Fast Five: Courses the PGA Tour should play this year

After it stopped along with the rest of the sports world back on March 12, the PGA Tour is set to resume June 11 with the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas.

But even as play gets set to resume soon, the schedule for the rest of the season continues to evolve. The Tour announced Thursday that the John Deere Classic, a midsummer Tour staple since 1971 played in Silvis, Ill., will be canceled for 2020. The tournament was to be played July 9-12; it is expected virus-related restrictions that would prevent such an event will still be in place at that time in Illinois.

The Tour is reportedly considering creating a new event to replace the John Deere, with TPC Sawgrass as the potential site. That venue certainly makes sense, both because The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass was canceled after one round in March, and because it’s close to the PGA Tour’s Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. headquarters, easing the logistics.

But as the Tour plays events without fans, it has an opportunity it may not have thought of: play an event at a course that wouldn’t be able to host a Tour event under normal circumstances.

There are plenty of great courses that are good enough to host the PGA Tour but due to a variety of factors — be it the lack of space for fans and hospitality, a rural location that isn’t conducive to a major professional sporting event, or both — can’t.

While everyone is eagerly anticipating the return of fans to live sporting events, the Tour should take advantage of the fact that “no room for fans” wouldn’t be a problem right now at any potential tournament site, and get creative, either with the July date left vacant by the John Deere or by any other date that may become open due to cancellation.

With that in mind, here’s five courses the Tour should consider (with the acknowledgement that, even without fans on the course, the logistics of putting together a tournament in weeks is a tall task at best, and may be unrealistic in some of these spots). Plus, just for fun, I’ve included one that absolutely cannot happen but is fun to think about.

Honorable Mention: Prestwick (Prestwick, South Ayrshire, Scotland)

This could never happen in 2020 because of the logistics involved of playing a tournament on another continent during a pandemic, quarantining for two weeks upon arrival to a country, etc., and that’s why this is only an honorable mention. But professional golf returning to Prestwick for the first time in nearly a century would be really cool (hey, maybe the European Tour can try this).

The venue hosted the first Open Championship in 1860 and 25 of the first 60 Opens through 1925, before space became an issue as the event grew and drew bigger crowds. The course was the site of all four Open Championships won by Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, and three of Willie Park’s four titles. It currently plays 6,544 yards — very short by modern professional standards — but maintains a course rating of 75.0, a level of many major-championship venues.

5. Tobacco Road (Sanford, N.C.)

Tobacco Road Golf Club is unmistakably located in the North Carolina Sandhills. (tobaccoroadgolf.com photo)

I’ll admit there’s a bit of a local bias here, but I’d love to see Tour pros play at Tobacco Road in Sanford, N.C. The course is overshadowed by other venues like Pinehurst and Quail Hollow in its own state (Golf Digest ranks it No. 13 in North Carolina), but is strong enough in its own right to provide a test for the world’s best players. It’s located in rural Lee County outside Sanford, and that location has likely hurt its chances over the years at hosting any big event, even as it’s only about an hour from Raleigh, Greensboro and Fayetteville.

Mike Strantz, the creative course architect well-known throughout the Carolinas, considered the 1998 layout (6,554 yards, 73.2 rating) to be his masterpiece. He carved the holes out of the natural terrain in the rolling hills of the Sandhills region, using that sand and those hills to give the course its unique character.

4. Myopia Hunt (South Hamilton, Mass.)

From the same school of thought at Prestwick comes Myopia Hunt, located 40 minutes north of Boston, which hosted four of the first 14 U.S. Opens from 1898-1908. The first and last of Willie Anderson’s record-tying four U.S. Open titles came here, including the 1901 U.S. Open in which no player broke 80 in any round (and people think the U.S. Open has a high winning score now…).

The course would play easier than that now, as the 1898 H.C. Leeds design renovated by Gil Hanse in 2013 is another track where modern players’ length might be an issue; it’s 6,539 yards with a 73.2 course rating, and might would even play as a par 69 with no par fives when adjusted to today’s game (the longest hole is 525 yards). But considering the whole point here is thinking outside the box, I’d be fine with that. And its age and lack of length didn’t hurt its Golf Digest rating: it’s the No. 76 course in America, with small greens and the occasional blind shot providing the difficulty.

