Professional golf’s soft return to live broadcast action Sunday in the TaylorMade Driving Relief charity skins event had a different feel, look and sound.
The players – world No. 1 Rory McIlroy and No. 5 Dustin Johnson teamed against No. 17 Rickie Fowler and No. 110 Matthew Wolff – were in shorts and carrying their own golf bags at revered Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Florida.
Each player was using a range finder. Concessions on putts were allowed, bunker rakes and caddies were not. Social distancing was the 15th club in the bag. Silence drifted about the seaside course with no spectators. Special guests from thousands of miles away popped up during the broadcast including President Trump, Bill Murray and world No. 2 Jon Rahm.
Still, despite evident rust from the four participants, which was understandable since they have played little since the sport shut down March 12 because of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the reappearance of golf was welcomed by a sports-starved world and looked pretty darn good. Especially the eye-popping dollars raised for COVID-19 relief efforts.
And the distinctive event ended in an unusual manner dripping with drama – a closest-to-the-pin contest from 120 yards on the 17th hole that served as the 19th hole worth $1.1 million.
And the world’s best player came through to steal the show.
McIlroy, with the last shot of the day, knocked his tee shot to about 12 feet and just inside the effort from Wolff to give the heavy favorites the victory worth a hefty $1.35 million for charity.
“I didn’t know whether to tell it to get up, or get down, stay long, stay short,” McIlroy said of the shot in strong winds. “I wouldn’t be known for my wedge play. There was a little pressure there.”
McIlroy and Johnson won 11 skins in all, Fowler and Wolff seven skins for $1.15 million. Wolff earned another $450,000 with 724 yards worth of drives as he won both longest drive contests. And the four, with 16 birdies, earned another $630,000 from a bonus pool for the red numbers. Fans texting in donations added to the charity coffers. In the end, total donations exceeded $5 million.
“It was an awesome day, playing with DJ and Rickie and Matt. All of us out here for a great cause,” McIlroy said. “It’s been awesome and nice to get back onto the golf course and get back to some sort of normalcy.”
On a sun-splashed day hard by the Atlantic Ocean, soft breezes turned stronger as the day went longer and the tension rose. McIlroy and Johnson sped out to the lead with a win on the third hole worth three skins but Fowler and Wolff stormed back as Fowler made six birdies in a nine-hole stretch. But no team won the final six holes to set up the extra hole for most of the money on the line.