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By Keith Jackson
Last Updated: 12/06/20 12:52am
Justin Rose and Harold Varner III shared the spoils on the opening day of golf’s return to competition on the PGA Tour, 91 days after The Players Championship was abandoned.
The Charles Schwab Challenge might be out of bounds to spectators, but neither the eerie atmosphere or the lengthy break in tournament golf seemed to have an adverse effect on the scoring at Colonial Country Club, with Rose and Varner leading the way after seven-under 63s.
Justin Thomas was among a group of four players just one off the lead overnight, while it was a steady, if unspectacular, start from the world’s top three players as Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka handed in 68s, with Jon Rahm slipping to one under after he bogeyed the last.
Colonial member Ryan Palmer had the honour of hitting the first tee shot to herald a welcome return to competitive live golf on Sky Sports, but it was Rose who soon set the early pace as he looks to rebuild his FedExCup campaign after a torrid opening to the year.
The former world No 1 had missed the cut in three of his first four starts of 2020 on the PGA Tour, his lone weekend resulting in a meagre tie for 56th at the Genesis Invitational, but three birdies over his first four holes went a long way to proving he had been working hard on his game during the enforced break.
Three consecutive birdies from the first lifted him into the outright lead, and six closing pars kept him at seven under to earn a clubhouse lead he would enjoy or most of the afternoon, with Varner the only player among the later starters to match the Englishman’s 63.
Varner, one of only a handful of prominent black professional in the United States, has been the focus of attention on the PGA Tour since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked worldwide outrage and a number of protests in almost every major city around the globe in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign.
But the charismatic 29-year-old showed the quality of his golf matched his diplomacy and class in speaking out against matters of racial injustices, keeping a clean seven-birdie card although he admitted he was “in the gym” when play was halted for a minute’s silence in memory of Floyd at 8:46am, local time.
“If I’m thinking about winning a golf tournament right now, I’ve probably lost it,” said Varner, who held long discussions on racial inequality issues with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan which were filmed and later published on the PGA Tour digital platforms.
“I know what’s going on, but when I’m on the golf course, I’m trying to play well. The reason I have a platform is because I’m really good at golf. I just need to focus on that, and to be honest with you, being on the golf course, it helped me. It’s my getaway, I guess.
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“But I didn’t think it would be like that until I got on the first hole and I hooked one super far left and I was pissed, like it was good. Those juices are awesome.”
World No 4 Thomas was also bogey-free for the first day in a 64 which matched the earlier efforts of Abraham Ancer, Jhonattan Vegas and Collin Morikawa, while the surprise name in the group at five under was undoubtedly Tom Lehman, the 61-year-old proving that age is no barrier on one of the shorter, more traditional layouts on Tour.
American Ryder Cup hopefuls Bryson DeChambeau, Gary Woodland, Xander Schauffele and Jordan Spieth are also just two off the pace overnight, while a “refreshed” Ian Poulter carded a 66 despite two blemishes over the second half of his round which cost him the chance to join long-time friend Rose at the top of the leaderboard.
McIlroy, making his debut at Colonial, began with a confident birdie and hit back from a mistake at the sixth with back-to-back birdies at eight and nine, but he found chances hard to come by on the inward nine and parred nine straight holes to stay at two under alongside playing-partner Koepka.
Live PGA Tour Golf
June 12, 2020, 12:45pm