Sunday’s outcome at Colonial may hinge on the adrenaline factor
June 13, 2020
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
Xander Schauffele leads by one after 54 hole at Charles Schwab
FORT WORTH, Texas – We entered this week not really knowing what to expect. First PGA TOUR event in three months. No fans. No stands. Testing protocols and in-the-bubble existence. Masks required for most, thermal screening necessary for all.
Now we’re 54 holes in and guess what? The Charles Schwab Challenge has turned into … a regular golf tournament. And that’s a good thing. Sunday’s final round will focus on which player on a leaderboard stacked with notable names will emerge as the latest champion this season. A big trophy, a plaid jacket, a nice check and 500 FedExCup points will be rewarded, just like previous years at Colonial.
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“We're … here to win a golf tournament,” said South African Branden Grace, one of five players a shot behind leader Xander Schauffele. “Whether there's 40,000 people or four people watching, it doesn't really make a difference.”
Of course, Grace and all the players in this week’s field realize it’s been anything but a normal week on TOUR. Some received another dose of the new reality after their third rounds, as players scheduled to fly the charter to next week’s RBC Heritage at Harbour Town were required to again undergo COVID-19 testing in order to play next week.
On Sunday, there will be no trophy presentation on the 18th green for the champion, although there will be a photo op. The winner’s press conference will be handled virtually, as have all media obligations this week. The charter leaves shortly after the event, so there’s no time to spend on other responsibilities generally required of a tournament champ.
Still, it’s competition. A chance to beat your peers. The determining factor might very well be how players handle the unusual circumstances of a high-pressure environment without being able to feed off fans.
Some may like it.
Some may find it difficult to play their best.
“I'm into it, and it's a little bit more competitive honestly than I thought it would be,” said Justin Thomas, who joins Grace, Jordan Spieth, Gary Woodland and Collin Morikawa as the closest pursuers to Schauffele. “I thought it was going to be very odd. I was hoping that I'd be in this position to where I'd have a good chance to win the tournament and see how I feel, but it is going to be different, especially come those last couple of holes if you have a lead or if you're trying to chase someone down or if you're tied for the lead.
“It'll be interesting to see how that adrenaline plays a role.”
Schauffele, a four-time TOUR winner who grabbed the lead with a birdie on his final hole Saturday, leaving him at 13 under after his second consecutive 66, may be the perfect player to handle the atmosphere. The word “subdued” was invented for him.
“I’m kind of a quiet guy,” he said. “I don’t have like a huge effect on the crowd, I’d say, so not having fans isn’t the craziest thing for me.
“It just does feel like I’m playing at home with some of my buddies. It’s quiet. You make three birdies in a row, you can kind of give yourself a pat on the back.”
His playing partner in the final twosome is Gary Woodland, who also shot 66 to move into a five-way tie for second with Grace, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Collin Morikawa. Woodland said it will simply be a matter of making his own noise.
“When you get into contention and have a chance to win a golf tournament, that adrenaline starts pumping,” Woodland said. “It's been a little different; the first two days there wasn't too much adrenaline. There will be adrenaline going, which you have with fans or without fans. Tomorrow should be fun.”
One person who definitely has fed off the Colonial crowd in recent years is Spieth, the Dallas native who won here in 2016. Spieth is the only other pro to reach 13 under this week, but a bogey at the 15th prevented him for playing in the final twosome for the second consecutive day. He shot 68 while playing with 36-hole leader Harold Varner III, who posted a 70 to drop two shots off the pace.
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Instead of becoming a normal tournament as the week has progressed, Spieth admitted “it’s felt weirder, in my opinion.”
“Going in, I thought that Monday to Friday would be somewhat normal and then Saturday and Sunday would be a bit odd,” he said. “Today definitely felt a lot different for it being a Saturday afternoon in the last group. When you kind of think about the situation you're in, you just don't feel like you're actually out there doing that. I just felt like I was playing a normal round with Harold, certainly knowing where I was at.
“You know, I like to feed off the crowds.”
So does Rory McIlroy, the world’s top-ranked player. McIlroy, making his first start at Colonial, followed his 63 with a 1-under 69 while basically flying under the radar. He’s at 10 under and will be another player trying to make his own noise.
“I feel for a Saturday afternoon being in contention on the PGA TOUR, it felt sort of weird out there,” McIlroy said. “The first couple days it was fine, but definitely today it's feeling strange. I'm sure tomorrow will feel pretty strange, especially with so many guys in and around the lead.”
So many notables, to be more specific. The top 14 players on the leaderboard, all within 3 shots of the lead, includes the last five FedExCup champs (Spieth, Thomas, Justin Rose and McIlroy times two). Seven of the contenders played in the Presidents Cup last December. Woodland is the reigning U.S. Open champ; Grace holds the record for lowest round shot in a major.
You get the drift.
“It definitely has a major feel,” Woodland said. “You've got a lot of the top players in the world, and everybody is playing well. I think everybody is excited to be out here, and with no fans here, you get some big names up there that you definitely get the juices going.”
Still, there’s no denying that this week has been unusual for all at Colonial. But a win’s a win – and this win Sunday, given the circumstances, may very well be as special as they come.
“Listen, this is new to us all,” said Rose, trying to win at Colonial for the second time in the last three years. “It's going to feel different for everybody, but it's going to feel as rewarding to win. You're going to have to beat a great field and it's going to be a good leaderboard to contest against, and whoever wins tomorrow is going to have to go out and play some good golf. From that point of view, that's all we're looking at.
“Ultimately, we all need to break down the golf course week in and week out and that doesn't change tomorrow. Obviously, the crowd and the fans, they bring some of the atmosphere and the energy, but it doesn't change the task.”
Play the quiet game … or make your noise. Whoever figures it out the best may be the subject of a photo op late Sunday afternoon.