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TaylorMade Driving Relief provides positive sign for PGA Tour’s return

FILE - Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, watches his tee shot on the 11th hole during a practice round for the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Wednesday, June 12, 2019, in Pebble Beach, Calif. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

On the first long weekend of summer in Canada – and with golf courses now open in every province save Quebec – golf fans got another opportunity to feel some semblance of normal.

At the rarely-seen Seminole Golf Club in southwest Florida, world No. 1 Rory McIlroy was paired with former No. 1 Dustin Johnson to take on multi-time PGA Tour winner Rickie Fowler and young sensation Matthew Wolff in a charity skins match dubbed TaylorMade Driving Relief.

The format was a best-ball match with victories on each hole worth between $50,000 and $500,000. All proceeds were going to COVID-19 charities.

Johnson and McIlroy topped Wolff and Fowler after earning 11 skins and $1.85 million. Wolff and Fowler won seven skins and $1.15-million.

It ended with a dramatic flurry – as a closest-to-the-pin competition occurred after 18 holes to decided the final six skins, and $1.1 million. It was McIlroy, proving why he’s the No. 1 player in the world, who knocked his shot pin-high.

Wolff won both long drive competitions (including a 368-yard poke on No. 14) for a combined $450,000 in bonus charity donations.

Fowler was the MVP of the match, making seven birdies. He has won Seminole’s famous Pro-Member event (more on that later) three times – so it’s no surprise Fowler played as well as he did on the iconic layout.

While most sports leagues around the world are on pause – and with many events cancelled outright, including the RBC Canadian Open in June – this was the kick-start of golf’s return.

It was a few hours of respite from the ongoing questions of whether or not professional sports could return, and how would they look when they did? It was an opportunity for a few guys to carry their bags on a sunny Sunday. It was…something, and should be viewed as a sign of optimism that pro golf can continue this summer.

The PGA Tour is set to get back in action June 11-14 with the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas. The LPGA Tour, meanwhile, looks to return July 23-26 at the Marathon Classic presented by Dana.

Next week, also in Florida, Tiger Woods will take on Phil Mickelson – as both legendary golfers pair with legendary quarterbacks, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, respectively – in another made-for-TV match to raise funds for COVID-19 relief.

Nothing is normal anymore, but Sunday, for a few hours, the best players in the world gave golf fans a little taste.

Here’s how it went down.

The Course

Seminole Golf Club was the real star of the show.

“It’s a golf course that tests all parts of your game,” said Jon Rahm, the second-ranked golfer in the world, who called in to the broadcast.

The par-72, 7,200-yard Donald Ross gem rarely lifts its curtain to the public.

“I just can’t wait for the rest of America to see this place. It’s so special,” LPGA Tour golfer Jaye Marie Green told LPGA.com earlier this week. Green won the Pro-Member event Seminole hosts annually last year. “A lot of the golf course has been kept the same way it’s always been.”

Seminole’s annual Pro-Member event features many of the top-ranked players in the world (McIlroy won it once – his father is a member – while Johnson and Wolff have played it but never won, and Fowler won it the aforementioned three times). It will be the host course of the 2021 Walker Cup matches – an amateur competition featuring golfers from the United States taking on a team from Great Britain and Ireland – but it had never been shown on network television before Sunday.

Viewers would have noticed there was no real rough, and no real trees-as-hazards (save for the swinging palms). It opened in 1930 and its routing forces players to encounter a new wind direction on each hole. The greens, one PGA Tour winner said by text to Sportsnet, “are wild!” and “TV doesn’t quite do it justice.”

It was a wonderful setting for a wonderful cause.

The Charity

McIlroy and Johnson’s $1.85 million will be donated to the American Nurses Foundation while Fowler and Wolff’s $1.15 million will be donated to the CDC Foundation.

Overall, $5.5 million was raised for charity.

McIlroy, on the broadcast, admitted he was feeling some pressure on the final two holes.

“When you’re playing for (someone else’s) cause,” McIlroy said, “it starts to weigh on you.”

In Canada, the designated charity from Driving Relief was The Frontline Fund. People looking to donate can do so by clicking here.

The Canadian Connection

While Canada’s lone World Golf Hall of Fame member, Marlene Streit, got a brief shoutout during the broadcast after being part of a 1992 four-ball match that featured two golfers making an ace (Streit made a birdie two) on the par-3 fifth at Seminole, there was an important Canadian connection Sunday.

Ryan Hart, of Winnipeg, is the tournament director at The Players Championship and he was brought in as the director of this event, from a PGA Tour perspective, as well.

“We’re humbled to play a small part in bringing live sports back today,” Hart told Sportsnet. “More importantly, doing so for much needed COVID-19 relief efforts and those impacted. There has been a lot of learning along the way and will continue to be moving forward. It’s truly been a team effort with all involved working to keep the health and safety of everyone on the property as our top priority as we navigate our new norms.”

The Facial Hair
While there was minimal banter or player back-and-forth – the setting just did not lend itself to trash talk – most of the discussion from the players was about the facial hair.

Dustin Johnson was sporting his usual full beard, while Rory McIlroy was clean-shaven. Rickie Fowler, meanwhile, was rocking a mustache, while Matthew Wolff had a strong goatee (which he posted about on social media earlier in the day).

The Broadcast

The broadcast featured two on-course reporters, one analyst, two in-studio broadcasters and a host – Mike Tirico, who was also charged with interviewing guests who called in.

First up was Bill Murray, who was mostly forgettable. “This is my first experience with Skype,” Murray said at one point, which was evident. He did, however, add an extra $15,000 donation to charity.

Next up was U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump talked about how he was hopeful to get America back to normal (“We want to get sports back,” he said. “We need sports back in terms of the psyche of the country”) and he was asked by Tirico about playing with guys on the PGA Tour.

McIlroy, just this week, appeared on the McKeller Golf Podcast to talk about his round with Trump in 2017, saying, “I will sit here and say that day I had with him I enjoyed but that doesn’t mean I agree with everything, or in fact, anything, that he says.”

Trump, when asked about McIlroy, replied, “Some like my politics and some don’t, and those guys I don’t see them.”

Last to join was Jon Rahm.

A fellow TaylorMade-sponsored golfer, many wondered why Rahm was not playing Sunday. But he explained that because he lives in Arizona – not Florida – it was a decision he made, along with TaylorMade, to stay at home.

Still, Rahm is ready to get back to action on the PGA Tour sooner rather than later.

“We’re all itching,” he said. “I want to be competing again.”