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O'Connor: Golf's comeback at Colonial is one for the ages

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Harold Varner on benefits for him playing without fans (0:38)

Harold Varner III explains why he believes playing with no fans in attendance has helped his overall golf game. (0:38)

Professional golf returned to a most fitting stage at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Ben Hogan's ballpark in Ben Hogan's town. Until 6:50 a.m. local time on Thursday, June 11, when another Texan named Ryan Palmer launched the opening tee shot into a rising sun, the greatest comeback in golf history belonged to the legend who won this tournament five times.

"I mean, he got hit by a bus and came back and won major championships," Tiger Woods had said of Hogan at the 2018 Masters, a year before Woods punctuated his own stirring climb out of a different kind of abyss.

In 1949, Hogan was nearly killed when his Cadillac was crushed by a Greyhound bus that suddenly emerged from a dense morning fog. His body completely shattered, his life threatened by blood clots, Hogan won the U.S. Open 14 months after leaving the hospital.

His comeback was just matched in his own backyard.

When the PGA Tour announced in April its scheduled return to competition during the coronavirus pandemic, what unfolded at the Charles Schwab Challenge on Thursday seemed like the longest of longshots. Were tour officials serious when they expressed extreme faith in their ability to get up and running in the second week of June, or were they only fooling themselves -- while giving important sponsors like Schwab a show of corporate appreciation -- when they disclosed their ambitious plans through the fall?

The answer came when the 487 COVID-19 tests given to players, caddies and staff earlier this week came back with 487 negative results. When Palmer, a Colonial member, ended the sport's 91-day suspension, the longest tour break since World War II, golf was back in play -- even before baseball, its outdoor summertime companion, could reach a deal between owners and players to return to the field. The sound of Palmer's club striking his ball was a welcome one, even if his drive settled in the rough.

There were no crowds at Colonial, no bleachers, no hospitality or merchandise tents, and no mass gatherings of reporters trailing the leading men in a field that included the world's top five players and more than a hundred former tour winners. Fans desperate for live sports were left to watch on TV. They saw Ian Poulter wearing a mask while arriving at the course. They saw others arrive mask-free.

Players and caddies were supposed to practice social distancing, and to avoid the routine handoff of irons, woods, and putters before and after shots, though the world's No. 1 player, Rory McIlroy, had warned of the occasional violations that were evident on screen. "I'd say for the viewing public, just to give the players and the caddies a little bit of leeway in terms of if they see something on TV that isn't quite right," McIlroy had said. "We're having to figure it out as we go along as well."

In the most profound event of the day, at 8:46 a.m., tour commissioner Jay Monahan stood on the first tee and called for a moment of silence for George Floyd, the handcuffed black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes, inspiring global protests against racial injustice and police brutality. Three horn blasts signaled to players around the course to stop playing and stand at attention.

Some removed their caps. Most bowed their heads. Tom Lehman, a 61-year-old Minnesota native who would shoot a 5-under 65, said he spent the moment praying for the country and for Floyd's family. "I think everybody needs ... to hurt deeply because of what happened to George Floyd," Lehman said later.

The moment of silence, said Debert Cook, founder and publisher of African American Golfer's Digest, "really felt genuine." But Cook knows better than most that golf has a grim history of exclusion at all levels.

"I've got personal experience myself in that area," she said. "I think with this reawakening ... the people who control those major organizations in the golf industry should not go back to sleep."

Golf's leaders are promising that they won't, that their actions will honor their words. Time will tell if they are truly committed to being agents of change.

Harold Varner III, one of the few African American players on tour, engaged Monahan in a pre-tournament conversation about America's racial divide. "As bad and as ugly as it is," he said last week, "we have an opportunity to grow."

On Thursday, he climbed the leaderboard late in the afternoon by hitting all 18 greens and finishing his first round in a tie for the lead at 7 under.

On the golf side, the PGA Tour faced forbidding challenges getting a tournament into the starting gate. This wasn't the Woods/Peyton Manning/Phil Mickelson/Tom Brady exhibition for COVID-19 relief, or the McIlroy/Dustin Johnson/Rickie Fowler/Matthew Wolff fundraiser that preceded it. This was a full-field event shaped by temperature scans and hand sanitizers and players who hadn't seen or competed against one another in three months.

This tournament, senior Charles Schwab executive Mason Reed said, was "part of the journey and some movement toward normal, which may take a very long time."

Nothing about the first round approached normal the way anyone in golf once defined it. Mickelson said he was proud of the PGA Tour for creating an environment that felt safe for players. Poulter credited officials for doing "an incredible job" in making the tournament happen.

They made it happen at the right place, too, the course known as Hogan's Alley. In 1959, a decade after his near-fatal accident, Hogan secured his 64th and final tour victory at Colonial at age 46.

His comeback was one for the ages. So was Thursday's in Mr. Hogan's hometown.