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PGA Tour’s first day back goes off without a hitch

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FORT WORTH, Texas — The first day of the PGA Tour’s anticipated restart went off without a glitch. If it were a golf score, it would have to be considered a bogey-free, under-par round. The happiest person in the state of Texas has to be PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan.

Before Thursday’s opening round of the Charles Schwab Challenge began at Colonial Country Club, all 148 players and their caddies tested negative for COVID-19.

That left the week to be about the golf and the restart of the sport, with everyone following the safety protocols.

“I think just being out here is successful, to be honest with you, getting started,’’ said Ryan Palmer, who struck the first tee shot of the tournament at 6:50 a.m. local time. “I don’t see anything holding us back moving forward. I think today was the biggest day, just getting this first day off. You know, people are going to watch golf back home and be interested to watch it tomorrow, and that’s a great thing.’’

There was little holding back Justin Rose and Harold Varner III on Thursday. Rose, playing in the morning, scorched the course with a 7-under 63. Varner, playing in the afternoon, matched it, hitting all 18 greens in regulation.

Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, Jhonattan Vegas and Abraham Ancer are one shot back after all shot 6-under 64s.

Harold Varner III
Harold Varner IIIGetty Images

Nine players posted 65s, including Jordan Spieth, Gary Woodland, Xander Schauffele and 61-year-old Champions Tour player Tom Lehman, invited to play this week as a past champion — albeit 25 years ago.

The star-studded featured group — No. 1 ranked Rory McIlroy, No. 2 Brooks Koepka and No. 3 Jon Rahm — were overshadowed on this day. McIlroy and Koepka managed just 2-under 68 and Rahm 1-under 69.

This day, though, was about a bigger picture than what the first-round scores would be. It was about the PGA Tour playing an event for the first time since The Players Championship was canceled after its opening round on March 12 because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

This week is about golf’s re-entry into tournament play and a safe re-entry.

“I woke up and I was like, ‘Am I really about to play golf?’ ’’ Varner said. “But I worked out with my trainer [in the] morning, and I was like, ‘It’s game on … back in the saddle.’ I’ve been playing a lot of golf like at home just with a bunch of friends, but now this world excites me like no other because that’s what you want. That’s why you get on the PGA Tour, that’s why you work your tail off, and just to be here is good.’’

Spieth said this new and unique existence — playing in front of no spectators — “didn’t hit me the last couple days, but when I was driving in and I saw [Phil] Mickelson was on 4 tee, and when I didn’t see anybody there and it was a tournament-round day, I’m like, ‘This is certainly weird.’ I’m certainly just really happy to be playing golf and being able to be competitive again and to be able to finish our season. I was getting pretty anxious.’’

The eyes of the sports world, which includes the other sports leagues that are preparing to restart — the NBA, NHL, MLS and hopefully Major League Baseball — are on the PGA Tour this week as the first mainstream sport to restart.

Some criticisms had surfaced Wednesday about players and caddies not following social distancing suggestions, not wiping down flag sticks and caddies handing players clubs. But the fact is, there is evidence that most everyone has been trying to conform.

“Everybody is doing their best,’’ Brian Harman said after shooting 65. “We’re not perfect. I saw we got a little heat [Wednesday] and I disagree, I think most people are trying their best. We kind of fall back into some of our old habits. I think everyone is aware of it. There’s going to be some inherent risk. We’re playing a sport. We had to get on airplanes to get here. We’re taking a risk. That’s just part of it.’’

Ian Poulter lauded the PGA Tour for doing “an incredible job,’’ adding, “I feel very comfortable with everything that’s taken place this week. It’s great to be back. I know the fans I’m sure are watching on TV and are going to enjoy the strength of field this week. It’s strong. And hopefully they’re going to get to watch some great golf.’’

There was plenty of it Thursday and there are three more days to come.

“I think everything has been done right by the Tour,’’ Palmer said. “There were over 1,400 tests taken and I haven’t heard of any positive tests at all. So to me, that’s a great sign. Moving forward, everyone is going to do the right thing. I see nothing but success here on out.’’

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