HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – Conditions were far from relaxed in the first round of the RBC Heritage at the Harbour Town Golf Links on Thursday. The winds and cool temperatures made the relatively short 7,101-yard course play difficult, with only 35 of the 132 players under par.
Among those over par: Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Brandt Snedeker, Bill Haas, Geoff Ogilvy, Boo Weekley, Paul Casey and Hunter Mahan.
Most of the players in red numbers didn’t play Augusta National last week for the Masters. They included Scott Langley and Will McGirt, who share the first-round lead with Matt Kuchar at 5-under 66. Kuchar, attempting to win his first major, tied for fifth at Augusta.
In all, 12 of the top 19 – Russell Knox, Rory Sabbatini, Robert Allenby, Bo Van Pelt, Brian Harman, Ben Martin, Tim Herron, Brian Stuard, John Mallinger and Charles Howell III – were home last week watching the Masters on TV.
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1. LET’S TRY AGAIN: Matt Kuchar, who is playing in his fourth consecutive event, is on a roll. He has posted three consecutive finishes of fifth or better, and in 10 events this season owns seven top-10s.
But in the last three events, Kuchar has had a chance to win but faltered down the stretch.
At the Valero Texas Open and the Shell Houston Open, Kuchar was in the final group each Sunday before slipping to fourth and second, respectively.
At the Masters, Kuchar was within one shot of the lead until a double-bogey 6 on the fourth hole derailed his chance of winning his first major.
“I would not expect to shoot my low round at tournament competition on a day like this,” Kuchar said of a bogey-free 66. “It was blowing early. It was difficult. It was cold and windy. But I’ve been playing some good golf for a little stretch now, and it was nice to keep it going.”
Kuchar’s first-round scoring average in his past four tournaments is a respectable 68.75. During that period, he has averaged a 70 in the second round and 67 in the third round. In contrast, he has struggled to a 73.66 in the final round, with none of those four Sunday rounds under par.
“Awfully excited to have a chance late on Sunday, to be there in the hunt,” Kuchar, No. 6 in the Official World Golf Ranking, said of last week’s chance to win his first major. “Golf is different late on Sunday. It is. And I think the more taste you can have at it, the better you end up doing. I would say from last week, I think just building some comfort in those situations.”
Dating to 2003, Kuchar has played in 10 previous RBC Heritages, with two top-10s but none since 2008.
Of his 38 previous rounds at Harbour Town, Kuchar’s lowest round is a 67, which he shot twice: in the final round of 2008 and in the second round in 2010.
But now he has recorded his lowest round of his career and is tied for the lead with Langley and McGirt.
“I’d like to shoot some better numbers, but I certainly am not going to try to change anything as to how I approach it Sunday,” said Kuchar, a six-time winner on Tour. “I feel like it’s just a matter of getting more and more comfortable and playing some better golf. I feel like my game’s ready. I’ve played some great golf on Sunday in some big events. I don’t see any issue there. Just play some OK golf and I’d just like a few more chances at it.”
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2. LEGENDS OF ALL AGES: When Davis Love was told by a colleague that Jordan Spieth had to be excited to play with Tom Watson, he laughed. “I told him, ‘I’m excited to play with Tom Watson.’ “
The 20-year-old Spieth called his playing competitors, Watson and Love, “two American legends of the game” and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the atmosphere. It was arguably the largest Thursday crowd this tournament has seen in years, but it didn’t away from the decompression-like feeling that the RBC Heritage provides to players such as Spieth.
“(The Masters) was such a grind every day, so to get back in action and play well after Sunday’s (disappointment) and get my confidence back was important,” Spieth said after his birdie at the par-3 17th enabled him to get in at 2-under 69, tied for fifth, three off the lead.
“He’s a mature young man,” Tom Watson said after seeing Spieth – a likely member of Captain Watson’s Ryder Cup team – up close and personal for the first time. “I like the way he approaches the game.”
