Rory McIlroy Won, but Golf Shined in Its Live Return

Rory McIlroy stroked the clinching shot in Sunday’s uber-quirky charity golf match — the first televised competitive men’s golf in more than two months — but it was Dustin Johnson, McIlroy’s teammate in the event, who won the day.


Heading down the first fairway, Johnson ignored the sophisticated technology of the modern two-strap golf bag and had his clubs facing backward over one shoulder, as if he were lugging a sack of laundry. Last week, Johnson conceded he couldn’t remember the last time he carried his own clubs. But he knew it only took one strap.

Then, on the first green, Johnson used a golf tee to mark his ball. He couldn’t have channeled the everyday golfer ethos any better, unless perhaps he had used a bottle of beer.

Best of all, Johnson played faster than fast, hitting less than 10 seconds after someone else’s shot. It occasionally looked as though Johnson had somewhere else to be late Sunday afternoon. On one tee, as Rickie Fowler was getting ready to hit last, Johnson had already marched at least 40 yards toward the hole.

It was moments like these, when some of the world’s best golfers seemed like just another weekend foursome — replete with the attendant idiosyncrasies — that the TaylorMade Driving Relief event came alive.

Or as Bill Murray, who NBC interviewed during the broadcast, said: “They look almost human.”

In the buildup to the match, it was often suggested that a televised round of golf, an activity that is easy to engage in while adhering to social-distancing guidelines, would be a welcome distraction for action-starved sports fans. But across roughly four hours on Sunday — when the McIlroy-Johnson team defeated Fowler and PGA Tour newcomer Matthew Wolff, and more than $5 million was raised for coronavirus relief — the competition didn’t appeal as much as the camaraderie and sense of community on display.

To golf fans, McIlroy, Johnson and Fowler, and to a lesser extent Wolff, are familiar figures whose exploits are part of a Sunday afternoon routine. Except in the past two months, that is.

The attraction answered a couple questions for those watching at home: What might professional golf look like during a pandemic? Are their golf games as rusty as ours?

The answer to the last question was a definite “yes.” On one hole at the Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla., McIlroy flubbed a greenside chip so badly the ball dribbled only five feet away. But in the spirit of the day, Johnson absolved McIlroy by quickly shouting: “I got you covered, partner.”

The national refrain is “We’re in this together.” Golf on Sunday had its little opportunity to exemplify the sentiment.

As for what golf during a pandemic will look like, Sunday’s match wasn’t the perfect setting for predicting the future. If the PGA Tour resumes as planned on June 11 at the Charles Schwab Classic in Fort Worth, Texas, the players won’t be wearing shorts, as each golfer did on Sunday. Wolff might not wear the psychedelic-patterned golf shoes he chose in Florida. There will be caddies, despite how much charm was added to the event every time a millionaire golfer shouldered his own bag and trudged toward the next shot.

But truthfully, with those exceptions and a few others, the playing of top-flight golf did not look too much different on Sunday. Yes, there were no fans, which is unquestionably jarring and in no way an improvement, but the players rolled with it. When Fowler made a big putt, he waved to acknowledge an imaginary, cheering crowd.

The absence of spectators, however, allowed viewers to hear the banter among players. It wasn’t nonstop, but there were some good jabs and trash talking.

After a wayward drive by Wolff that ended up far from the other golfers, McIlroy yelped: “Hey Matt, thanks for doing your part to social distance.”

Minutes later, Wolff answered by trying to get under McIlroy’s skin before a short but important putt that McIlroy was sizing up. After his ball dropped in the hole, McIlroy crowed to 21-year-old Wolff: “I think you forget I won two FedEx Cups that totaled at $25 million. That doesn’t faze me, youngster.”

In the end, the match was tied after 18 holes, sending the event to a closest-to-the-pin contest on Seminole’s 17th hole that would be worth $1.1 million. Fowler, whose wedge play is usually sparkling, drilled his shot far from the green.

Seconds earlier, to save time in the TV broadcast, the players climbed into golf carts — the first time all day — to be whisked to the 17th tee. Aware that the organic nature of the competition had been spoiled, or perhaps to keep up the jovial atmosphere, Fowler said of his errant shot: “I think it’s because I rode the cart out here.”

But Wolff’s shot rolled relatively near the hole. McIlroy ended the competition by knocking his ball slightly closer to the flagstick. McIlroy raised both arms over his head.

Johnson smiled and walked coolly off the tee. He heaved his golf bag, facing backward, onto one shoulder.

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