HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — The PGA Tour's return to competition amid the coronavirus pandemic has brought together the strongest fields of the year on courses that have not been overly punishing, and the result is the same.
It's another free-for-all at the RBC Heritage.
Webb Simpson practically had to apologize for a 3-under-par 68 in which he managed just one birdie on the back nine at Harbour Town Golf Links. He was part of a four-way tie for the lead, and that was good enough for him. He also knows good probably won't cut it Sunday.
"It's not like I've got a three- or four-shot lead and could shoot a couple under," he said. "It's going to take a good one."
Tyrrell Hatton had one of six rounds at 63, giving the 28-year-old from England a share of the lead as he goes for his second straight victory, albeit in consecutive starts three months apart because of the shutdown due to the pandemic.
Abraham Ancer, so solid with his irons, had a 65 and joined the leading group along with Ryan Palmer, who had a 66.
They were at 15-under 198, a number that didn't even start to explain the low scoring.
Even with Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele sputtering to 75s, the field was 223-under par, the lowest for any round since the RBC Heritage began in 1969. There were 35 players at 10 under or better, compared with only one player (Dustin Johnson) a year ago. The previous mark was seven players at double digits under par through 54 holes.
Most telling were the anticipated opportunities for the final round.
There were 21 players separated by just three shots going into the final round. A week ago in the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, there were 14 players separated by three shots.
"I think the fields have been extremely strong," Ancer said. "Everybody out here was just eager to come out and play. The greens are a little bit soft, especially this week, and the ball isn't really rolling out as much as you're used to on the greens and on the fairways. That's yielding a little bit more birdies, for sure."
Carlos Ortiz, who started this tournament with two double bogeys after playing only five holes, suddenly has a chance to grab his first PGA Tour victory after two eagles in a round of 63. He was one shot behind, along with Charles Schwab Challenge winner Daniel Berger and Joel Dahmen, both with 63s.
If the golf was a bit easier, there was still more testing than usual.
Players and caddies on the charter flight to Connecticut for next week's event had to take a saliva test Saturday for the coronavirus before they can get on the plane. Eleven others had testing Friday night because they were deemed to have been in close contact with Nick Watney, whose positive test on Friday was the first in the tour's return to action.
That group included Baylor graduate Luke List, who did not make the cut Friday after learning halfway through his round about Watney's result.
Also among them was Sergio Garcia, who flew with Watney from Austin, Texas. The initial test was negative. Garcia was nervous as he waited for the result, though not so nervous he couldn't put down a 65 to join the chase. He was two shots behind, along with Ian Poulter and Joaquin Niemann.
Bryson DeChambeau, starting the day one shot behind, hit his approach shot into the par-5 second hole in the trees and it never came down. He has added 40 pounds of mass, still not enough to uproot the tree and shake it loose. That led to a bogey, and more damaging was no birdies on the back nine for a 70.
Even so, he remained three shots behind in a group that included Johnson, who birdied three of his last four holes to go from around the middle of the pack to 12-under 201, three shots behind and very much in the picture. That's all it took Saturday, and it likely won't be any different in the final round.
Brooks Koepka quietly posted a 68 and was in the group three shots behind.
Chalk it up to June, a new date for the RBC Heritage because of the pandemic. The tournament usually is the week after the Masters in April, when the temperature is slightly cooler, the greens are firmer and the rye grass hasn't been taken over by Bermuda. It's soft. And these are the best players in the world, all of them eager to get going again.
"Because we're not at a major championship-style golf course last week or this week, where you're going to have separation because of bad scores, I think that's probably why," Simpson said when asked to explain the bunched score.
Perhaps that explains why Justin Thomas called it "the worst 66 I've ever shot in my life."
Hatton has won back-to-back before in his career, under entirely different circumstances. In 2017, he won in Scotland and Italy in consecutive weeks. Now he goes after two in a row three months apart, having won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March before the pandemic shut down sports.
It apparently wasn't long enough for anyone to accumulate much rust.
"I think we've all had enough notice to try and get ready to play tournaments again," said Hatton, who rented a house in Orlando, Florida, during the stay-at-home mandate. "So it's not massively surprising to see guys playing as well as they are, and hopefully the guys at home are enjoying it, watching on TV."
Baylor grad Harris English (68) was tied for 47th at 8 under.
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — Chris Kirk won the Korn Ferry Tour's King & Bear Classic on Saturday at World Golf Village, a year after taking a leave of absence from the PGA Tour to fight alcohol abuse and depression.
"It gives me a deeper sense of appreciation and gratitude for everything. I'm a completely different person than I was two years ago," said the 35-year-old Kirk, who was born in Knoxville, grew up in the Atlanta area and played college golf at Georgia. "I can't wait to get home tonight and give my wife and three boys a hug, and that's what I care more about now. It's amazing seeing the complete shift in my mentality as far as that's concerned."
Kirk birdied the par-5 18th hole for a 5-under 67, finishing at 26-under 262 for a one-stroke victory over Justin Lower (66) in the PGA Tour's developmental circuit's second straight one-time event to make up for tournaments lost to the pandemic shutdown.
Since returning to competition, Kirk has missed missed cuts in five of seven PGA Tour starts. He tied for 60th last week in the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Forth Worth, Texas, the site of his fourth and most recent PGA Tour win five years ago.