While the PGA Tour sits idle for an indefinite period of time, the path to the tour has been shut down as well.
Davis Riley, the former University of Alabama standout, sits third on the Korn Ferry Tour money list, close enough to securing a PGA Tour card (the top 25 money winners in the regular season move up) to think about what next year might be. But now he’s left to hang out at home in Hattiesburg, Miss., without an official restart date.
J.T. Griffin sits 20th on the Korn Ferry list, the best start of his worldly career and currently inside the number to advance to the PGA Tour, understanding a big – or not so big – chunk of the season remains to be played. When he’s not working on his game he’s playing music again, which always has been a go-to outlet for him.
Ben Kohles, who won his first two starts on what then was the Web.com Tour in 2012 before struggling to retain that form, has a pair of top-three finishes this season and is comfortably inside the top 25, but as with everyone else his momentum may not carry over whenever the Korn Ferry Tour restarts.
All three are in position to think realistically about being on the PGA Tour next season. But that’s all they can do at the moment – think about it.
“I’m fortunate I played well early, not that there is ever a bad time to play well,” said Riley, who won the Panama Championship in early February. “I’m in a good spot.
“There are endless questions. Are they going to stick with a condensed season or add weeks? Everybody is playing the waiting game at this point and you want to be ready when we go back.”
Only six events have been played on the developmental tour’s schedule this year and events have been canceled or postponed through the latter part of May. Given the spread and impact of the coronavirus, the prospect of returning to competition in late May seems increasingly unlikely though the tour has not changed its timeline yet.
The Korn Ferry Tour is not stuffed with big-money events like the PGA Tour. What it offers is access to the big tour and that access comes through performance.
If three months or more of the schedule is lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic, would the tour reconfigure the Korn Ferry Tour? Could two years (2020 and 2021) be rolled into one big season? Would fewer than 25 players move up this year if the schedule is significantly shortened?
“It’s one of those things, we just have to wait and see,” Kohles said.
Kohles lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., five minutes from PGA Tour headquarters and the TPC Stadium Course. He’s still able to work out and play golf but he’s not optimistic the tour will resume in late May.
“Commissioner (Jay) Monahan told us that as of right now, if we go back at the end of May, they’re looking at replacing the one off week on the schedule with one of the events that was cancelled (or postponed),” Kohles said. “They’re going to do all they can to get as many events in as they can.
“How many does it take to be a full season? I have no idea. There is definitely a lot of uncertainty.”
“Almost every golfer, Tiger (Woods) included, goes through spurts like that. It could be a couple of weeks or a couple of years. Golf is funny like that. I’ve found my way back.” – Ben Kohles
Kohles’ story is one of perseverance. When he won twice in 2012 and was fresh out of the University of Virginia, he wasn’t fully ready for what came next. Kohles didn’t start playing tournament golf until he was 15, leaving him lacking the experience most players had.
In his one full season on the PGA Tour, Kohles made one top-10 in 25 starts, lost his card and has been fighting to get back since.
“You lose (confidence) a little bit,” said Kohles, who now works with swing coach Justin Parsons. “I’m pretty confident about any kind of competitive game. Some mechanics got off in my second, third year as a professional. That takes a toll. I had driver issues, hitting it short and crooked. That’s not good for your score.
“Almost every golfer, Tiger (Woods) included, goes through spurts like that. It could be a couple of weeks or a couple of years. Golf is funny like that. I’ve found my way back.”
Griffin has been trying to get a foothold on the Korn Ferry Tour for parts of eight years, playing mini-tours and international circuits for the most part. Now that he’s off to his best start on the Korn Ferry Tour, he’s at home in Atlanta, resting, giving a few online golf lessons (you can find them on Instagram at jtgolflessons) and getting back into music.
“I just don’t feel very motivated knowing we’re at least two months out,” he said.
Griffin’s challenge, he said, has been learning to be better to himself on the course. It’s been a process but he’s taught himself to ease up. Bad shots happen. As his Georgia Tech golf coach Bruce Heppler suggested years ago, if Griffin’s caddie talked to him the way Griffin talks to himself, he’d have fired him.
“I’ve been too results-oriented, kind of playing with handcuffs on,” he said.
Griffin plays the piano and guitar and gets together with a friend when he can. Though social distancing prevents it at the moment, Griffin has performed at open mic nights and he’s played at some funerals.
“Funerals are kind of my jam,” Griffin said. “My sister passed away when she was young and I don’t know if they’re inspiring songs or sad songs but I’ve played those at some funerals.”
For Riley, who left Alabama midway through his senior season and turned pro last January, there is a golf course bordering his backyard and a makeshift gym in his garage. He already has won once this season and figures to be on the PGA Tour this time next year.
Until then, Riley appreciates the position in which he finds himself, knowing others who didn’t start as well are dealing with more immediate pressure.
“I feel I’ve made some great strides since I turned pro,” Riley said. “I’ve gained a lot of confidence. When I’m playing well, I feel like I can compete with the best. This is just the beginning.”
Ben Kohles has two top-three finishes on the Korn Ferry Tour this season. Photo: Ben Jared, PGA Tour via Getty Images