3. Gozzer Ranch (Harrison, Idaho)

Gozzer Ranch Golf & Lake Club features views of the Rockies while overlooking Lake Coeur d’Alene. (gozzerranchclub.com photo)

While brainstorming on this idea and researching different golf courses, I discovered Gozzer Ranch Golf & Lake Club, a hidden gem designed by Tom Fazio in 2007 in Harrison, Idaho, an hour east of Spokane, Wash. The No. 32 golf course in America, according to Golf Digest, overlooks both the Rocky Mountains and Lake Coeur d’Alene, measuring 7,317 yards.

Having played some mountain golf when I lived in northeast Georgia, it’s quite different, with elevation changes and sidehill lies presented frequently, adding an extra degree of difficulty to the game — yet we never see it on the PGA Tour. Coming here would provide that challenge, plus a state where professional sports is practically non-existent would get and event and a chance to showcase its beautiful countryside.

2. Wolf Creek (Mesquite, Nev.)

Wolf Creek Golf Club is routed through the valleys in the mountainous Nevada terrain. (golfwolfcreek.com photo)

Speaking of mountain golf, one of the most well-known mountain courses is Wolf Creek Golf Club in Mesquite, Nev., about an hour northeast of Las Vegas. Dennis Rider’s 2000 layout features tremendous elevation change navigating among the mountainous desert, as close as 1,000 feet from the Nevada-Arizona line.

The course measures 6,939 yards, with a rating of 75.4 (by comparison, 2020 U.S. Open site Winged Foot has a 75.7 rating), and walking the course’s fairways — steep in some cases — would add to the challenge. Golf Digest rates Wolf Creek as the No. 5 course in Nevada and the No. 53 public course in America, and gamers will recognize the course as it was featured eight times in the Tiger Woods video game series.

1. Pine Valley (Pine Valley, N.J.)

The par-3 10th hole at Pine Valley, featuring some of the abundant bunkering the course is known for. (WAMGolf.com/Flickr photo)

While any of these courses would present a unique tournament and would be great choices for the Tour to take advantage of in 2020, the best option by far would be Pine Valley. George Crump’s one and only course design is located 30 minutes east of Philadelphia in the borough of Pine Valley, N.J. (which basically solely encompasses the course and has a whopping population of 12).

Pine Valley is currently ranked as the No. 1 course in the U.S. by Golf Digest, and has routinely rated either first or second over the last several decades. The 2019-20 ranking said of Pine Valley: “Throughout the course, Pine Valley blends all three schools of golf design — penal, heroic and strategic — often times on a single hole.” No holes are parallel to each other and no more than two consecutive holes go in the same direction on the 7,181-yard layout with a 76.6 rating.

You may wonder why the No. 1 course in America hasn’t hosted the U.S. Open or other significant events, but that’s due to the limited space that would exist for potential galleries, with some holes close together and the treeline on many holes very close to the fairways and greens. Membership has shown no interest in changing the course’s tight layout to accommodate tournament crowds (the course has hosted two Walker Cups, most recently in 1985). But a 2020 event, with no crowd present, would be the perfect circumstance to put the best players in the world on America’s best course, and provide an event that would give a unique badge of honor to the winner.

Revised 2019-20 PGA Tour Schedule
June 11-14Charles Schwab ChallengeFort Worth, Tex.rescheduled from May 21-24
June 18-21RBC HeritageHilton Head, S.C.rescheduled from Apr. 16-19
June 25-28Travelers ChampionshipCromwell, Conn.originally-scheduled date
July 2-5Rocket Mortgage ClassicDetroit, Mich.rescheduled from May 28-31
July 9-12TBD
July 16-19the Memorial TournamentDublin, Ohiorescheduled from June 4-7
July 23-263M OpenBlaine, Minn.originally-scheduled date
July 30-Aug. 2WGC-FedEx St. Jude InvitationalMemphis, Tenn.rescheduled from July 2-5
July 30-Aug. 2Barracuda Championship (alternate event)Truckee, Calif.rescheduled from July 2-5
Aug. 6-9PGA ChampionshipSan Francisco, Calif.rescheduled from May 14-17
Aug. 13-16Wyndham ChampionshipGreensboro, N.C.rescheduled from Aug. 6-9
Aug. 20-23The Northern Trust (PGA Tour Playoffs)Norton, Mass.rescheduled from Aug. 13-16
Aug. 27-30BMW Championship (PGA Tour Playoffs)Olympia Fields, Ill.rescheduled from Aug. 20-23
Sept. 4-7Tour Championship (PGA Tour Playoffs finale)Atlanta, Ga.rescheduled from Aug. 27-30
The Masters Tournament, U.S. Open and Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship are postponed will each be played in the fall as part of the 2020-21 season. The Olympic Men’s Golf Competition will now be held in Aug. 2021. The Players Championship, Valspar Championship, WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship, Valero Texas Open, Zurich Classic of New Orleans, Wells Fargo Championship and AT&T Byron Nelson, RBC Canadian Open, John Deere Classic, Barbasol Championship and The Open Championship are all canceled for 2020.

