounced back and forth between the PGA Tour and its developmental Tour since turning pro in 2013. Just one stroke back was DeChambeau, who fired a sparkling 63 while playing in the shadow of Woods on Sunday.

Woods’s final round tee time was ninety minutes ahead of the leaders, and once again the human parade was out in his wake. It included a Woods lookalike, dressed in the requisite final round red shirt, who posed for pictures with fans and showed up on NBC’s broadcast. There was a group of guys wearing identical orange tee shirts with a photograph of a real tiger on the front, and there were several fans wearing shirts purchased from the Barstool Sports website.

For those not familiar with Barstool, it began as a print publication in the Boston area in 2003, moved to the internet in 2007, and is now headquartered in New York after being purchased by the Chernin Group two years ago. While the website features interesting and entertaining podcasts and blog posts on a wide variety of sports topics, it has also been known to veer into misogyny. At its online store for just $25 plus shipping and handling one can purchase, in a variety of colors, a tee shirt featuring an outline of a golfer who is obviously an exultant Woods, a putter raised in one hand while the other is in the midst of a fist pump. Above the familiar image are the words “Make Sundays Great Again.”

The thousands counting on Woods to make this day great, even if it wasn’t a Sunday, went home with their desire denied. As he did one day earlier, Woods eventually got to 3-under for his round, this time after eleven holes. But he bogeyed the 14th, and when his tee shot at the par-3 16th hole landed in the pond to the left of the green, he had stumbled all the way back to even for the day, which is how he finished, nine shots off the winning score.

Well after the thousands whose sole purpose was to see Woods had left the grounds, DeChambeau finished off another fine circuit of the course and a 2-shot victory. He went out in 32 with five birdies offset by just a single bogey to pass Ancer and move into the lead. Australian Cam Smith and England’s Justin Rose did their best to give chase, and when Smith rolled in a birdie on the 16th the lead was briefly down to one. But moments later DeChambeau scored a matching birdie on the 15th, and when Smith’s second at the par-5 finishing hole landed in the hazard fronting the green, DeChambeau’s victory was secured. It was his third of the year and second in as many weeks. His unique set of clubs, in which all the irons are the same length, and his idiosyncratic, stiff-armed, upright swing, are reminders that in golf there is no single path to success.

It is a lesson seemingly lost on the members of the Woods caravan. He will certainly win again, and that will be a great day for both Woods and the Tour. Perhaps it will come as soon as this week, for he had a fine start Thursday at the third playoff event. But imagining a return to the days when he dominated the PGA Tour is fantasy. The Tour is deep with extraordinary talent, young players who grew up watching and inspired by Woods. As DeChambeau showed when paired with him, unlike their peers of a decade or more ago, they are utterly unintimidated by the 42-year-old Tiger. The irony is that what those wearing pricy tee shirts pining for a halcyon age missed on Labor Day was some great golf.

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