As was addressed here on Golf News Net this week, Jordan Spieth’s early-season schedule won’t include many domestic appearances as he learns to adapt to being world No. 1 and approaching a schedule reflective of that title and the expectations of winning (and appearing) that come with it. It’s not surprising, and something so many before him and around him on the biggest stage in the game face each season.
But 2016 is a different animal -- a year that will feature the world’s best players trying to figure out not when to peak, but how to survive the gauntlet that will require that peak. It's a year where a trip to Firestone C.C. takes place in June, the PGA Championship fills out July and there are five significant golf competitions (U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship, WGC-Bridgestone and the Olympics) in the span of nine hectic summer weeks.
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How will the top five golfers in the world approach this schedule, and more importantly, the golf load leading up to it? Based on their own words and past history, we can speculate a bit.
“I've learned over the last couple years how significant even just a few days away from the game and away from just being able to settle down, what kind of impact it has, and it's significant,” Spieth remarked late in 2015.
Nobody is earlier into managing his schedule dilemma than Spieth. Just two years ago, he was still in the process of learning what events to tackle and which fit his style of play and preparation needs. He played the John Deere Classic last year out of appreciation for the sponsor’s invitation that led to his breakthrough win as a teenager in 2013. If not for an Olympic conflict this year, he would be returning again to the Quad Cities to defend.
“This past year, I did a better job of conserving energy,” he added. “Even though I played a lot, I took some more time off and I limited practice at the back end of some of my three-, four-week stretches to be able to save energy, not only for that week but for the next stretch.
“2016 is going to be a difficult year. With the Olympics and the majors pushed up and closer together, I don't think it will affect the amount of tournaments I play. I think I will play, if anything, one or two less in total, on the PGA Tour season.”
What burdens Spieth to a degree is being from Texas, where he has yet to win as a professional. In 2016, thanks to the move of WGC-Dell Match Play to Austin Country Club, there are five stops for the Longhorn legend to try and win. While Spieth’s game travels to any course, Colonial and Valero (San Antonio) are the best fits for his ballstriking and precision. The AT&T Byron Nelson would be the logical fit to take time off, falling a week after The Players and before Colonial. But, Spieth is from Dallas. He can’t skip it. He won’t skip it.
Entering that nine-week gauntlet laid out above, Spieth could be looking at his own stretch where he plays 10 times in a 13-week stretch prior to that summer slam. Good thing he’s the youngster!
“I understand it's going to be a tough schedule for me next year, but it's just got to be done, and I'm going to do the best I can to make sure that I'm rested,” Day said after winning the RBC Canadian Open last year, reacting to concerns that he might not be able to defend his title.
Day has had an extended rest thanks to the birth of his second child, although many young fathers would gladly argue with just how restful that time at home can be. His assault of the majors and his showdown with Spieth for the FedEx Cup drained him, but few players have shown a better ability to limit schedule and rise to the challenge of the big events better than Day. His first win in 2015, at Torrey Pines, was after a three-week layoff.
Injuries have prompted much of the shortage of his schedule, but he’s never been a workhorse when it comes to total events. Since 2009, he’s never played more than 24 tournaments, worldwide, in a year. By comparison’s sake, Spieth has played 27, 30 and 27 worldwide events since turning pro.
What should we expect from Day? Not a lot early, ramping it up around the Masters and then digging deep to fight through the summer.
“I'm going to do the best job I can to make sure I give every tournament a hundred percent and give it a good shot at winning, and that goes from the British to the Canadian Open, to the PGA,” he said.
Like Day, McIlroy has shown great patience in his 20s to limit the workload. Since winning the U.S. Open in 2011, he’s never exceeded 25 events per year. That’s an amazing feat for somebody who still prides himself on maintaining membership on both the PGA and European Tours. Rory, like Day, takes most of the winter off. He is in the midst of eight weeks without playing golf, and practice is at a minimum too.
“I want to try and get healthy and get stronger again, get my body back, because I haven't been able to do as much in the gym as I would have liked over the past few months,” McIlroy said after capturing the Race to Dubai for a third time in November. “The good and bad thing about golf is it doesn't really have an offseason.
"I really feel, even though I've had a few weeks off over the summer [due to his ankle injury], I need that off period just to reflect on things, re-evaluate how I want to go forward.”
McIlroy has discussed his goals of settling things off the course and becoming a better person. Getting engaged this winter probably checks one of those off the list, but it will be interesting to see how he manages his fatigue and fitness this summer.
If Rory defends his title at Wells Fargo the first week of May, he would be in line for four straight weeks of golf, thanks to The Players the following week and then the Irish Open (hosted by McIlroy’s foundation) and the BMW PGA Championship (the biggest tournament in Europe) to close out the month. Along with the Memorial, that leaves him only a week off afterwards before the summer stretch. Something will likely change from what has become his status quo.
Death. Taxes. Bubba Watson’s schedule.
“I haven't really changed anything,” he said late last year. “You know, one tournament here or there, add it or subtract it, just because of life situations. That's really all I've done. I haven't changed my schedule. Played the same schedule. If you play good golf, you get in all the team events. If you play bad golf, you're not going to get in them.”
For 2016, we know he’s added Pebble Beach to the mix because Mark Wahlberg convinced him to play. We know he will play, and play well, at Scottsdale and any other course where his visuals are good. The problem there is the summer slam could really slam Bubba. He enjoys Greenbrier (and has a home there), is defending at Travelers (the week between the PGA and the Olympics) and played in Canada last year. If all three of those get attention, he’s facing eight starts in nine weeks. That doesn’t seem likely, which means at least one of those dates (likely Canada) gets dropped. For somebody who needs to be operating at peak mental focus, scheduling a siesta this summer would be important for somebody who may be more motivated by medaling at the Olympics (his wife, Angie, was nearly an Olympian in 2000) than winning any major.
Stenson likely has logged the most time in a jet of the top five. He’s also put together his own schedule differently. He played nine tournaments AFTER the 2015 PGA Championship worldwide. That was more than a third of his entire 2015 workload. Conversely, he played only eight times between the Masters and PGA. While the previous four on this list may have to figure out ways to scale back in 2016, Stenson may be the one who actually revs things up after he gets back to full strength after meniscus surgery this winter.
“I'm going to change my schedule and play a little bit more in the summer because I feel like I didn't get out of the major season what I wanted,” he said at the conclusion of the FedEx Cup playoffs last year.
“I've got a month off after the playoffs [in the United States], and then I've got six or seven weeks worldwide with a busy traveling schedule. I need to be somewhat hungry and fresh when I'm heading into the end of the year.”
It sounds like we will see more of Stenson in 2016. He did play 31 times in 2013, which also happens to be the best season of his career. Perhaps more is better.
There is no good answer, and each player has a variety of circumstances to weigh when attacking 2016. While there will be plenty of second guessing, the fact the schedule won’t reflect this conflict again until 2020 won’t provide immediate answers either. The good news? Once the summer is over, there will be a week off in the 2016 FedEx Cup Playoffs. The bad news? Straight to the Ryder Cup from East Lake.
Rest up now, fellas.