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What we learned about the Tour’s return, from two weeks of exhibition matches

Consecutive Sundays of live and meaningful golf has proven that the game can move forward from COVID-19, albeit on a much smaller scale and with a wealth of understandable and relatable missteps along the way.

The TaylorMade Driving Relief match and The Match: Champions for Charity were what officials had hoped for as golf inches closer to its official return next month at Colonial. Two exhibitions also set the stage for what we can expect when play resumes.

Here’s what we learned from both:

• Endless hours putting on living room carpet and hitting chip shots in the back yard may vaguely look like practice, but it’s a poor substitute for the real thing, and the two matches offered a glimpse of what to expect when play resumes – rust. With the exception of Rickie Fowler’s putting and Tiger Woods’ tee game, we’re talking lots and lots of rust.

• Social distancing is going to cause awkward moments in the months to come, like the “air five” Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson exchanged after winning their bout at Seminole Golf Club or the “no five” between Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady when the duo eagled the par-4 11th hole at Medalist Golf Club.

• Any plan to return to play without caddies – which the PGA Tour discussed but eventually dismissed – was never going to work based on the two matches. At Seminole, the players appeared utterly lost on the greens and at Medalist, club selection was a serious challenge for everyone except Woods, who is the club’s most high-profile member.

• Justin Thomas is going to be the game’s most insightful and straightforward television analyst in 25 years, when he’s finished with his Hall-of-Fame playing career. “Chuck [Barkley], I’d love to see your fat ass try to dunk,” was one of JT’s numerous unfiltered observations.

• If every major was played at Seminole, the brilliant Donald Ross design, McIlroy would have already won the career Grand Slam. If every major was played at Medalist, the Tour’s unofficial South Florida home, Woods might never lose.

• The pandemic has been difficult for everyone, but if the pause in action was beneficial for anyone it was Woods. Considering Tiger had skipped traditional starts at the WGC-Mexico Championship, Honda Classic and the Arnold Palmer Invitational to allow his body to recover before play was halted, he looked downright spry on Sunday.

• Similarly, Mickelson still appears to be searching. Lefty has just a single top-10 finish this season and was fresh off back-to-back missed cuts when the schedule was suspended. At Medalist, he missed more fairways than he hit and was equally off-the-mark with his irons. He did, however, offer one of the more entertaining moments when Woods said he couldn’t match Mickelson’s length off the tee. “Dude, I’m 50. In three weeks, I’m going to be Champions Tour eligible,” Mickelson said to laughter.

• Not that we “learned” this, but just as a reminder: golf is really hard. Peyton Manning’s first tee shot, really? As an aside, if the former signal caller ever wanted to get into the golf announcing business, we’d be the first to sign up for that.

• Both matches also gave a glimpse into what golf will be like without fans. There’s certain to be a fair share of surreal moments, but the silence will provide players and caddies a chance to show some personality that otherwise would have been stepped on by the cheers. From Fowler acknowledging the non-existent applause following a birdie putt to Mickelson’s non-stop narration, it’s going to offer a humanized element to the broadcast.

• Social distancing is also going to take time to figure out, if the matches were any indication. Six feet means 6 feet, and Woods’ momentary lapse when he grabbed Manning’s driver to help his partner with a drop is proof how challenging behavior modification will be.

• Golf has always been a productive outlet for charities and the matches proved that the pandemic hasn’t changed that. More than $25 million was raised between the two matches to benefit COVID-19 relief and other charities.

• There’s not going to be anything normal about golf’s return, but the matches did provide the game with a proof of concept. From four players on the course the last two weeks to 144 next month at Colonial, the game is learning how to carry on and the matches proved that point.