The RBC Heritage began two months later than usual with a little rain, a little sunshine and a lot of birdies, with Jordan Spieth accounting for his fair share of the latter to turn a rough start into a furious finish Thursday at Harbour Town Golf Links.
Ian Poulter holed a 30-foot birdie putt and followed with a 5-iron shot that set up a four-foot birdie putt to close his 7-under-par 64, giving him a share of the first-round lead with Mark Hubbard — who started birdie-eagle, then made two more birdies before the turn and two more after.
"I've always loved coming here to play golf," said Poulter, a 44-year-old Englishman who has plenty of company this year on South Carolina's Hilton Head Island.
The RBC Heritage, typically a week after the Masters in April and less than a three-hour drive from Augusta National, is now the PGA Tour's second tournament in its return from a 90-day shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The top three players in the World Golf Ranking are on Hilton Head — Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas — but none of them broke par on a day when 66 players in the 151-man field shot in the 60s. A year ago, only 38 players in the 132-man field opened with rounds in the 60s.
Spieth wouldn't have guessed he would be one of them after a tee shot that was just to the right of the 12th fairway hit a tree and didn't stop rolling until it was out of bounds. He made triple bogey and was 3 over through three holes.
"All of a sudden, I'm 3 over through three, and you start to see guys going 2 under through two, 2 under through three early," said the 26-year-old Texan with three major championships but no wins at all since the 2017 British Open. "It's not a great feeling."
Determined to at least try to get under par for his round, Spieth had a career-best six straight birdies on his back nine and finished with seven birdies over his last eight holes for a 66 that had him tied for 10th with Tony Finau, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Mackenzie Hughes, Matthew NeSmith and Erik van Rooyen.
Sharing third after opening at 65 were Dylan Frittelli, Brice Garnett, Viktor Hovland, Sebastián Munoz, Ryan Palmer, Webb Simpson and Michael Thompson.
Former Baylor School and University of Georgia golfer Harris English was just three shots out of the lead, with the big group in 16th at 4 under featuring plenty of big names. That logjam included Daniel Berger, who is coming off a playoff victory Sunday in the Charles Schwab Challenge, 50-year-old four-time major champ Ernie Els and 12th-ranked and bulked-up Bryson DeChambeau.
Luke List, another former Baylor standout, opened with a 69 and was tied for 45th. The former Vanderbilt Commodore is coming off a victory Sunday in the Korn Ferry Challenge, his first professional golf win in eight years. Chattanooga native Keith Mitchell, who played at both Baylor and Georgia, opened with a 72 and was tied for 101st, with that group including McIlroy and Thomas.
Rahm's 71 had him tied for 85th.
DeChambeau, who added some 40 pounds of mass to increase his swing speed, was hammering shots over the range during practice earlier in the week. He had to tone it down on the tight, tree-lined layout.
"I couldn't unleash the Kraken today," said DeChambeau, a student of physics and Scandinavian folklore. "It was just too tight out there. The wind was swirling all day, and I couldn't feel comfortable to give it a good whack, but I was still able to manage keeping it mostly in the fairway."
Fifth-ranked Dustin Johnson was poised to make a move until he hit into the water on the par-3 14th and compounding the error with a three-putt triple bogey. He still managed a 68 and was tied for 28th.
It was the first PGA Tour event since early March with spectators on the property — not counting those ushered out of Colonial Country Club last week — just not on the golf course with tickets.
Harbour Town is lined with vacation homes, villas and townhouses, and plenty of people spilled onto their decks and into their yards to watch. The tour has ropes to line the fairway. This year, they put up ropes to line the yards to keep people from coming all the way onto the course.
One family had a sign up for Spieth as he walked along the eighth fairway, one of only two holes on the front nine where he failed to make birdie.
That out-of-bounds shot had all the makings of the bad breaks he has experienced so often during three winless years. With a provisional tee shot in the fairway, Spieth went over to look at the trees, and then some 20 yards to the right at his original tee shot nestled in the pine straw. And then he three-putted.
Instead of getting down, he told caddie Michael Greller on the next tee, "That's over. Let's get four (birdies) today and shoot under par."
Added Spieth: "I ended up getting a few more than that."
Just like last week's opening round at Colonial, he got hot on his back nine. The streak began with an eight-foot putt on the par-5 second hole, and it included a 7-iron shot to four feet from a left pin near the water on the par-3 fourth. Spieth was on such a roll he began to contemplate eight straight birdies to end his round, but he saw enough mud on his ball from the fairway on No. 8 that he played conservatively to 30 feet, then finished with another short birdie.
McIlroy was among those who struggled, and only a pair of birdies on the back nine kept it from being worse. His 72 ended a streak of seven straight tournaments in which he broke par in the opening round dating to the ZoZo Championship in Japan last October.
"I'm sort of missing my 3-wood left and missing my driver right," McIlroy said. "If you're in any way like in two minds what to do off the tees around here and get a little bit sort of guidey, it can bite you."