Why the Road to the Masters Looks Different This Year

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Pebble was a short week (the tournament ended on a Saturday) and Cognizant (nee Honda) was a long one, what with the Monday finish. Two PGA Tour Sundays, taken from us by way of storm. That’s OK. Tiger likes to say that Father Time is undefeated, but Mother Nature has some record, too.

You could look at Rory’s week and say it was a long one, playing on Monday-night golf (Match IX) at a public course near here called The Park, followed by a Wednesday pro-am and four tournament rounds here at PGA National, a resort course, and ending with the Monday pro-member at Seminole (way private), playing with his father, Gerry McIlroy, a member and a stick. Rory does not look at it that way.

“This is the life I’ve wanted,” Rory said in Sunday night’s dusk, having barely managed to squeeze in the final round. “This the life I’ve asked for. This is what I want to do. I like being busy when it’s stuff I want to do.”

Of the thousands of shots I saw played over the course of eight days in South Florida, the most memorable was the last man-in-full shot I saw Rory hit at the Match, playing with Max Homa, Lexi Thompson and Rose Zhang. It was a smashed driver and his golf ball, lighted by floodlights and moonlight, rose and rose until it disappeared into the darkness for several seconds before reemerging on its ways down, like an earthbound spaceship, back into the light. As E.B. White once wrote, “Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.”

The most unlikely shot I saw was played by Michael Stephens, Jake Knapp’s caddie. It was a hole-high three-finger cut 4-iron into a wee breeze in a Tuesday-afternoon practice round on the par-3 17th at PGA National. No practice swing, no warning, no anything. The caddies get another practice-round par-3 swing at TPC Sawgrass, on the island-green 17th, during the Players. Mike’s man played his way into that event, by way of his win at Mexico.

Knapp played with McIlroy for three straight days at PGA National. That is, the Cognizant Classic in the Palm Beaches. As in the phrase, the road to Augusta begins at the Cognizant Classic in the Palm Beaches. Back in the Greg Norman heyday, golf hands used to say that the road to Augusta begins at Doral, for years the start of the Florida Swing. G. Norman and 56 LIV players will be back at Doral, now Trump Doral, in early April.

After winning in Mexico, Knapp flew through the night to Florida and played in The Jake on Monday, an annual pro-am at the Bear’s Club that honors the short life of Jake Nicklaus, one of Jack and Barbara Nicklaus’s grandchildren. On Tuesday, Jake Knapp played a practice round. He played the 72 holes of the tournament over five days. This week he’ll play in the Arnold Palmer Invitational for the first time. Then the Players for the first time. Next month he’ll play in the Masters for the first time. A 29-year-old PGA Tour rookie. Everything he’s done in this game he has earned.

When LIV Golf first became a thing, Jack Nicklaus said what he has often said, that there’s “always a next generation of stars.” A next generation of stars, and a next generation journeymen who help them sparkle. His point was that as LIV Golf signed stars with guaranteed contracts — a Phil Mickelson, a Dustin Johnson, a Martin Kaymer (!) — the world’s other tours would develop new ones. Min Woo Lee (his parents emigrated to Australia from South Korea) and Jake Knapp (from Southern California and Erik van Rooyen (from South Africa) all semi-contended at PGA National.

The winner was Austin Eckroat, an Okie who saw Tiger Woods win at Southern Hills as a little kid in 2007. They’re on the rise in this difficult and global game. All they need to do is shoot the scores, and they will play their way into your consciousness. How cool is that? See you at Augusta, gents.


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