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They’re Back

The PGA Tour became the second major spectator sport (NASCAR has been racing for 2 weeks) in the US to return to the playing field this past Thursday after a hiatus of 90 days. The event was the Charles Schwab Challenge at venerable Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas.

The eerie quiet. Golf is essentially not a raucous sport like football, but the air is still littered by cheers from 3,000 people whenever a player does something spectacular. Those cheers were replaced by applause from a handful of fervent admirers watching the event outside the confines of Colonial or the smattering of volunteers and player families that were allowed on the course.

The quality of the field (the 5 top ranked players were all in attendance) would be the envy of many Major Championships. Several of the game’s biggest stars would rise to the occasion and become leading actors on the weekend stage.

The 36-hole leader though was Harold Varner III, who has yet to win on Tour. Varner is one of two African American players in the field this week and followed his brilliant 7-under par opening round 63 with an equally impressive 66 to take a one-shot lead into the weekend at 11-under. Varner’s second round had begun with a disastrous triple bogey on his opening hole and closed out with 5 birdies in his last 6 holes.

In between, at 8.46 am when the PGA Tour was observing a moment of silence for George Floyd, Varner drained an 11-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th hole. Although he had been asked by the Tour not to putt, the softly spoken Varner said that “I was really just focused on playing some good golf. It’s pretty cool that the Tour is doing that, but when you’re out there you’re just so in the moment. Well, I was anyway.” 

Varner was one shot clear of two young superstars. Bryson DeChambeau, whose reincarnation as the Incredible Hulk (he put on 40 lbs. of mass with his workouts in the quarantine) hasn’t diminished his quirky golf skills, matched two 5-under 65’s to be tied for second with a suddenly relevant, Jordan Spieth who also shot a pair of 65’s.

The once upon a time wunderkind who won three Majors and 11 PGA tournaments by his 23rd birthday, has been winless since 2017, but looked like much more like the wonderkid again rather than the young man who has been wondering about his game for the last three years.

They were one ahead of a trio of players; 23-year old American rookie Collin Morikawa, who has incredibly made all 22 cuts to start his career, 4-time PGA Tour winner, Xander Schauffele (coolest name on Tour) and world #1, superstar, Rory McIlroy who stormed into contention with a flawless 63. 

South Africa’s Brendan Grace lead a pack of players a shot further back at 8-under that included 27-year old American Daniel Berger and a trio of Major Champions, Gary Woodland, Justin Rose and Justin Thomas.

Saturday lived up to its nickname of “moving day” and when the dust had cleared it was Schauffele who moved the most and sat atop the leaderboard after a 4-under 66 gave him a 3-round total of 13-under. 

That was one better than Grace, Woodland, Thomas, Morikawa and Spieth. Spieth’s 2-under 68 could have been so much better and also so much worse as the 26-year old Texan failed to have the same groove as the first two days. It was an encouraging and gritty round by the Texan, who might have turned that 68 into a 74 last year. 

Varner also struggled a little and had to settle for an even par 70 but was still very much in the thick of things at 11-under and tied with Berger for 7th place.

There were 6 players a shot back at 10-under including, McIlroy, Rose, DeChambeau, Canada’s Corey Connors, Mexico’s Abraham Ancer and everyone’s favorite villain, Patrick Reed.  

There were 26 players though within 6 shots of the lead so Sunday would be a day with many potential winners.

Sunday would end up with a play-off with two players who, given the quality of the leaderboard, would not have been considered the favorites to be the last two standing.

Berger and Morikawa finished tied at 15-under and one shot clear of Rose, DeChambeau, Schauffele and American Jason Kokrak whose closing 64 was the best round of the day. Spieth and Thomas faded with 1-over 71’s to be tied for 10th but both showed encouraging form for the week. Varner would also struggle on Sunday with a 2-over 72, but he will remain a very large part of the story of this historic event.    

The hugely talented Berger would prevail over Morikawa on the first hole of sudden death with a par. Berger suffered a wrist injury in 2018 that stalled a very promising start to his career (he won the St. Jude Classic in 2016 and 2017) and this victory re-establishes him as part of the leading pack of 20-somethings on Tour. June must also be a favorite month as all three of the 26-year old Floridian’s wins have happened in the second week of June.    

For the equally talented Morikawa his time will surely come and will in all likelihood breakthrough for his maiden victory soon.

While the Charles Schwab Cup crowned a worthy champion, the big winner here was the game of golf. It was wonderful to see the finest male players in the world doing what they do best again. For the most part the PGA Tour has managed to implement an isolated environment for us all to enjoy our favorite sport again and they should be applauded for a very difficult job, extremely well done.