(Reuters) – Harold Varner III and Justin Rose both fired seven-under-par 63s to share the lead as the PGA Tour returned to action for the first time in three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic at the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth on Thursday.
Englishman Rose showed no signs of rust after the long layoff as he waltzed through a bogey-free round in the morning at the spectator-free Charles Schwab Challenge.
Varner followed in the afternoon with a blistering round under sunny Texas skies, capping it off with an 11-foot putt on 18 for his seventh birdie of the day to pull even with Rose.
Four players, including world number four Justin Thomas, were locked in a tie for third at six under. World number one Rory McIlroy had an unremarkable round to finish two under and tied for 39th.
“It felt quite subdued out there for sure,” Rose said of playing without fans cheering on the impressive field, which included the top five golfers in the world rankings.
“It kind of feels like a competitive practice round. But I think we all know what’s on the line. We all know what we’re playing for.”
Everyone in the field underwent mandatory COVID-19 testing prior to teeing off as the tour ended its longest unscheduled break from competition since World War Two.
“Just being out here is a success, to be honest with you, getting started,” said American Ryan Palmer, who hit the day’s opening tee shot.
“I don’t see anything holding us back moving forward. I think today was the biggest day, just getting this first day off.”
Palmer (72) began his round about two hours before the 8:46 a.m. (1346 GMT) tee time was left vacant as golfers stopped play to observe a moment of silence to honor George Floyd, the black man who died last month after a white police officer knelt on his neck, sparking widespread protests.
It was a solemn scene as golfers and caddies stood with their heads bowed during a time slot selected to reflect how long – 8 minutes and 46 seconds – the officer’s knee was on Floyd’s neck.
Varner, who is among only a handful of black players on the tour, called the moment of silence “pretty cool,” a sentiment echoed by other players.
Varner has long been an advocate for greater racial diversity in the pro game but said right now his focus is on trying to win his first PGA Tour event.
“The reason I have a platform is because I’m really good at golf,” the 29-year-old told reporters.
“I just need to focus on that.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue and Steve Keating in Toronto and Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Ed Osmond and Christopher Cushing)