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First on the Tee

First On The Tee: At Long Last, Bring On The Season’s First Major

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Justin Thomas came from behind for Win No. 13 on Sunday in Memphis. (GETTY)

We’ve waited a while, haven’t we?

Since Ireland’s Shane Lowry holed out on the 72nd at Royal Portrush last July, there have been 40-some-odd weeks of professional golf competition, factoring in the COVID-19 shutdown, but no men’s major championship action.

That wait is over this week, with the world’s best reporting to greater San Francisco for the 2020 PGA Championship.

In a roundabout way, though, we’re still following the script. Recall that last year, the PGA was bumped to May, putting it a month ahead of the U.S. Open on the once ironclad men’s major calendar.

Well, if that switcheroo threw you for a loop last year, you’ve surely put that sensation into perspective in this strangest of years. I’m just glad they’re playing a major at all, let alone the three on the men’s schedule for the balance of the year.

And, yes, it’s a shame that fans won’t be allowed on the premises at TPC Harding Park, but after eight weeks of watching PGA Tour play (and one week of LPGA and Champions Tour) sans spectators, that’s not going to feel that strange.

Speaking of which, has it really been nearly two months since pro golf returned to our televisions and mobile devices? As Zac Weiss and I discussed on last week’s PGN Par 4 video, there are certainly some positives to celebrate regarding the Tour’s handling of COVID-19, but the past few tournaments have started to blend together after the novelty wore off.

Even the WGC FedEx-St. Jude over the weekend in Memphis didn’t provide much of a spark, but I think the nondescript, generic parkland layout at TPC Southwind was the culprit there, as the leaderboard was full of big names, with the notable exception of one Tiger Woods.

The 15-time major winner has been mostly idle since mid-March, at least publicly. We saw him stripe it in May at his home club in The Match with Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, then Tiger predictably showed his face at Jack’s place for the Memorial three weeks ago.

It’s worth noting that only tournament since the restart that exceeded ratings expectations was the Memorial. Tiger still turns people out, so I expect we’ll see healthy numbers and social-media buzz for the PGA, where Eldrick has already been on site grinding.

But that brings me back to another topic Zac and I addressed: Did pro golf make any headways against its sidelined competition over the past several weeks? From my perspective, maybe a little, but the lack of a major championship over that span mitigated any casual-fan impact.

Look, I get it. Golf’s governing bodies didn’t want to commit to playing a major too soon, lest they start the myriad preparations and then need to back off due to a surge in COVID cases in a certain region.

That doesn’t take away the fact that, to really push into the sporting world’s consciousness, a major title needs to be on the line. Sure, there was curiosity and a commensurate small ratings boost when the Tour returned in mid-June, but nothing that would indicate the sport’s rising out of its niche status due to the (temporary) limited competition.

Maybe that’s OK. Maybe golf’s audience will always be naturally limited by its deliberate pace and genteel comportment, and those of us who love it will just have to be content with that.

I still wonder, though, if we could’ve squeezed in a PGA Championship or, better yet, a U.S. Open in the now-concluded dead period in televised major sports.

With hockey, basketball, soccer and baseball all back in the swing of things, that window of opportunity is now closed. Back to business as usual.

On the other hand, as mentioned above, business as usual is pretty good on a major week.

DOWN THE FAIRWAY

• On the topic of championships, we’ve got a couple of biggies on the line locally this week.

The action starts at Shannopin Country Club in Ben Avon Heights, where the 36-hole Western Pennsylvania Golf Association Open Championship begins Tuesday morning. Former Oklahoma University golfer Beau Titsworth is the defending champion after claiming the ’19 title at Valley Brook Country Club in McMurray.

PGN will have live coverage of the WPGA Open, which will conclude Wednesday.

• Also, the Tri-State PGA’s Isaly’s Junior Tour comes to a dramatic conclusion at the Pittsburgh Field Club in Fox Chapel on Wednesday. That’s when the top players from the two-month circuit will vie for the Player of the Year Championship in five different flights.

I’ll also be on site for that one. Sounds like a busy week.

• Actually, add on another live coverage event for our team! Zac Weiss is traveling to northwest Ohio for a couple of days to report on the LPGA’s Marathon Classic. This is the tour’s second event since returning, after Danielle Kang won Sunday at storied Inverness Club in Toledo.

Look for stories from him on both the golf and the atmosphere at another ‘golf in a bubble’ tournament. Many thanks to Zac for getting his boots on the ground for us.

• Back to the PGA Tour, where Justin Thomas became the third-youngest player in history — behind Tiger and Jack and slightly ahead of Rory and Phil — to reach 13 victories for his career. He’s your new World No. 1.

Must be those pink pants. I recall a terrific U.S. Open round he shot wearing those three years ago.

His two-stroke win in Memphis against a terrific field represented a redemption after Thomas blew a late three-shot lead to Collin Morikawa last month at the Workday Charity Open. J.T. was four behind 54-hole leader Brendon Todd (born in Pittsburgh) entering Sunday, but shot 5-under 65 to outlast a galaxy of stars near the top.

Brooks Koepka, naturally lurking with a major on the doorstep, briefly held the solo lead on the back nine, but he played the final three holes in 2 over to tie Mickelson and Daniel Berger for second. Also in the mix were Jason Day (T-6), Dustin Johnson (T-8) and Rickie Fowler (T-15), the last of whom was in the lead after birdieing two of his first three holes.

• Oh, and how about Jim Furyk? The PGA Tour’s current season leader in fairway accuracy and greens-in-regulation just won his debut on the Champions Tour, at the Ally Challenge in Flint, Michigan. Believe it or not, he’s the 19th player to pull off the feat.

Good week for 50-year-olds, as Mickelson’s T-2 finish at Memphis is the best ever for a semicentarian (I just made up that word) in the 20-plus-year history of WGC events.

• Thanks again for visiting PGN! We’ve been rolling for eight weeks so far and they’ve flown past our driver’s-side window.

Again, let me know (matt.gajtka@gmail.com) if you would like to advertise your business on our site, if you have a hole-in-one story to tell or if you have suggestion for a Course Review or Game Improvement feature!

A 15-year veteran of sports media, Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) is the founding editor of PGN. Matt is a lifelong golfer with a passion for all aspects of the sport, from technique to courses to competition. His experience ranges from reporting on Pittsburgh's major-league beats, to broadcasting a variety of sports, to public relations, multimedia production and social media.

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