WASHINGTON (AFP) – Harold Varner III, among only three black golfers on the US PGA Tour, fired a seven-under par 63 on Thursday to grab a share of the Charles Schwab Challenge lead as the tour paid tribute to George Floyd and ended a three-month coronavirus shutdown.
Floyd, whose killing by a police officer touched off worldwide protests over racial and social injustice, was remembered with a moment of silence hours before Varner matched Britain’s Justin Rose atop the leaderboard in the opening round at Colonial Country Club.
Asked if he felt he was playing for more than himself this week, Varner said, “I for sure think that.”
Varner, the 2016 Australian PGA Championship winner, spent the past few days at the centre of the PGA’s social injustice discussion in the wake of Floyd’s death.
But the issue was not on his mind as he and 147 others returned to competition after 91 days off due to the deadly virus outbreak.
“I didn’t think about that when I was on the golf course,” Varner said. “I was in the zone. I just wanted to play well. It was good to be back out there, trying to keep it as normal as possible.
“I know we’re still in a tight spot. I’ll handle it when I get done with work. The platform I have is through golf. I have to focus the most on what I’m doing and trying to play well.”
The 29-year-old American matched the second-best round of his career, one shot off a 62 in 2016 at Mayakoba. Varner made 29 putts and hit all 18 greens in regulation, firing a bogey-free round like Rose at Fort Worth, Texas.
“It goes to show that life is precious,” Varner said. “You take every day as it comes.”
A moment of silence was observed at 8.46am for Floyd. The time represents the eight minutes and 46 seconds while a Minnesota policeman held a knee to the back of the handcuffed black man.
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan stood in silence at the first tee while air horns halted play and practice across the course.
Rose, the 2013 US Open champion, birdied seven of his first 12 holes then closed with six pars as he and Varner seized a one-stroke edge over Venezuela’s Jhonattan Vegas, Mexico’s Abraham Ancer and Americans Justin Thomas and Collin Morikawa.
“Could have maybe gotten it into the clubhouse better than seven in the end, but honestly, great start,” Rose said of his bogey-free round. “Rode my luck a little bit on the back nine, my front nine, and that was the key to the day.”
No spectators were allowed at the event, where increased safety measures included social distancing and temperature taking in the wake of the deadly disease outbreak.
“It’s eerie because there are no fans out there,” Thomas said.
World number one Rory McIlroy, number two Jon Rahm and third-ranked Brooks Koepka played together. McIlroy and Koepka fired 68s. Rahm, who could overtake McIlroy atop the rankings with a victory, shot 69.
“Uneventful,” McIlroy said. “It was one of those days.”
Varner opened with back-to-back birdies, sinking an 18-foot putt at the par-5 first and tapping in for another at the second. He also sank a 15-footer for birdie at six and an 18-foot birdie putt at nine.
Varner’s longest birdie putt of the day was a 23-footer at 10. He followed with another from three feet at the 12th and closed his round with an 11-footer at 18.