JUNO BEACH – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by Field Level Media) – Dustin Johnson can’t even remember the last time he took the first tee carrying his own clubs.
Johnson is shaking off some rust, snapping a near two-month break between rounds, as he prepares to take the course as Rory McIlroy‘s playing partner against Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff on Sunday.
The TaylorMade Driving Relief Skins match-play event at Seminole Golf Club, a nationally televised event in Florida, will be full of firsts.
“I think everything is going to be weird, just because it’s going to be so different for us from what we’re used to,” Johnson said Thursday in a teleconference with event participants. “Obviously we’ll get used to it pretty quickly.
“I think we have a big responsibility on ourselves to make sure that we practice all the guidelines that the PGA TOUR is going to set in place. Obviously everyone is going to be watching what we’re doing, so I think it’s very important for us to do it all correctly. We have a responsibility to ourselves and all the other players to stay safe and stay healthy.”
By the time players dialed into the media availability, event organizers had already cleared $1.3 million in COVID-19 relief money, with that effort running through Sunday night.
The charity event allows teams to start with $500,000 in the bank. Hole values increase as the round progresses. Nos. 1-6 will be worth $50,000 each; Nos. 7-16 will be worth $100,000. The 17th hole will be worth $200,000, while No. 18 will feature a $500,000 skin.
“Obviously with no live sports really on right now, it’s going to be — I think the world needs something to watch, so I think hopefully we can go out and put on a good show, and it’s for a great cause,” Johnson said. “We’re raising a lot of money for people who really need it, so it’s great to be a part of that, and I think we’re all really looking forward to it.”
As in every other arena of life, getting back in the swing of golf is going to be a lot different. For example, there are no caddies for Sunday’s event. Fowler and Wolff, teammates this weekend and former Oklahoma State All-Americans, are both more accustomed to toting their own golf equipment — neither rates this as an advantage at oceanside and relatively flat Seminole — but a lot of other shifts in protocol Sunday will be new.
Still to be determined is whether players can escape golf course restrictions in Florida that don’t allow players to arrive at the course more than 20 minutes before their tee time. And the PGA is working with county officials to modify a restriction for flagsticks. Right now in Florida, players are putting into a cup line with a swimming pool noodle that prevents the ball from plunking to the usual metal tin at the bottom.
“If they want the flag removed, then Mark Russell, who’s the chief referee, he will essentially just remove that flagstick and hold it, and he will be the only person to handle that flagstick during the day,” said Stephen Cox, PGA tournament official of the plan to keep players from touching the flagstick.
Players will not be required to wear masks — that could change for the June return of the PGA Tour in Texas — in Florida this weekend. But each player has been tested for COVID-19 and will again undergo testing and thermal monitoring once at Seminole.
“Inevitably at some point in time they’re going to sort of forget where they are in the moment, whether that be celebration or otherwise, and hopefully you guys in the media aren’t too hard on the players in that regard because inevitably it’s going to happen,” Cox said. “But we just try to do our best to try and get this across to the four players for our match, for them to be thinking about how they conduct themselves on the golf course.”
Fowler said he understands the rigid constraints participants and officials are operating under as a “new normal” is established. As much as Fowler said he enjoyed getting into a routine and spending time with his family, he’s ready to compete again.
“I’m excited to get back to play. It’s been the longest break I’ve ever had, the most time I’ve been able to spend at home. But like I said, looking at it, the best way possible,” said Fowler. “We’ve enjoyed getting into a little bit of a routine, using it as beneficial as possible to work out, cook at home. The first month we went to the grocery store once a week.
“But no, at the end of the day, we all love to compete, so I think that’s why you’re seeing a lot of guys are going to be playing the first few events as soon as they can.”
Wind can play tricks with the golf ball at Seminole in June Beach, Fla., which could benefit long drivers like Johnson, Fowler and McIlroy. Wolff will be playing the course for the second time as a professional. He said he’s only experienced idyllic golf conditions on this course but heard plenty of warnings.
“That’s definitely one thing that I’ve always been told, that the wind is one of its biggest defenses,” Wolff said. “I’m not sure what the weather is supposed to be like on Sunday, but I think that if the wind blows it’s going to be a difficult course.”
McIlroy, who has known Johnson and Fowler for 13 years dating to the Walker Cup, said Seminole “can’t be overpowered” and expects Sunday to come down to second shots.
“Obviously it’s a skins match and every hole is worth a certain monetary amount, and as the match goes on, the closer you get to the end, the holes go up in value. So I think the 18th hole is going to be worth half a million dollars, that’s — the last few holes, especially if you have maybe tied a few holes going to 18,” McIlroy said. “You know, the 18th could be worth at least a million, maybe.”