Golf is back. So is Justin Rose. The former world No 1 was on a slippery slope before the Covid-19 shutdown. Three months on, he was back to his best in the opening round of the Charles Schwab Challenge in Texas.
The Englishman, who won the same event two years ago, carded a seven-under-par 63 at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth. The bogey-free effort earned him a share of the lead with American Harold Varner III in the PGA Tour’s eagerly-awaited return, albeit behind closed doors.
Riding high in the rankings 16 months ago, Rose has slipped to 14th in the world. A decision to change clubs at the end of the 2018 season looked to be a mistake. They’ve been binned. On this evidence, it’s onwards and upwards once more.
Rose, who had missed three cuts in four starts on the US circuit before the enforced break, birdied three of his first four holes after starting at the tenth.
He then trundled in a 12-foot downhiller for a 2 at the 16th before reeling off three birdies on the trot at the start of his back nine.
“Enjoyed the first day back in the office,” admitted the Olympic champion. “It kind of feels like a competitive practice round. But, obviously, I think we all know what’s on the line. We all know what we’re playing for.
“We all know the competition this week especially, the field is incredible. Obviously, we miss the fans. They definitely provide a ton of energy and atmosphere.”
The course fell silent at 8.46am, the time having been set aside by the PGA Tour honour George Floyd, who prosecutors claim was knelt on for eight minutes and 46 seconds by police, killing him in the process, in Minneapolis last month, prompting widespread civil unrest.
“As the PGA Tour commits to amplifying the voices and efforts to end sistemic issues of social and racial injustices, we have reserved the 8.46 tee time to pause for a moment of silence, prayer and reflection,” said Jay Monahan, the circuit’s commissioner, in an announcement on the first tee.
As the hooter sounded and players out on course stopped their rounds, Rose and his two playing partners, Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson, all took off their caps as a show of respect.
Varner, one of four players of black heritage with full PGA Tour status, had sat down with Monahan for a chat last week on what golf can do. He matched Rose’s effort later in the day with an effort that saw him putting for birdie on every hole.
“If I’m thinking about winning a golf tournament right now, I’ve probably lost it,” said Varner. “Yeah, I know what’s going on, but when I’m on the golf course, I’m trying to play well. The reason I have a platform is because I’m really good at golf. I just need to focus on that.”
Testing carried out in the build up to the event showed no cases of the coronavirus among players and caddies in the 144-strong field. It had emerged overnight, though, that there had been four positive tests, one player and three caddies, for the return of the Korn Ferry Tour, the circuit’s feeder tour, at TPC Sawgrass in Florida on the same day.
Even at the top level, golf’s return is happening with social distancing measures in place. While doing their best, at times that wasn’t being adhered to on day one, though Rory McIlroy had been right in saying there needs to be a “little bit of leeway” as people get used to things.
Rose and Varner sit one ahead of a group that includes Justin Thomas while world No 1 Rory McIlroy opened with 68, as did third-ranked Brooks Koepka playing in the same group that also included No 2 Jon Rahm (69).
“Uneventful,” said McIlroy, who is making his debut in the event, of his effort. “My distance control on my wedges was a little off. But it felt good to be back.”
DeChambeau, who has bulked up by 20lbs during the lockdown, opened with a 65. “It was awesome,” he said of the return. “It’s great to be back, and shooting five-under is nice.” On playing with no fans, he added: “It reminded me of US Open qualifiers.”
Gary Woodland, the US Open champion, covered his final seven holes in five-under to match DeChambeau’s effort, as did 61-year-old Tom Lehman, playing as a former winner. “I would be probably lying if I said I fully expected to shoot such a low score,” admitted the 1996 Open champion.
On a day when the caddie bibs bore two names - the player’s and also the name of a healthcare provider who has worked at the frontline of the pandemic - Ian Poulter made his 66 with a front-nine of 31.
“It’s refreshing,” said the Englishman of being back at the coalface. “I think they’ve done an incredible job. I feel very comfortable with everything that’s taken place this week.”
Phil Mickelson, the 2013 Open champion, felt “a little bit rusty/nervous” as he opened with a 69, six shots better than Russell Knox as the Scot made a disappointing return.