Harris English’s voice began to crack. The 31-year-old, standing in the winner’s circle at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January, tried his best to keep his emotions in check. But tears, especially in this particular scenario, would have been entirely justified.
After all, it had been more than seven long years since English stood in this same position after a victory. Seven long years of struggles, uncertainties, and questions about his future were finally behind him.
“It feels amazing. All the hard work that has gone into this, all the highs and lows of golf that it brings over a career and I feel like I’ve gotten out of my valley and getting back to the tournaments and some of the quality of golf that I know I can play,” English said emotionally. “It feels great to have some validation out there on the golf course.”
It was a poetic, if not ironic, victory for the former University of Georgia product. An event typically reserved strictly for winners during the previous year, English instead gained entry into the 2021 tournament via his finish in the 2020 FedExCup Playoffs, as the field opened up 42 players due to last season’s three-month hiatus during the Covid-19 pandemic.
It was a long, arduous journey back to becoming a champion for English, whose career was in serious jeopardy as recently as two years ago. He narrowly kept his PGA Tour card in 2017 and 2018, finishing 118th and 125th in the FedExCup, respectively, before the bottom finally fell out in 2019 during a season that saw him finish 149th.
But things finally clicked during the 2019-20 PGA Tour season, as English opened with four top-10 finishes over his first five tournaments, then added five straight top-25 results following the season’s resumption over the summer. It all finally came together during The Northern Trust, where English finished solo-second behind Dustin Johnson.
“Every week you play with somebody that you might think does this better, does that better, but you are who you are, and you can get better at what you do,” English explained. “That’s what I’ve learned – to not go up-and-down the range saying, I need to be like Dustin or Justin Thomas or Xander Schauffele.
“I need to be the best version of myself and do the things I do well and always work at it. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at doing that and my coach back home has really kept me on track.”
English’s victory to open 2021 is all the more impressive considering the level of talent he edged out to get there. A quick glance down the leaderboard shows a who’s-who of superstars both new and established.
It started with Chilean Joaquin Niemann – who English beat on the first extra hole of a playoff – who scorched Kapalua with a final-round 64, the second-best finish of his young PGA Tour career. Many more opportunities like this one await in the still-blossoming career for the 22-year-old, whose own story of perseverance has been on display of late.
Niemann has spent the last several months raising money, and donating his own PGA Tour winnings toward a coveted $2m infusion his infant relative Rafita Calderon will need in order to survive. The three-month-old, whose father is the cousin of Niemann’s mother, was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a breakdown of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
“I’m just thinking about him,” an emotional Niemann said earlier this season. “I love him and his family, they’re really nice. It’s sad to see things like this happen. So it’s kind of like a mission for me to help out for them. They’ve been so nice to me since I grew up, since I was a kid, so I just feel good by helping back.”
And if stories of comebacks and goodwill aren’t your thing, maybe watching the titans of the game open the new year with strong starts are.
Will 2021 be the year Justin Thomas finally wins another major? The 13-time Tour winner – who won the 2017 PGA Championship – certainly looked like a man on a mission in Hawaii, finishing solo-third after flirting with a Sunday comeback.
“Last year was a good year. It was my most consistent year I’ve had, but it definitely wasn’t as many wins as I feel like I could have and should have had,” Thomas said.
“Especially in some big events, I feel like I didn’t play well over the weekend or on Sundays and that’s something that I feel like I’ve been able to assess and figure out a little bit what it was, and hopefully when I get in those situations going forward I’ll handle them a lot better.”
Of course, the talent surrounding Thomas on Sundays probably has a lot to do with that, too. Though he didn’t win the Sentry Tournament of Champions, Thomas still managed to beat out a large swath of the game’s best, including major champion hopefuls Xander Schauffele and Sungjae Im, who finished tied for fifth.
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As for the three players who tied for seventh? They combined for six PGA Tour wins and a pair of major championships in 2020, and their trajectories certainly don’t appear to be slowing down in 2021.
Jon Rahm became the first Spaniard to reach No 1 in the world last year, while Collin Morikawa cemented his status as a rising star with his PGA Championship triumph. Then, of course, there’s Bryson DeChambeau, whose monstrous physical changes during the covid-19 hiatus last year became the talk of not just golf, but sports in general.
DeChambeau, who won both the Rocket Mortgage Classic and U.S. Open in 2020, has big goals on his mind for 2021. First up? For the golf ball to come off the driver at 200 miles per hour in tournament play. The 27-year-old, who added some 40 pounds of muscle and mass last year, told reporters he reached 211 mph on the range at Kapalua.
“I still feel like there’s some low-hanging fruit with the driver, the speed I can gain. It’s fun,” DeChambeau said. “I hit 7-iron into 18, albeit the wind died and I went a little short. I mean, I hit 7-iron on 18. That’s a big deal for me.”
All that said and we still haven’t mentioned perhaps the biggest name to watch entering 2021 – Dustin Johnson.
The future World Golf Hall of Famer finished in a tie for 11th at Sentry, a ho-hum feat for the four-time winner in 2020, which included a pair of wins in the FedExCup Playoffs and a decimation of the field at The Masters in November. Johnson, who was named the Tour’s Player of the Year after his win at the Tour Championship, once again will be a name to watch in 2021.
“Motivation for me, it’s not that hard,” he said. “I mean, I like being the best. I want to continue the good play and hopefully can have a little bit better year this year.”
A better year this year? That’s a scary thought for the rest of the PGA Tour, but an exciting one for golf’s fans to follow in 2021.
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