Days after his talk with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan helped drive the circuit to action regarding social justice, Harold Varner III grabbed the spotlight on the golf course.
As the tour returned following a 91-day hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Varner, one of the U.S.-based circuit's few black players, fired a 7-under-par 63 on Thursday to share the first-round lead in the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas.
Varner and England's Justin Rose, who shot a 63 earlier in the day, hold a one-shot edge over Venezuela's Jhonattan Vegas, Mexico's Abraham Ancer and the United States duo of Justin Thomas and Collin Morikawa.
Monahan and Varner spoke about the tour's lack of diversity last weekend in a video chat, responding to the nationwide wave of protests calling for change in the wake of George Floyd's death. Monahan admitted the need for improvement, and the tour honored Floyd's memory Thursday with a minute of silence at 8:46 a.m.
Floyd, a black man, died May 25 when a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes, 46 seconds. The time 8:46 has come to be a symbol for those who are protesting against racism and police brutality.
"When I got to the gym it was on TV, and I just couldn't hear but I could see," Varner said. "I don't really know what they were thinking on the golf course, but it was just crazy what they did. I thought it was pretty cool."
Varner said he is embracing his role as an advocate for change.
"The reason I have a platform is because I'm really good at golf," he said. "I just need to focus on that, and to be honest with you, being on the golf course, it helped me. It's my getaway, I guess."
Varner, 29, succeeded on that count Thursday, opening his bogey-free round with consecutive birdies and closing by making an 11-foot birdie putt.
Still, it's a long way from sharing the lead on Thursday to earning the first victory of his PGA Tour career.
"If I'm thinking about winning a golf tournament right now, I've probably lost it," he said.
The PGA Tour was back in action after its longest break in play since World War II. With stringent testing policies in place and no fans in attendance, the 148-player field includes the top five players in the world.
Rose has fallen to No. 14 in the official world golf rankings, but the former No. 1 player won at Colonial in 2018 and took advantage of ideal scoring conditions Thursday.
Starting on the back nine, Rose rolled in a birdie from just off the green on his first hole of the day. He made the turn in 4-under 31 and appeared poised to make a run at the course tournament record of 61 set seven previous times when he reeled off three consecutive birdies to begin his back nine.
Rose continued his stellar ball-striking, but settled for a run of six pars to close out his round. He hit 11 of 14 fairways, 12 greens in regulation and needed 24 putts to get around Colonial on Thursday.
Vegas, who attended the University of Texas, said he has felt the support of being back in the state for the Tour's return.
"Obviously we missed it a lot," Vegas said. "Being at home for three months, even though it was good for me, I definitely missed playing. But just kind of getting back and getting competing again, I missed it. I felt the nerves on the first tee, and it was good getting back at it."
NOTES: Dustin Johnson recovered from three bogeys through his first five holes to card a 1-over 71. ... Colonial member Ryan Palmer hit the first tee shot of the tournament and went on to shoot a 2-over 72, as did defending champion Kevin Na. ... FedEx Cup leader Sungjae Im of South Korea carded a 4-under 66. ... Rickie Fowler was the lone player to be miked up during the Golf Channel's broadcast window. He is tied for 128th after shooting a 3-over 73.
--Field Level Media