FORT WORTH, Texas — The PGA Tour went three months without playing. It took just three days to show golf fans what they were missing, even if all they could do — officially — was watch on TV.
Eight players had at least a share of the lead at some point Saturday in the Charles Schwab Challenge. When the third round at Colonial Country Club ended, 14 players were separated by three shots.
And not just anybody.
Xander Schauffele, a 26-year-old American with four PGA Tour wins who is among the growing roster of young stars in golf, finished off his six-birdie round with a 12-footer on the last hole for a 4-under-par 66. He was on top of the 54-hole leaderboard at 13-under 197.
The six players one shot behind included Jordan Spieth, whose short game helped him navigate some early trouble and nerves. The Dallas native with three major championships had the lead until going without making a birdie on the back nine. Still, his 68 gave him his best 54-hole position since at Colonial a year ago as he tries to end a three-year winless slump.
Also one shot behind was Justin Thomas (66), who's No. 4 in the World Golf Ranking, and 2019 U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland, who quickly got into the mix with birdies on his last two holes for a 66. They were joined by Branden Grace (66) and Collin Morikawa (67).
Top-ranked Rory McIlroy (69) and English star Justin Rose (68) were among those three shots behind. Patrick Reed, who had to birdie three of his last six holes Friday to make the cut with one shot to spare, shot a 63 on Saturday. The 2018 Masters champion was three shots out of the lead.
All this with hardly any noise.
"I don't have, like, a huge effect on the crowd I'd say, so not having fans isn't the craziest thing to me," Schauffele said. "It just does feel like I'm playing at home with some of my buddies. It's quiet. You make three birdies in a row, you can kind of give yourself a pat on the back."
Chattanooga native Keith Mitchell shot his second straight 71 after opening with a 67 — the former Baylor and University of Georgia golfer made the cut on the number Friday — and was tied for 59th at 1 under.
Two other former Baylor standouts are not in Fort Worth but are playing well in another pro event.
Luke List was tied for second, and Stephan Jaeger had a share of 20th entering the final round of the Korn Ferry Challenge at TPC Sawgrass. Will Zalatoris led that event in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida — where the PGA Tour was staging The Players Championship when sports shut down three months ago due to the coronavirus — at 10-under 200, with List a shot back alongside three others.
List, who opened with a 66 and shot a 70 on Friday, made just one bogey in the third round as he matched the 65 put up by Zalatoris. Jaeger was at 4 under after his third-round 70, which followed back-to-back 68s.
Back at Colonial, it wasn't entirely a TV show. A few houses in the neighborhood put up their own hospitality tents to see limited golf, the rowdiest behind the 16th tee and another down the 15th fairway. Fans gathered on the balcony of an apartment complex along the 14th, which also brought out the first, "Get in the hole!" since the PGA Tour returned for the first since since March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the course, there were no bursts of cheers as Spieth rammed in a 40-foot putt on the eighth hole or stuffed his approach to three feet from No. 9 to take the lead. A few dozen of the essential personnel — broadcast crews, volunteers for scoring — were around when Schauffele made his birdie for the lead.
There are leaderboards that show only the score — no need for updates on FedEx Cup leaders or statistical data for each player as he prepares a shot because that's for the fans, and there are none — and those will be the only way anyone knows where he stands in what figures to be a wild chase to the finish.
"When you have spectators and things, you get on a roll, and most of the time you feed off of that," Grace said. "I remember when I won Hilton Head and played well in the majors, the crowd started getting behind you and you start feeling like you can't do anything wrong. At the moment, it's just you and your caddie out there."
Colonial is the first of five tournaments that won't allow spectators in the PGA Tour's return. Players have had three days to adjust to the lack of sound. Sundays are going to be different during this fan-free stretch, with everyone trying to generate his own momentum without the energy typically delivered from outside the ropes.
"When you get into contention and have a chance to win a golf tournament, that adrenaline starts pumping," Woodland said. "It's been a little different. The first two days there wasn't too much adrenaline. There will be adrenaline going, which you have with fans or without fans. Tomorrow should be fun."
Spieth passed a big test, with another to come. Five times last year, he started a tournament with two rounds in the 60s and was left behind when he couldn't break par on Saturday.
There were a few anxious moments for him, such as an iron shot off the fifth tee that would have finished on the practice range if not for a fence in place for the tournament. He got up and down from short of the green to escape with birdie. His next tee shot was right and banged off a cart — one of the loudest sounds of the day — leaving him blocked by a tree. He punched it low into a back bunker and saved par.
But he didn't make a birdie over the final nine holes, and the 15th cost him when he decided to wait for the players to hit on the 16th tee and started thinking too much about an 81-yard wedge shot. He hit it fat and made bogey.
"I feel comfortable going into tomorrow that I can shoot a good score," Spieth said. "If it happens, it happens, and if it doesn't, it doesn't. But I learned a bit about what was going on when I really felt kind of the nerves kick in today, and hopefully compensate for that tomorrow and hit some better shots."
The field was the strongest Colonial has had, not surprising because so many players stuck at home for the last three months were eager for competition. And the first three rounds made clear so many of them came to play.