The PGA Tour’s Workday Charity Open that ended on Sunday at Muirfield Village Golf Club was live (good) but not alive (bad), lacking the energy and jump usually associated with a firecracker finish to a sporting event.
Now it is on to the Memorial Tournament, which this week faces a similar challenge: keep an already quiet sport in need of all the electricity it can get from being silenced by having no spectators.
Say this for the Workday event, a one-and-done tournament at Muirfield Village to fill a hole on the PGA Tour schedule: It did its job and then some.
For the 75 or so tournament organizers, volunteers and media fortunate enough to watch the final 40 or so minutes, it was quite the show as 23-year-old Collin Morikawa won a three-hole playoff duel with Justin Thomas.
Morikawa likely will become a familiar name on leaderboards for tournaments to come, but Thomas was equally entertaining, mostly because his game was mercurial down the stretch. At times he looked deserving of his standing as one of the world’s top-five golfers. But at critical moments he also looked like a guy trying to keep his manure together.
It was riveting theater. Unfortunately the theater felt like it was located off-Broadway without spectators — as has been the case in the five tournaments since the PGA Tour returned from a coronavirus hiatus, and as it will be for the Memorial and at least the next four events on the schedule.
Thomas lamented the lack of buzz because of the lack of fans following him and Morikawa over the final hour of play. “Just in terms of the ups and downs and the shotmaking,” he said.
Blame COVID-19, not the safety protocols you may or may not agree with, for stiff-arming the fans. Keep your eye on the ball. The virus is the bad guy here.
Having no fans was disappointing enough, but the combination of no fans and no live coverage when it mattered was a double whammy.
For many TV viewers — at least those who follow social media — the fantastic finish was something of a letdown, given that Morikawa had won the playoff before CBS came on at 3 p.m. to show the final round in tape delay.
Originally slated to tee off in early afternoon, the lead group instead went off at 9 a.m. because of the threat of inclement weather.
Those tech-savvy enough to navigate the world of apps and live streaming were able to track the leaders in real time, but otherwise the most amazing moment of the day — Morikawa making a 24-foot putt at No. 18 to extend the playoff after Thomas had just buried a 51-foot gagger for birdie — was more than three hours old by the time CBS showed it on tape. On Twitter, three hours is three years.
Ratings are up
That said, the live vs. replay broadcast dilemma is not worth fuming over. It is a contractual issue with the networks that is not changing anytime soon.
Unfortunately, the fan ban only makes televised golf more vanilla. Golf on TV with no spectators is not a deal-breaker for many viewers — ratings are up since the tour resumed play at the Colonial on June 11 — but that may be a short-term outlook based on the lack of available live sports.
Given a choice between golf and lawn-mower racing, even viewers not interested in golf likely find the game more appealing than the alternatives.
As for this week, the Memorial always was going to be the well-dressed big brother to the Workday event, which will be played in California in future iterations.
But little bro cleaned up better than most expected, thanks to a star-filled field and Sunday’s final grouping of Thomas, Morikawa and 22-year-old Viktor Hovland, who like Morikawa is a star in the making. It’s a nice selling point when your leaders get billed as the future of golf.
All of which puts some pressure on the Memorial to bring the goods. Having Tiger Woods helps, as does a star-studded field featuring nine of the top 10 and 17 of the top 20 players in the world.
You want celebrity golf gold? The Memorial not only includes Workday holdovers including Thomas, Jon Rahm, Brooks Koepka (and Morikawa and Hovland) but also adds world No. 1-ranked Rory McIlroy, No. 4 Dustin Johnson, No. 5 Webb Simpson and No. 7 Bryson DeChambeau, who is both polarizing and interesting.
So this week’s field has more star power than last week’s. But how will it play out?
What the Memorial does not need is to have William McGirt, Carl Pettersson and David Lingmerth — all former Memorial winners, but still — battling down the stretch on Sunday. Fans have suffered enough.