Watson, 64, was one bad break away from having a pretty good round for himself. He was 1 over when he went long at the 192-yard 14th and drew a near-impossible lie in a pot bunker. He took two to get out, then two-putted for a double.
Love, just four days removed from turning 50, might have played one of his better rounds in quite some time. He hit 10 fairways and 14 greens, and made just two bogeys – a three-putt from 60 feet at the par-4 sixth and a missed 5-footer after being wide right of the 18th green.
Disappointing for both veterans, but it was still a productive day – Love because he played nicely at one of his favorite venues, Watson because part of his Ryder Cup mission is to take stock in potential players, Spieth foremost among them.
“He didn’t play his best today (Spieth hit just 5 of 14 fairways and 9 of 18 greens),” Watson said. “But he got out of the day with a darn good score on a tough golf course with some wind. That’s what it takes.”
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3. NO LONGER A ROOKIE: Scotland’s Russell Knox is finally getting comfortable on the PGA Tour.
Having earned nearly $1 million this season, Knox is making another appearance on the leaderboard after opening with a 2-under 69.
Knox, 28, struggled on Tour before this season. He had played in 35 events from 2011 to ’13 and made 20 cuts, earning only $818,557.
In the 13 events Knox has played this season, he has made 11 cuts and finished as high as second, losing to Russell Henley in a playoff at The Honda Classic. Knox ranks 27th in the FedExCup standings.
“I knew I was going to love this place,” Knox said of his first trip around Harbour Town Golf Links. “Everyone I’ve spoken to who knows my game said, ‘This course is tailormade for you.’ I was excited to come here and very happy to get off to a nice start.”
Knox was steady early, making birdies on the par-3 fourth and par-4 ninth holes to turn in 2 under. He birdied the par-4 10th but gave one back at the par-4 15th before a birdie, bogey finish to stay three shots off the lead.
“Started off very nicely,” Knox said of his four-birdies, two-bogey performance. “I holed some nice par putts, and then kind of lost it towards the end. We turned back into the wind. It’s tough. I thought there was a few holes where they were set up very difficult. I was on survival the last few holes.”
Knox will play Friday’s second round at 12:10 p.m. EDT with Paul Casey and Will MacKenzie.
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4. ANOTHER LEFT-HANDED LEADER: Scott Langley started his rookie PGA Tour season in 2013 with a first-round 62 at the Sony Open.
Langley would finish tied for third that week. Except for the first and third rounds in Honolulu when Langley was either a leader or co-leader, he never was in that position again – until Thursday.
“It’s always nice on Thursday,” Langley said about his solid start. “That’s always the goal, is to get off to a good start. But especially this week, seeing the conditions for the whole tournament. I mean, I’ll take birdies whenever I can get them, because it will be tricky the rest of the way. Just like it was tricky today. If you go out there right now on the 17th hole, that pin is pretty much bending over sideways because it’s really blowing. I’m sure that’ll keep going the next few days.”
Currently 72nd on the FedEx Cup list, Langley has made seven cuts in 14 starts this season. His third-place finish at the Valspar Championship is his only one top 10.
“I worked very hard last week,” he said after making seven birdies – including four in a row on the front nine – against two bogeys. “Seeing Jordan (Spieth) do so well, almost win the Masters, inspired me a little bit. But I was already very motivated to come here this week. I love this place. I know it suits my game pretty well. And I have a decent understanding of how to play it, for only being my second year here.”
Langley, who turns 25 on April 28, won the 2010 NCAA championship as a junior at Illinois.
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5. SHORT SHOTS: Nick Faldo appears headed for the CBS booth this weekend. Faldo, 56, a six-time major champion who hasn’t made a cut on the PGA Tour since 2005, opened with 77. . . . Greg Chalmers played eight holes before withdrawing with a bad back. The Australian left-hander was 5 over at the time. . . . Zach Johnson, who shot 71, rattled off 16 consecutive pars before tapping in a 2-foot birdie on the 17th hole and then missing a 14-foot par putt on the 18th.