PGA returns with Colonial - minus fans

Brooks Koepka, the No. 3-ranked golfer in the world, played in relative obscurity during the final round of the Charles Schwab Challenge.


As he walked alongside playing partner Rory Sabbatini at Colonial Country Club, the few on the grounds barely seemed to notice the four-time major champion playing in a PGA Tour event on a Sunday.


Granted, Koepka wasn't in contention. But the eerie quietness without fans was impossible to ignore throughout the week. There were no cheers or groans. Not when Jordan Spieth drained a long putt for birdie, or when Collin Morikawa missed a 3-footer to extend a playoff with eventual champion Daniel Berger.


Anything great or disastrous was greeted with the same silence.


"We're all dealing with the atmosphere, but I've loved the competition," said 2018 Colonial champion Justin Rose, who finished in a four-way tie for third. "Down the stretch I was still feeling the butterflies and I was still very aware of what it means to win on the PGA Tour and all the FedEx Cup points and world ranking points.


"As a player you know what's on the line, but yeah, there's one element missing for sure. But was definitely grateful to be out here playing, and hopefully putting on a good show for everybody at home."


The TV ratings suggest that the PGA Tour and Colonial provided just that. The tournament had its best final round TV ratings in 16 years, CBS Sports announced. The third-round ratings were the best in 15 years.


Sunday's final round averaged 3.091 million viewers, more than a 50 percent increase from last year. The audience peaked for the final round at 3.88 million viewers from 4:45 p.m. to 5 p.m.


With how much attention and praise Colonial received throughout the week - PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan called it the perfect venue to restart golf's season after a three-month hiatus amid the coronavirus pandemic - it's crazy to think that the tournament faced an uncertain future just three years ago.


There were questions whether Colonial would survive when Dean & DeLuca backed out of its title sponsorship agreement. But the tournament got enough support to host the 2018 tournament, called the Fort Worth Invitational that year, and then landed a sponsor committed to the game and tournament with Charles Schwab starting a four-year agreement in 2019.


"Three years ago we were pretty concerned for sure," said Rob Hood, the tournament's chairman for the last four years who will hand the reins to Jim Whitten in 2021.


"I kind of feel like a war veteran at this point. This year was supposed to be a coast year in the second year with Schwab as our sponsor and building off the momentum they established in 2019. But COVID-19 threw us a knuckleball and put all that on hold. But this year ended up being great and 2021 is going to be a great tournament too."


It'll be hard to match the drama that unfolded, though, with the tournament's deepest field in 2020. Just look at the players who didn't make the cut.


Nobody would have complained if Sunday's leader board featured Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Webb Simpson, Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson.


Instead, it featured seven of the top 20 players - including top-ranked Rory McIlroy, reigning U.S. Open champ Gary Woodland and former Masters champ Patrick Reed - among 14 players within three shots of the lead when the final round started.


There were other intriguing storylines such as Harold Varner III vying to become the first Black golfer to win the Colonial, Jordan Spieth searching for his first victory since the 2017 British Open and a bulked-up Bryson DeChambeau looking for his first victory in Fort Worth.


In the end, it was Berger who outplayed everyone and donned the signature plaid jacket.


But the overriding storyline from last week is Colonial being the site where golf returned. There were limited issues with coronavirus protocols and testing. The on-course play didn't disappoint. And Fort Worth showcased its passion for golf with fans building makeshift grandstands or watching the action through a chain-link fence just to catch a glimpse.


"It shows what great fans and what great members we have," Hood said. "They all understood. There wasn't a lot of complaining or bad words. Everybody understood what was going on and it was enjoyable to see the neighborhood and residents find a way to watch it live.


"They did it in a non-distracting way and didn't cause any disturbances. They simply wanted to watch some great golf. It was fun to see and we're looking forward to having them back on the grounds next year. It'll be bigger and better than ever."