Varner leads as McIlroy charges in PGA return at Colonial

Harold Varner hits out of the sand during the Charles Schwab Challenge in Texas on Friday. (AP pic)

LOS ANGELES: Harold Varner overcame a triple-bogey start to maintain the lead at the halfway stage of the Charles Schwab Challenge on Friday as the hard-charging Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth appear poised to strike.

Varner, one of three players of black heritage in the top 200 in the world rankings, fired a four-under-par 66 at Colonial Country Club to reach 11-under 129 after 36 holes in the US PGA Tour’s return event after a three-month shutdown due to the new coronavirus pandemic.

“I have learned a lot about myself through adversity. America is going through adversity right now so it is pretty eye-opening,” said Varner, who delivered a strong message last week regarding the civil unrest in America.

Varner said he was playing for unity and social justice, referring to George Floyd, a black man who recently died at the hands of American police officers while being detained over an alleged US$20 counterfeit bill.

Jordan Spieth and Bryson DeChambeau are tied for second, one stroke back after a second consecutives 65s, while world No 1 McIlroy fired a 63 to join Americans Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele sharing third on 131.

This week’s Charles Schwab Challenge is full of firsts with the biggest change being the absence of spectators. This is the first event since the Tour was shut down in March at the Players Championship.

Players also have to undergo temperature screenings, regular Covid-19 testing and practice social distancing on tee boxes and in the clubhouse.

The field includes 15 of the world’s top 20 players, but some of the bigger names from outside of North America decided to skip the event because travelling to the US would mean a two-week quarantine, including 10th-ranked Englishman Tommy Fleetwood.

After an opening 63 to match Britain’s late-starting Justin Rose for the first-day lead, Varner took a 7 at the par-4 10th hole to begin his second round, soaring way right off the tee and finding a bunker and rough before reaching the green.

Varner bounced back with birdies from four feet at 11 and 10 feet at the par-3 12th and par-3 16th holes.

“If you going to make a triple do it while you are playing well,” said Varner, who is seeking his first win on the PGA Tour. “I knew I could get it back. I just had to be patient.

“I got it back in a hurry, so that was nice. Once I got it back to even par I just wanted to given myself looks. The way I finished was pretty awesome.”

After a bogey at 18, Varner closed with a flourish that started with a 31-foot birdie putt at the par-3 fourth. He made three more in a row, the last of them a 20-footer at seven, and closed with a 10-foot birdie putt at the ninth.

Spieth, another back nine starter, had the lead after six birdies in his first 11 holes but four-putted for double bogey at the third and took a bogey at the par-3 fourth after missing the green.

He bounced back with birdie putts from 16 feet at the fifth and 12 feet at the sixth to stay on Varner’s heels.

McIlroy opened at the 10th hole and birdied three times on the back side before making the turn in style, sinking a 23-foot eagle putt at the par-5 first hole and following with a 10-foot birdie putt at the second.

Back-to-back birdies at the sixth and seventh put McIlroy one stroke off the course record but a losing bogey dropped him two off Varner’s pace.