Is Golf the Ideal Sport for the Pandemic?

An overview of the first golf major championship since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Mandy Li

Could a slow-paced, four-hour game held over four days be exciting? Could it be more exciting than previous years with no spectators? The PGA Championship this year showed that it could. This year’s first golf major did not disappoint; with its natural tendency to be socially distant, it wasn’t far removed from its original game of play.

Though it is normally the third golf major of the year, the PGA championship was the first this year—after the others were rescheduled due to the pandemic. As this major golf championship was held without spectators, the players dealt with an eerie silence while golf fans tuned in virtually. All eyes were on last year’s defending champion, Brooks Koepka, who was aiming for his third PGA title in a row, a feat that would prove he deserves to be a true PGA champion, with or without spectators.

However, Koepka’s pursuit of a three-peat was not in the cards. It was Collin Morikawa, a 23-year-old newly minted pro as of 2019, who came out on top, clenching his first major and becoming the third youngest winner of the event, older than only Jack Nicklaus in 1963 and Rory McIlroy in 2012. The victory did not come easy, however. After the first day, viewers saw veterans Jason Day and Brendon Todd tied for first place at five under par. China’s Li Haotong, a relative unknown in the PGA leaderboard, shot a clean round with no bogeys (one more than par, where par is the predetermined number of strokes that a professional is expected to take to finish a particular hole), propelling him to first place. His luck fell short during the third round, though, as he finished the 13th hole with his ball in the trees and a double bogey (two more than par). In the highly competitive final two rounds, former U.S. open champion Dustin Johnson seemed likely to take his second major victory. Even with 16 other players within four shots of him, only a shot for the record books would have catapulted one of these hopefuls into the lead. That moneyball shot came from Morikawa.

At the par 4 16th hole, in a last minute decision, Morikawa decided to go for it, using his driver for his approach. Usually in a par 4 situation, golfers hit their driver, then hit their second shot into the green with an iron, and then typically make two putts for a total of four shots for the hole. With only three holes left in the tournament, Morikawa took a risk and attempted to hit his drive all the way to the green, an extremely difficult feat since the driver is the least accurate club for any golfer, including a professional. However, the bet paid off; after hitting a perfect fade, in which the ball started straight but then curved to the right, the ball rolled up to seven feet from the pin. Morikawa then stepped up and drained the putt. This eagle (two strokes less than par) was the decisive blow that pulled Morikawa away from the rest of the field. Golf experts noted this tee shot to be one of the greatest shots in a golf major. Morikawa acknowledged the importance of going for it at the 16th hole, saying: “You just have to capitalize on those shots.”

Many golf fanatics wonder, however, if the outcome would have been different under normal conditions. Given that Morikawa was a rookie the year before, it’s hard not to wonder if he would have both attempted and been able to pull off one of the greatest shots in golf history if thousands of spectators had been standing within several yards of him. Of course, it’s impossible to know, but to quiet the critics, he’ll just have to win another major when things return to normal.