Column: Sports’ best qualities on display in NASCAR’s return

After a 66-day period with no major sports that for many of us has felt like 66 years, the process of resuming the sports calendar began this week as NASCAR staged two Cup Series events, plus one for the second-tier Xfinity Series, in Darlington, S.C.

The events were a welcome sight for competition-starved fans, including some who haven’t ever watched NASCAR before. And while NASCAR is vastly different from stick-and-ball sports, the events those fans have watched this week still featured many of the things that people love about sports.

Sure, one of the biggest elements is missing — fans in the grandstands. That will come back in due time, once the COVID-19 pandemic slows and it’s safe for thousands of people to congregate shoulder-to-shoulder. But as the sports world watched from their homes, what they saw served as a reminder of the qualities that make sports so fun to watch in the first place.

Competition

At the center of this is the competition. All three events this week were competitive throughout, with various drivers taking turns in the lead and battles for position persisting throughout the field.

Drivers race on the opening lap of Wednesday’s Toyota 500 in Darlington, S.C. (NASCAR Photo)

In the two Cup Series events, no organization or manufacturer has stood out as the one having the most speed, with Stewart-Haas Racing (Ford), Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota) and Hendrick Motorsports (Chevrolet) all showing strength in the two events.

Stewart-Haas’ Kevin Harvick won Sunday’s race for his 50th career victory and Clint Bowyer won two stages in Wednesday’s sequel, while Chase Briscoe won for the team in the Xfinity Series. Gibbs’ Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch finished first and second Wednesday. And while Hendrick didn’t have as strong of results, three of its cars held the first three spots at one point Sunday, and the other team car was in position for a strong finish before a late incident Wednesday (more on that in a moment).

Unpredictability

That parity helped to create another great sports element — unpredictability. Things happened in all three races no one could have anticipated; the unscripted nature of sports has always been one of its biggest appeals to me.

Who could have ever guessed seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson would spin out from the lead on the final lap of a stage (or, for that matter, that he’d be dominating the stage after a 99-race winless streak)? Bowyer had never won multiple stages in a race before Wednesday, and Thursday’s Xfinity race had it’s own set of wild circumstances (more on that below).

Even the weather followed along with that unpredictability — Wednesday’s Cup Series race was delayed by rain; the Xfinity Series race was postponed Tuesday and started four hours late on Thursday. The abundance of rain delays was just about the only unwelcome thing about NASCAR’s return.

Strategy

The weather, though, helped to emphasize the strategic elements of the races. In both Wednesday’s Cup race and the Xfinity event, teams had to tailor their strategy not just to the advertised distance of the race, but also to the current moment, as the possibility of rain persisted through both events. In NASCAR, an event can be rain-shortened if over half the laps are completed — and Wednesday’s race ultimately was ended 20 laps early when the rains returned.

But weather-related plans were not the only strategy employed by the teams. Tire management was a consideration throughout each event, particularly on a track like Darlington where tire wear is so conspicuous. Cars on different strategies created comers and goers in the pack, only adding to the competitiveness of each race.

There are strategic elements to every race, but particularly at a place like Darlington. The unique track is an egg-shaped, 1.366-mile circuit with the turns banked most heavily on the outside, meaning that the fastest way around the track is also the trickiest — inches from the wall.

