NORTON, Mass. – What the first week of the FedEx Cup playoffs revealed was it is not the best time to be one of the biggest names in golf.
With the exception of Dustin Johnson, who a huge lead at The Northern Trust, the first event of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs, some of the sport’s brightest stars have looked a bit lost.
Sure, Tiger Woods closed with a 66, including a four-birdie run to start his final round, but all it did was mask three uneven days that had him in a spot he never wants to be in — playing early in the morning on the weekend of a tournament as nothing more than an afterthought.
Rory McIlroy, who played poorly enough to be Woods’ early morning playing partner on the weekend, had no other choice but to make a joke or two about his own mediocrity lately when it was all over. More telling was that he feels at times he is simply going through the motions.
Brooks Koepka didn’t even make it to the first tee, withdrawing before the event began because his bad knee isn’t getting any better.
Tiger still searching
He admitted Sunday that life without fans has been a difficult adjustment. He has always fed off the energy of the galleries that engulfed him — and used it as an advantage over opponents who were shell-shocked by all the people and all the commotion.
But the silence seems to be a secondary problem for Woods. The inconsistency in his game remains the central issue. At The Northern Trust, he struggled at times with his putting; during Saturday’s ugly 2-over 73, he missed six putts inside 10 feet. Until Sunday, he was again off with his short irons, regularly leaving lengthy birdie putts instead of medium-to-short range opportunities. His average distance from the hole on approach was just under 37 feet, which doesn’t provide a ton of realistic birdie chances.
“Every day is different,” he said. “That’s golf. Shot-to-shot is different. That’s the ebb and flow of playing golf.”
He has played three events since golf’s return from a three-month shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. He was a non-factor at both the Memorial and PGA Championship, finished tied for 37th and 40th. This week, at the Northern Trust, he had a strong opening round, then faded on Friday and Saturday. He’s committed to this week’s BMW Championship but hasn’t earned a spot in the season-ending Tour Championship. And in this new, condensed schedule, the U.S. Open, the year’s second major, is lurking right around the corner, set to begin Sept. 17 at ultra-difficult Winged Foot.
“This is going to be a long haul,” he said.
McIlroy trying to focus on what’s wrong
Sure, the state of McIlroy’s game is unsettling.
“If you need anyone to shoot even to 2-under for a week, I’m your man,” he joked after finishing the week at, you guessed it, 2 under. “That’s sort of what I’ve done the last few weeks. Everything is just a little off.”
More concerning than his game might be his mindset.
“This is going to sound really bad, but I feel like the last few weeks, I’ve just been going through the motions,” he said. “I want to get an intensity and some sort of fire, but I just haven’t been able to. And look, that’s partly to do with the atmosphere and partly to do with how I’m playing. I’m not inspiring myself, and I’m trying to get inspiration from outside sources to get something going.”
On Saturday, with Woods, he started his round birdie/triple bogey/birdie. As he walked to the fourth tee he chuckled, “Yeah, 3-8-2 is a good area code.” He was asked, in this time of playing tournaments without crowds and largely in silence, what the difference is now between a birdie and triple bogey?
“Honestly, not that much,” he admitted. “It’s not that much. Sometimes I come off a green and make a birdie, and I’m sort of — you know, you’re sort of laughing coming off a hole that you’ve just messed up, and you make a birdie, and it’s sort of almost a more negative emotion in some ways. It’s weird. It’s very strange.”
With two more playoff events and two more majors still on the 2020 calendar, how does he fix it?
“Do you go on YouTube and look at past successes do you give yourself something to sort of think about, a mantra as you go around?” he wondered. “There’s different ways to do it. You know, what’s always sort of done well with me is a bet or a game or a play for something. That sometimes gets something out of me. Maybe that’s the strategy. I do that in practice rounds sometimes with [caddie and close friend] Harry [Diamond]. We make a lot of bets, and I try to shoot scores and try to win dinner or whatever it is. Maybe that’s it. We’re playing in the FedEx Cup [playoffs]. There’s a lot of incentive here to play well. It’s just trying to get it out of you.”
McIlroy was on a roll before golf stopped in March. In the six events he played before the sport started at the Players Championship, McIlroy had not finished worse than a tie for fifth, and that included a win at the WCG-HSBC Champions. Since the return, has just one top-30 finish, a tie for 11th at the Travelers Championship.
“Yeah, it’s just been a bit of a struggle,” he said.
The continued fall of Jordan Spieth
On Friday, as his round and season concluded, Jordan Spieth walked quickly off the 18th green at TPC Boston, never picking his head up as he headed toward the clubhouse. He had missed his second cut in six events, this one following a T-71 finish at the PGA Championship and a T-72 at the Wyndham Championship. He’s had just one top-20 since a T-10 at the Charles Schwab Challenge, the first event after the break.
I’m a little uncertain. Like it feels pretty good, not great, but good enough to be able to compete,” he said after the Wyndham Championship.
The missed cut at The Northern Trust meant he would not qualify for next week’s BMW Championship, marking the first time in his career he did not advance to the second stage of the FedEx Cup playoffs. He hasn’t made it to the season-ending Tour Championship since 2017. He hasn’t won an event since the 2017 Open at Royal Birkdale, a stretch of 69 events.
“I’ll keep trucking, I’ll keep working hard,” he said.
Koepka limps to the finish
As long as his knee is up to it, the next time we’ll see Koepka is at the U.S. Open, where he will try to win that major for the third time in four years. It’s been an up-and-down year for the four-time major winner, who had a stem cell procedure on his left knee after last year’s Tour Championship then re-aggravated when he slipped during an event in South Korea in October, which required him to sit out until January.
Since then, he’s had just two top-10s, missed four cuts and had to withdraw from two events, one because of injury, one because his caddie, Ricky Elliott, tested positive for COVID-19.
Earlier this month, in search of his third consecutive PGA Championship, he entered the final round tied for fourth, just 2 shots off the lead. He faded on Sunday, shooting 74 to tie for 29th. The next week he missed the cut at the Wyndham Championship.
“Brooks is one of the biggest names in the game. We’ve all seen his physical struggles since last year,” McIlroy said earlier this week. “It’s maybe never a good time, but it’s a better time than any other time to get it right. Take a few weeks off, try to get himself ready for the U.S. Open, and then the Masters coming up [in November]. I think it’s smart on his part to do that and hopefully comes back healthy and comes back ready to play.”
Phil’s playing the oldies
Like Spieth, Mickelson missed the cut and didn’t qualify for the BMW Championship. So to get some work in before returning to what the site of one of his most painful major championship disappointments — Winged Foot, site of this year’s U.S. Open — he needed to find a place to play.
Enter the PGA Tour Champions, the over-50 circuit that has an event this week in the Ozarks.
“I’ve been playing well and I want to play,” he said. “I wish I was playing in Chicago next week but excited to play my first Champions event.”
Mickelson, who turned 50 in June, has one top-20 finish and two missed cuts since golf’s return. He had been reluctant to head over to the Champions Tour, making it clear he thinks he can still play — and win — on the PGA Tour.
“When I stop hitting bombs, I’ll play the Champions Tour, but I’m hitting some crazy bombs right now,” he joked in January.