By DOUG FERGUSON AP Golf Writer
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — One spectator was stopped after trying to sneak into Colonial on Friday, and perhaps he was onto something with all the birdies from Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth and the great recovery of Harold Varner III.
If the opening round of the Charles Schwab Challenge felt like the first day of school, players quickly adjusted to the quiet environment as the PGA Tour tries to restart from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The leaderboard is a ‘who’s who’ of golf right now,” McIlroy said after a 63, with a bogey on the last hole, that left him two behind Varner among the early starters. “I’m just happy to be in the mix.”
So is Varner, more prominent that ever because of such thoughtful words on racial injustice coming from one of four players of black heritage on the PGA Tour.
Varner’s opening tee shot at No. 10 went through the trees and onto the bridge leading to a one-shot penalty, and three putts from 50 feet gave him a triple bogey to start the second round. He answered with eight birdies — one of them right after the 8:46 a.m. moment of silence as a tribute to the death of George Floyd.
He wound up with a 66 for a one-shot lead over Spieth.
Dating to the ShotLink era in 2003, it was the lowest score on the PGA Tour by a player who began his round with a triple bogey. He was at 11-under 129, the lowest 36-hole score of his career.
Varner was in the gym Thursday during the moment of silence, which the tour is doing every day at 8:46 a.m. This time he had a 10-foot birdie chance on the par-3 16th when he heard the three short blasts from the horn to stop play.
“I just wanted to make that putt just to get me back to even (for the round),” Varner said. “I was really just focused on playing some good golf. It’s pretty cool that the tour is doing that, but when you’re out there, you’re just so in the moment. Well, I was, anyway. I don’t know, man, I was just trying to make a birdie.”
Collin Morikawa (67) and Xander Schauffele (66) joined McIlroy at 9-under 131, with Justin Thomas (68) another shot back.
Birdies were not in short supply on another day filled with hot sunshine, but not spectators.
One man tried to get in. Police say he crossed a pedestrian bridge near the perimeter of Colonial, got through the fence near bushes in a corner of the course beyond the fourth green and watched some golf. He was dressed more for a jog along the river than a tournament, and it wasn’t long before he stood out and was sent packing.
No spectators are allowed at the first five events on the PGA Tour. Golf is only the second major sport to return to action in America (behind motor sports), so the appetite would appear to be strong. The players, too, were eager to return.
Spieth is mired in a slump that has kept him winless since the the 2017 British Open shortly before his 24th birthday.
If golf felt like it was slowly getting back to normal, the same could be said for Spieth.
More than just the putts he was making, it was the fairways Spieth kept hitting, along with one exquisite chip that led to a 65 and contention going into the weekend. His only wobble was a four-putt from 30 feet on the third hole, with the last three putts from the 3-foot range.
“I felt like I gave myself some grace to say, ‘Look, I haven’t really been practicing a ton of those kind of short-range putts,'” Spieth said. “Those are the ones where you just have a ton of them when you’re playing in competition, but you’re picking them up a lot of times when you’re playing regular rounds of golf at home.”
He followed with a bogey on the 244-yard fourth hole, and then answered with two birdies and a 6-foot par save, and he somehow avoided dropped a shot on the par-3 eighth with a tee shot well right, leaving a bare lie with trees above him.
He banged a 52-degree wedge hard into the rough on the hill, and it skipped up to the green with perfect pace and settled 3 feet away. It was worthy of cheers. With no spectators, he had to settle for the appreciation, such as it was, from Thomas and Rickie Fowler.
“Rickie and Justin were both staring at me, making signs with their backs to the cameras at me like it was pretty ridiculous,” said Spieth, who said it was among his best five up-and-downs of a career filled with them.
His spirits were high, as were so many others who have taken advantage of good scoring weather and simply being back to work no matter how different it is with testing, thermal readings and no one around them.
“It felt as normal as it can, I guess,” McIlroy said.
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