Tradition

The difficulty of “the track too tough to tame” is simply part of the track’s rich tradition. The venue opened during NASCAR’s second season in 1950, and the Southern 500 (set to run as scheduled Sept. 6) was the series’ first speedway race. This week, some 70 years after helping to launch the sport, Darlington was host to its rebirth.

Auto racing is among the most tradition-rich sports, and while few tracks can match Darlington there, one that can is Charlotte, where the sport heads next. Sunday will mark the 61st Coca-Cola 600 — the 59th run on Memorial Day Weekend. NASCAR’s longest race is typically one of three major motorsports events on the holiday weekend, but COVID-19 caused the Indianapolis 500 to be moved to Aug. 23, and Formula 1’s Monaco Grand Prix to be canceled for the first time since 1954.

While it will be different from previous years, NASCAR will still continue it’s annual observance of Memorial Day surrounding the 600. In addition to special pre-race ceremonies — done virtually — each car will feature the name of a fallen U.S. service member across the top of its windshield.

NASCAR will continue to showcase some of its traditional venues after the Charlotte events, with Bristol, Martinsville, Atlanta and Talladega among the tracks scheduled for the coming weeks on NASCAR’s reworked schedule.

Conflict

The sport’s heritage includes some of the great Richard Petty-David Pearson duels and Dale Earnhardt-Darrell Waltrip feuds — and Wednesday’s race featured some hostility as well.

Chase Elliott spun after he was hooked by Kyle Busch while the two battled for second late in the race, as Busch tried to move into the space between Elliott and fourth-place Kevin Harvick and misjudged that gap, hitting Elliott’s left-rear and sending him into the inside wall.

Elliott pointed his middle finger at Busch as the latter drove by on the next lap, and his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, had an animated discussion with Busch, the 2019 Cup Series champion, after the race.

Quotes from both in the two days since suggest that they’re ready to move on — and Elliott has stated he now understands Busch’s move was simply a mistake and had no malicious intent — but that hasn’t prevented the conversations among fans and the media to continue, as they likely will until the next event Sunday.

Redemption

Busch’s admitted mistake in Wednesday’s race presented an opportunity to redeem himself in Thursday’s Xfinity Series race, where he was the heavy favorite, and after starting 26th he led the race by lap 48. Then, after winning the second stage, Busch was issued a pit road speeding penalty and was mid-pack once again — presenting an even bigger redemption opportunity.

Busch battled to fifth, then after a late caution picked off the leaders one-by-one up to second, and battled head-to-head with Briscoe in the closing laps.

Busch got all the way back to the top spot, leading the penultimate lap by a few inches, and battled door-to-door with Briscoe all the way back around to the checkers. But the opportunity for redemption for Busch was upstaged when fate had other plans for his competitor.

Emotion

Among the best qualities of sports is the raw human emotion on public display by competitors. The events Sunday and Wednesday included some amount of that from Harvick and Hamlin in victory — including Hamlin’s odd mask featuring his his own smile — while others showed their disappointment, including Elliott’s one-finger salute.

But the most clear display of emotion came from Briscoe. The 25-year-old and wife Marissa learned Tuesday they’d lost their expected baby, as Chase watched in Darlington through FaceTime when Marissa attended a routine 12-week checkup and it was discovered the baby had no heartbeat. Returning to the track Thursday after the postponement gave Briscoe an escape, though he said there were still times during the race he had tears in his eyes.

Briscoe, in his second Xfinity Series season, earned his fourth career win by beating the sport’s best driver, saying later he felt God was driving his racecar in the closing laps because he was an emotional mess. He keyed the radio moments after beating Busch by .086 seconds, but couldn’t speak and instead sobbed audibly; his crew chief told the driver the win was for him and his wife and baby. Briscoe remained overcome when he got out of the car.

“This is more than a race win,” he said. “This is the greatest day of my life, after the toughest day of my life.”

The emotions of victory — and often of defeat, too — are among the most magnetic qualities sports presents. Celebrating a win is one of the best parts of any competition, and sometime’s the participant’s life circumstances make it even more meaningful.

Any human, not just racing fans or more general sports fans, can relate on some level to the emotions shown, and Briscoe’s win was the perfect way to end the week of racing and put a bow on NASCAR’s return.