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An 11th-hour chat, film critique helped Tom Gillis to an opening 67 at Ally Challenge

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

No fans, but birdies still were granted access to the grounds.

Some things never change, particularly at the always-scoreable Warwick Hills & Country Club in Grand Blanc, where the leaderboard was predictably bunched up after the first round of the 50-and-older Champions Tour's return to action Friday.

Billy Andrade and Tommy Armour III, who only got into the field after Brandt Jobe tested positive for COVID-19, each shot 6-under 66 to share the first-round lead at the Ally Challenge. Jobe was the only positive out of 476 on-site tests this week.

Tom Gillis

A shot back was Lake Orion's Tom Gillis, who had a stretch of seven birdies in 10 holes in the middle of his round, but made bogey at the par-5 16th to fall back to 5-under 67. It's the second straight strong start at the Ally for Gillis, who last year shared the first-round lead with a 66 and finished tied for seventh.

And it was a start he didn't see coming, after struggling mightily in Thursday's pro-am. He's had back troubles over the pandemic shutdown, and was hitting shots fat Thursday, prompting a call to his coach, who gave him a couple small tips — which he took to the range Thursday night and Friday night.

"And it wasn't that good on the range last night," Gillis said. "Like, who knows what I'm going to shoot tomorrow.

"But, it worked today anyways."

This is Gillis' home game — he's staying with wife Jenny and their kids in a rented RV in nearby Holly — though he hasn't always played like it. In eight appearances at Warwick Hills during its PGA Tour days with the Buick Open, Gillis only made the cut twice, finishing tied for 52nd and tied for 53rd.

His start Friday was lackluster, until he got it rolling with a birdie at 6 (after missing a 3-footer for birdie at 5). He eventually got to a share of the lead, with that momentum stalled when he found the greenside bunker with his third shot at the par-5 16th. He almost holed the bunker shot, but it hit the lip, rolled 4 feet past, and he missed the putt.

But all in all, not bad for just his fourth competitive round since October, all things considered.

"I figured it would be a real struggle," Gillis said.

Gillis, 52, in his third season on the Champions Tour, is looking for his first victory on the circuit. He never won the PGA Tour, finishing twice two times, once in a playoff.

With Gillis at 5 under were Wes Short Jr. and the ageless Bernhard Langer, who, at 62, remains the class of the Champions Tour. Langer is three wins away from matching Hale Irwin's record of 44 Champions Tour victories — the Ally Challenge is one of just 10 Champions Tour tournaments he hasn't yet won — and he might've been there already had the Champions Tour not shut down for four months because of COVID-19.

This is the Champions Tour's first tournament since March, and there are no fans, as is the case with all other golf tours.

"I have been on Tour 44 years and don't ever recall not having fans, so it's very weird in a sense," said Langer, a two-time Masters winner. "So you just — as you play, you just try and accept what it is, block it out. We are grateful we can play."

ALLY CHALLENGE LEADERBOARD

In a group at 4 under were former major champions David Toms, Corey Pavin and Jim Furyk, who turned 50 in May and this week is making his Champions Tour debut, even though he remains ranked in the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

Another shot back, at 3 under, were defending champion Jerry Kelly, John Daly, Ernie Els, Colin Montgomerie, Lee Janzen and Retief Goosen. Els made the first ace in the tournament's history, carding a hole-in-one with a 6 iron at the 192-yard eighth hole. In a massive log jam at 2 under were former Masters champions Mike Weir (also making his Champions Tour debut), Angel Cabrera, Larry Mize and Mark O'Meara.

More: Seniors agree: Young stars on PGA Tour are in a league of their own

Of the 81-player field, 60 shot par or better.

Armour shot a flawless 4-under 32 on the front nine, and stayed steady from there, making birdie at the last for his 66. He found out Monday he was in the field.

"I was just sitting out in the parking lot and they said, you're in the tournament," Armour said. "And I said, 'Cool.'

"I played a lot of golf during this break and this pandemic moment, and I wanted to play well, and I prepared to play well."

Armour, 60, hasn't won on the Champions Tour, in a whopping 214 starts. He hasn't won since the 2003 Texas Open on the PGA Tour.

Billy Andrade

As for Andrade, 56, he's won three times on the Champions Tour, but not since 2015. He won all three that year.

Andrade actually made consecutive birdies, albeit over the span of four months. He made birdie on his last hole in the last Champions Tour tournament before the shutdown, then made birdie on the first hole Friday, putting from off the green.

"So it was a heck of a long wait," said Andrade, who rocks an MLB hat in the same manner that the late Payne Stewart wore NFL clothing during his playing days.

Andrade then wrapped up his press conference by jokingly asking if anyone had tickets to the night's game for the fictional, Will Ferrell-created Flint Tropics. There's no pro basketball in Flint these days, or just about anywhere else, but there is real, live golf again — albeit, no tickets for that, either.

The tournament continues Saturday and Sunday, with coverage on the Golf Channel.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984