After a 91-day layoff, the PGA Tour returned on Thursday.
It was golf. Yes, there were no hollering, rambunctious fans, but it was golf. Yes, there was no perfunctory applause from the gallery after even the most routine shot, but it was golf. It looked different, it sounded different, but it was golf, and for that, we can be grateful.
Ninety-one days after the last group walked off TPC Sawgrass following the first round of the Players Championship, the PGA Tour returned on Thursday with the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial. The world’s best players were a little antsy to get going after a three-month layoff: all top-5 players in the world rankings showed up this week, creating the best field in the event’s 73-year history.
It was hard to ignore the signs that everything wasn’t quite back to normal. Start with how it looked. There were no fans lining the course. The number of volunteers working the tournament went from 900 to 300. Phil Mickelson showed up wearing dark-tinted sunglasses that made him look more like a Secret Service agent. Bryson DeChambeau went from a physics geek to the Incredible Hulk. Brooks Koepka had something on his face he’s calling a mustache.
Then there was the sound. Birds chirping and clubs jangling in the bag were all the noises that interrupted the eerie silence. Rickie Fowler was miked for the TV audience. A few obscenities were captured by microphones around the course and made it on TV.
Amidst all this change, Justin Rose emerged as the early leader. The Englishman and former World No. 1 won here in 2018, but he never had a round at Colonial quite like this. His seven-under 63 was his lowest score in 25 career trips around this course. His opening hole, for which he had waited three months, went better than he could have possibly imagined.
“The start today was great, great-ish, right? Miss the fairway left, miss the green slightly to the right. Had one of those awkward, grainy Bermuda lies,” he told Golf Channel’s Todd Lewis afterward “Knocked a little 3-wood up, hit the pin and disappeared. I kind of said, ‘welcome back.'”
In the same group with Rose was DeChambeau, who bulked up 20 pounds during the break and is now up to 225. He averaged 345 yards off the tee in his five-under round of 65, more than 60 yards longer than Rose and 40 past the third member of the group, Dustin Johnson, who’s been one of the five-longest hitters on tour nine times in the last 10 years.
The PGA Tour did everything they could to bring the event to fruition. An extensive safety protocol was implemented, mandating regular testing and social distancing. No player or caddie tested positive for COVID-19 before the tournament.
“It’s nice to be back out,” Mickelson said. “It’s certainly awkward not having everyone out here, but I’m certainly proud of all the steps the PGA Tour has taken to have everybody be safe, feel safe in this environment, and to hopefully entertain and have some people watching on TV even though they’re not here.”
The tour also didn’t ignore what’s going on in America right now. A moment of silence was held at 8:46, commemorating the number of minutes a Minneapolis police officer kept his knee on the neck of George Floyd. That tee time slot was kept empty. Harold Varner III took some inspiration from it; the only regular African-American player on tour other than Tiger Woods went six-under through his first 12 holes and is a shot behind Rose.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was golf, and that’s all that mattered. The players will eventually get used to it, and so will the fans watching at home. After 91 tumultuous, uncertain days, there was finally a sense that things are going back to normal.