Varner leads as McIlroy charges in PGA return at Colonial

LOS ANGELES (AFP) – Harold Varner overcame a triple-bogey start to maintain the lead at the halfway stage of the Charles Schwab Challenge on Friday as the hard-charging Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth appear poised to strike.

Varner, one of three black players in the top 200 in the world rankings, fired a four-under-par 66 at Colonial Country Club to reach 11-under 129 after 36 holes in the US PGA Tour’s return event after a three-month shutdown due to the new coronavirus pandemic.

“I have learned a lot about myself through adversity. America is going through adversity right now so it is pretty eye-opening,” said Varner, later referring to protests against the death of George Floyd, a black man killed recently as he was detained by white police officers.

Jordan Spieth and Bryson DeChambeau are tied for second, one stroke back after a second consecutive 65s, while world number one McIlroy fired a 63 to join Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele sharing third on 131.

England’s Justin Rose and American Justin Thomas are tied for seventh.

Harold Varner III of the United States. PHOTO: AFP

This week’s Charles Schwab Challenge is full of firsts, the biggest change being the absence of spectators.

Players have to undergo temperature screenings, regular COVID-19 testing and practise social distancing.

“When that first birdie putt went in and I didn’t get a clap … my hand was trying to go up to wave to someone in the gallery, but there’s obviously no one there,” McIlroy said.

The field includes 15 of the world’s top 20 players, but some bigger names from outside of North America skipped it because travelling to the US would mean two- weeks quarantine.

After an opening 63 to match Britain’s late-starting Rose for the first-day lead, Varner took a seven at the par-four 10th hole to begin his second round, soaring off the tee and finding a bunker and rough before reaching the green.

Varner bounced back with birdies from four feet at 11 and 10 feet at the par-three 12th and par-three 16th holes.

“If you going to make a triple do it while you are playing well,” said Varner, seeking his first PGA Tour win.

“I got it back in a hurry, so that was nice… The way I finished was pretty awesome.”

After a bogey at 18, Varner closed with a flourish that started with a 31-foot birdie putt at the par-three fourth. He made three more in a row, the last a 20-footer at seven, and closed with a 10-foot birdie putt at the ninth.

The Tour is also holding a moment of silence every round at 8:46am, marking the time – eight minutes 46 seconds – George Floyd spent pinned down by a white police officer kneeling on his neck.

Varner said the moment came at an awkward time.

“After making the triple I was just fighting for my life. They told me not to putt, and I was like – I just wanted to make that putt just to get me back to even,” he said.

“It’s pretty cool that the Tour is doing that, but when you’re out there you’re just so in the moment.”

Spieth, another back nine starter, had the lead after six birdies in his first 11 holes but four-putted for double bogey at the third and took a bogey at the par-three fourth after missing the green.

He bounced back with birdie putts from 16 feet at the fifth and 12 feet at the sixth to stay on Varner’s heels.

“I played a really, really solid round of golf with a kind of 20-minute hiccup … it’s nothing to complain about,” Spieth said.

McIlroy opened at the 10th hole and birdied three times on the back side before sinking a 23-foot eagle putt at the par-five first hole and following with a 10-foot birdie putt at the second.

Back-to-back birdies at the sixth and seventh put McIlroy one stroke off the course record but a losing bogey dropped him two off Varner’s pace.