HARTFORD, Conn. – Fans aren’t the only thing returning to the PGA Tour this week at the Vivint Houston Open.
Travelers Championship winner Dustin Johnson will be back for the first time in six weeks after having to withdraw from two tournaments due to testing positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 13. He experienced symptoms of the virus, alerted PGA Tour officials and was administered a test that was positive and made him the biggest name in the game to return a positive test since the sport’s restart on June 12.
The No. 1-ranked player in the world hasn’t played since he tied for sixth in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Though he was feeling better a few weeks ago, Johnson reportedly still lacked energy but now says that’s behind him.
“My health is good. The state of my game in undetermined,” Johnson said in his pre-tournament press conference. “I felt like I had a cold for a few days, so I was pretty much asymptomatic. A little fatigue and things like that, but I couldn’t really figure out if that was because I was stuck in a hotel room for like 11 days not doing anything or it was COVID that made me feel that way.”
Johnson, the FedExCup champion and PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2019, tested positive for the virus before the CJ CUP @ SHADOW CREEK and then also withdrew the following week from the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP @ SHERWOOD, missing an opportunity to play a course where he is a member and holds the course record. Now he’ll play a course, Memorial Park, that he had never seen before this week.
Johnson’s sixth place in the U.S. Open was his fifth consecutive finish of sixth or better, a stretch that included a staggering 11-stroke victory in THE NORTHERN TRUST at TPC Boston in Norton, Mass., a win in the TOUR Championship and runners-up at the PGA Championship and BMW Championship. He compared the recent run to one in 2017 when he won three consecutive starts leading into the Masters. But Johnson was unable to compete at Augusta National after he injured himself in a fall at his rental house. This year, his pre-Masters prep was interrupted by his positive COVID test.
“The most movement I made was to the shower, and then I had a little outside area so I would go sit outside for a little bit. That was it,” Johnson said of his time in isolation, when he binge-watched television shows, saying “Yellowstone” was his favorite. He started hitting balls 10 days ago but had to cut the session short because of fatigue.
“It was just over two weeks before I started practicing again,” said Johnson, who will play the first two rounds Thursday and Friday with Adam Scott and Tyrrell Hatton. “But then obviously not playing or doing anything for two weeks, the first day I didn’t hit balls for very long because I got kind of tired. Then (I) practiced a little bit more each day. It’s been going pretty well so far.”
Now we’ll see how quickly Johnson can pick up where he left off during some of the best form of his career. On June 28, he beat 2014 Travelers Championship winner Kevin Streelman by a stroke for his 21st PGA Tour, extending his run of consecutive years to win a title to 13. Next week, he’ll be in Augusta, Ga., for the Masters, the final major of the year.
Another marquee player returning to play in front of fans is former No. 1 Brooks Koepka, a player consultant with famed architect Tom Doak on dramatic renovations to Memorial Park who has played only once, a tie for 28th at THE CJ CUP @ SHADOW CREEK, since the Wyndham Championship. Doak provided input during on-site visits and over email and said he knew Koepka was serious about the project when he replied to Doak’s email in the middle of the night during the 2018 CJ CUP @ NINE BRIDGES in South Korea, which Koepka won.
“I’ve seen so many different versions of this place, from the first architectural designs to playing it today,” said Koepka, who plays the first two rounds with defending champion Lanto Griffin and 2017 Travelers Championship winner Jordan Spieth. “There’s been I don’t know how many versions of it, but it’s been quite interesting to see the little things change, the subtleties that maybe a lot of people would never notice. It’s been fun, I’ve enjoyed the process, it’s been cool just to put my, I guess, hand in something else other than just playing golf, the design.
“I’ll be honest, I give Tom all the credit. He came up with 99.9 percent of the ideas, and I just kind of threw in a couple here and there. He’s a hell of an architect, designer, so it was fun to work with him. To be honest, I had no aspirations of ever being like I want to design golf courses, nothing, but then being asked to do this, it’s a really cool idea. I think any time you can play a hand in having some opinion on a course that we’re going to play out here, I think it’s unique, it doesn’t happen very often. I know the course is quite difficult and long. You’ll see some high numbers, especially if the wind gets up. I think some people would say it kind of resembles a little bit of a U.S. Open, which I feel like I’ve done pretty good at.”
Injuries forced Koepka to withdraw from the FedExCup Playoffs and U.S. Open, but he now says he feels “great” and hopes to enjoy the fruits of his labor in his first tournament appearance since 2016. He and Johnson are headliners at Memorial Park, where a maximum of 2,000 spectators a day will be allowed on the premises. It’s the first time since March 12, the first round of The Players Championship, that fans will be at a PGA Tour event in the United States. Last week’s Bermuda Championship, won by Brian Gay in a playoff with Wyndham Clark, also saw a limited number of spectators, but it’s a different environment. The event isn’t well attended in normal circumstances, and Bermuda has virtually no active coronavirus cases.
That certainly isn’t the case in the United States, and fans attending this week will need to be screened at the gate and wear masks at all times. It’ll be fascinating to see how volunteers space out the fans who gather to watch Johnson, Koepka, Streelman, two-time Travelers champion Stewart Cink, Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia and Tony Finau. Players are expected to keep a safe distance between themselves and the fans, especially with the Masters the following week. Ironically, the Houston Open was moved from April to the fall after being played the week before the Masters for many years. Thirty-seven players in the field will compete in the Masters, where the winner will qualify for the 2021 Masters.