Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 12, 2020

A Good Day To Be Young(er)

The headline on the Golf Channel’s website was technically accurate. “Thomas leads younger stars at Workday Open,” it read, above a story about the world’s fifth-ranked golfer sitting atop the leader board after the third round of this week’s PGA Tour event, two shots clear of 22-year-old Viktor Hovland and three ahead of 23-year-old Collin Morikawa. Still, the words could easily mislead. Someone who doesn’t follow golf closely might have thought they were about to read a tale of generational conflict on the fairways of Muirfield Village Golf Club in the Columbus suburb of Dublin, Ohio, when the reality of Sunday’s final threesome was anything but. While the two pursuers at the start of the day are both barely more than a year removed from playing as amateurs for their college golf teams, Thomas, with his dozen Tour wins including the 2017 PGA Championship, only turned 27 in late April. Odds are he still has fairly clear memories of lugging his own bag at the University of Alabama.

But if the final round of the Workday wasn’t about a changing of the guard, it still didn’t lack for drama, which is not bad for a tournament that didn’t even exist a month ago. Once upon a pre-pandemic calendar, the Tour planned to stop this week in the Quad Cities area along the border between Illinois and Iowa, for the John Deere Classic. Then in late May the machinery and heavy equipment company which sponsors the event decided that without the possibility of fans in attendance, the tournament wasn’t viable. That sent the Tour scrambling to fill one more hole in a schedule already greatly rearranged by COVID-19. On June 15th came word of back-to-back weeks at Muirfield Village, with a full-field tournament sponsored by the business software vendor Workday preceding the Tour’s usual stop in eastern Ohio for the Memorial.

At the time an important part of that plan was to use this week as a test run for setting up the course in anticipation of next week’s Memorial Tournament being the first event to admit fans since the Tour resumed play. But even as that schedule was announced and protocols for admitting perhaps one-fifth of the usual number of paying spectators were being reviewed and approved by local and state officials, the coronavirus was gathering strength in many states that rushed to reopen. Now there will not only be no spectators on the grounds next week, the PGA Tour is expected to announce within a day or two that the rest of the current season’s schedule, through the Tour Championship on Labor Day weekend, will be played without fans in attendance.

Had spectators been present this Sunday, the air would surely have been filled with both wild cheers for brilliant play and collective groans for shots gone awry. Thomas quickly gave away his overnight advantage, recording bogeys on two of the first three holes, while Morikawa and Hovland each netted one birdie. Then Morikawa seized the advantage with a pair of brilliant shots on the 4th and 5th holes. At the 201-yard par-3 4th, his tee shot flew straight for the hole, landing ten feet short before bouncing once and rolling up to the cup, where it pinged off the flagstick. Deprived of the ace, Morikawa had a tap-in for birdie. Then from 232 yards on the par-5 5th hole, his second shot soared high into the air, landed three feet from the hole and stopped dead like it had come off the face of a wedge rather than a 5-wood. The short putt gave him an eagle and a share of the lead with Hovland, with Thomas suddenly three strokes behind.

Hovland’s time at the top proved short-lived, with costly bogeys at the 6th, 10th and 14th holes ending his hopes for a second PGA Tour win. And for a time, it looked like Morikawa would also be left with thoughts of what might have been. That’s because after his shaky start Thomas lit up the course through the middle of the round, making four birdies in a row around the turn, then adding another birdie on the 14th and an eagle-3 on the par-5 15th hole. That gave him a three-shot lead, completely reversing the standings from two hours earlier. With just three holes to play, one could excuse any fans who picked that moment to start channel surfing.

But by doing so they missed Thomas drop one shot with a bogey on the 16th and Morikawa make up another with a birdie on the penultimate hole. The remaining difference slipped away on the 18th green when Thomas’s 10-foot par putt broke right and slid below the hole. That left the two tied at 19-under par for the tournament and sent them both back to the 18th tee for a sudden death playoff.

Neither player distinguished himself from tee to green on that first extra hole, with Thomas’s approach shot winding up 50 feet past the hole and Morikawa facing a 24-foot breaker. So naturally Thomas’s effort from another zip code fell into the heart of the cup for a birdie, and then Morikawa’s try slipped into the left edge of the hole to prolong the match. They played the 18th yet again, both making par, before moving over to the 10th hole, where the Workday finally came to an end.

Thomas’s tee shot faded into the right rough and came to rest directly behind a small tree, leaving him no choice but to chip out to the fairway. When Morikawa’s drive split the fairway, the die was cast. Thanks to the errant tee ball, the tournament’s ending was anticlimactic, belying the hours of drama that preceded the final ten minutes. Perhaps in the end the logical inference of the Golf Channel’s headline was correct. As Collin Morikawa accepted the congratulations of the handful of tournament officials around the green, maybe Justin Thomas was feeling just a little bit old.

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