FORT WORTH, Texas — The start was even quieter than usual for a Thursday morning on the PGA Tour, and the silence never left over the next 12 hours as high-profile professional golf got back to business at the Charles Schwab Challenge.
Sung Kang made a hole-in-one on No. 13 at Colonial Country Club and didn't realize it until he was 50 yards from the green.
"I'm like, 'Wow, it's in the hole.' It wasn't really crazy. Nobody was really up there, only a few people out there just clapping a little bit," Kang said. "I still appreciated it, though."
Phil Mickelson made a birdie and instinctively pinched the brim of his cap to acknowledge a crowd that wasn't there.
Ryan Palmer, a Colonial member who raised money for COVID-19 relief efforts during the pandemic-induced shutdown, was chosen to hit the first official shot on the PGA Tour in three months. Those gathered around the first tee could barely hear him announced. The starter was wearing a mask, and his voice competed with the hum of a generator behind the ninth green.
Quiet as it already was, Colonial came to a complete standstill at 8:46 a.m., when everyone on the course honored a moment of silence for the death of George Floyd and the outrage it has sparked worldwide on racial injustice.
It was a most unusual round of golf — but it was golf.
"I think just being out here is successful, to be honest with you, getting started," Palmer said. "I don't see anything holding us back moving forward. I think today was the biggest day, just getting this first day off. People are going to watch golf back home and be interested to watch it tomorrow, and that's a great thing."
Golf Channel coverage begins at 4 p.m. EDT.
Justin Rose and Harold Varner III shared the lead at 7-under-par 63, with Abraham Ancer, Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas and Jhonattan Vegas a stroke back in third. Tom Lehman, a 61-year-old former champion at Colonial's PGA Tour event, got in on the act with a 65 that had him part of the nine-man logjam in seventh.
Chattanooga native Keith Mitchell opened with four birdies and one bogey in a 67 that gave him a share of 26th on the leaderboard. Fellow former Baylor School and University of Georgia golfer Harris English (72) was tied with Palmer and many others for 110th in the 148-player field.
Conditions were ripe for good scores — without the typical feedback from a gallery.
"It kind of feels like a competitive practice round," said Rose, the 39-year-old from England who is No. 14 in the World Golf Ranking and won at Colonial two years ago. "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."
Thursday's telecast began with an apology. Right when Golf Channel came on the air, young Spanish star Jon Rahm chipped in for birdie on the par-3 eighth, and someone — it could have been inside or outside the ropes — was heard to say, "Pretty (expletive) good, there."
Quipped CBS anchor Jim Nantz: "Well, we were hoping for better audio with no fans."
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan gave the opening group a thumbs-up after the players hit their drives, and he returned to the tee box alone at 8:46.
That starting time was listed on the tee sheet without any players; officials are keeping that empty all four rounds for a moment of silence. It's a tribute to Floyd, who was handcuffed while a white police officer pressed his knee to the back of the black man's neck for 8 minutes, 46 seconds, on May 25 in Minneapolis. Floyd died after pleading for air.
Varner, a 29-year-old American, is one of four players of black heritage with full PGA Tour status, and he delivered the strongest words last week in a social media post. He also sat down with Monahan for a 10-minute video on what golf can do.
Then he found himself atop the leaderboard with a round so clean he putted for birdie on every hole.
"If I'm thinking about winning a golf tournament right now, I've probably lost it," said Varner, who won the Australian PGA Championship in 2016 and is off to a good start in his latest quest for a breakthrough PGA Tour victory. "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."
That platform is at least a little bigger than usual due to the pandemic.
Golf is the second major professional sport in the United States, behind motorsports, to resume a schedule shut down by coronavirus concerns. Among the safety measures are tests for every player, caddie and essential personnel. Of the 487 tests at Colonial, the results were all negative.
"We're all taking risks playing golf, obviously," Palmer said. "Being back out here, everybody leaves the club, they're going out to dinner and doing things, so everybody is taking that risk to be here. Everybody is pretty confident that we're going to all be safe. I think everything has been done the right way."
The top three players in the world — Rory McIlroy (68), Rahm (69) and Brooks Koepka (68) — played in the same group, and they had the largest following late in the afternoon. There were 14 people outside the ropes behind the 10th green: six involved in the broadcast (radio and TV), four writers, two photographers, one coach and one trainer.
For so long, the only sounds came from the click of contact with the golf ball, the squeak of brakes on carts belonging to broadcast crews, course workers and rules official. And then came a strange noise: cheering.
A house behind the 16th tee set up a grandstand, while another home erected a two-story hospitality tent with views of a small section of the 15th fairway. They chanted names of players and let out a few roars. Behind the second tee, a few fans watched from behind a chain fence along a public road.
Texas native and three-time major champion Jordan Spieth, who opened with a 65, was reminded of what to expect before he hit a shot.
"I was pulling in when Mickelson was on (the No.) 4 tee, and when I didn't see anybody there — and it was a tournament round day, it wasn't a practice round day — I'm like, 'This is certainly weird,'" Spieth said. "I'm just really happy to be playing golf and being able to be competitive again and to be able to finish our season."
It was only one round. Fans will be kept away from the first five tournaments as the tour takes a conservative return to golf, hopeful of no setbacks in the sport from a spike in the new coronavirus.
Monahan, asked Thursday morning what would constitute a successful tournament, said, "Getting to next week."
Setback for senior tour
The PGA Tour Champions Boeing Classic scheduled to be held in August outside of Seattle has been canceled because of the pandemic.
Tournament director Brian Flajole said Thursday uncertainty about the ability to hold large public gatherings in Washington state led to the decision to not hold the 50-and-older circuit's tournament scheduled for Aug. 17-23 at The Club at Snoqualmie Ridge. Flajole said the decision was made in conjunction with local and state health officials as well as the PGA Tour.
Flajole said the tournament intends to return in 2021. This year was set to be the 16th playing of the only professional golf event held annually in the state.