Recap of the day
Cool temperatures greeted the players in Sea Island, Georgia for the last PGA Tour event this fall, many digging out headwear usually reserved for trips to Scotland. A two-tee start on two courses meant the 156-man field got done in plenty of time. The seven lowest scores of the opening round last year came on the easier Plantation Course (PL) so would that play out again today? You bet. The top six all played on the par 72 while just two of the leading 15 players took on the par 70 Seaside Course (SS) which was far more exposed to the windy conditions. Charles Howell was the star of the show, putting on a ball-striking clinic to post 64 and take a two-shot lead over last year’s 1-2 here, defending champ Austin Cook and J.J. Spaun.
Leaderboard: -8 Charles Howell III, -6 J.J. Spaun, Austin Cook (DC), -5 Aaron Baddeley, Davis Love III, Chase Wright.
Revised outright betting: 7/1 Charles Howell III, 8/1 J.J. Spaun, Webb Simpson, 9/1 Austin Cook, 11/1 Cameron Champ, 12/1 Peter Uihlein, Brian Harman 20/1.
Friday weather forecast
Again, temps are struggling in the low 50s although there’s a bit of sunshine in there. Winds are around 9mph from the NW and, as usual, will be felt more keenly on the coastal Seaside Course.
Leaders after 18 holes
Charles Howell (-8) – The Georgia native has three top tens at Sea Island and, on debut, closed with 62 at the Seaside Course for T6. This was his best lap of the Plantation and it was perfection – 14 out of 14 fairways and 18 GIRs.
J.J. Spaun (-6) – As the poster boy for converging trends this week (runner-up here last year and third in Mexico Sunday), he was hardly going to go unnoticed by gamers this week. Spaun delivered with a bogey-free lap of the Plantation, hitting 17 greens after piping 11 (of 14) fairways.
Austin Cook (-6) – Last year’s winner shot 62 at the Plantation in 2017. Not quite those levels today but he birdied all four par 5s, added a sixth and final birdie of the day at his final hole and missed just two GIRs. Now to the Seaside Course where he fired 66-66-67 12 months ago.
Davis Love III (-5) – “As usual, golf, it’s going to come down to putting for me,” said the tournament host in Wednesday’s press conference. After not making much when T59 at the CIMB and T57 in Vegas, DLIII’s putter caught fire. He ranked 1st for Putts per GIR (1.400) and walked off with a 67, outscoring son Dru Love by three.
Fate of the favorites
Webb Simpson (-2) – A bogey-free lap of the Seaside Course is impressive when the wind blows. Simpson managed just two birdies, a cold blade (1.846 Putts per GIR) denying him further progress, but he’ll take it.
Cameron Champ (-4) – Started out at the Plantation with double bogey at his opener (10th) and dropped another shot at the last. In between, he played an eight-hole stretch in 7-under. Hit 15 greens.
C.T. Pan (+1) – Very short in the betting but didn’t justify the low odds. Bogey-bogey start, out in 38 and could only partly repair the damage coming home. At least he gets to play the easier course in R2.
Charles Howell (-8): “It kind of surprised me a little bit.”
J.J. Spaun (-6): “There’s a premium on ball-striking and driving today. Stood within myself and my game, just hit fairways and greens, made a few putts and sure enough shot six.”
Road to victory at the RSM Classic
2017 Austin Cook – R1: 8th, R2: 1st, R3: 1st
2016 Mackenzie Hughes – R1: 1st, R2: 1st, R3: 1st
2015 Kevin Kisner – R1: 1st, R2: 2nd, R3: 1st
2014 Robert Streb – R1: 48th, R2: 10th, R3: 12th
2013 Chris Kirk – R1: 11th, R2: 1st, R3: 1st
Notes: Since the tournament switched to a two-course format in 2015, the three winners were inside the top ten after day one. In 2014, Robert Streb was way down in T48 after R1 although only four off the lead. Tommy Gainey produced the biggest comeback (seven shots) in 2012 although, like Streb, he also opened with 69.
Fate of the R1 leaders at the RSM Classic
2017 Chris Kirk 4th
2016 Mackenzie Hughes 1st
2015 Kevin Kisner 1st
2014 Will Mackenzie 2nd, Brian Harman 41st, Erik Compton 48th, Michael Thompson 66th
2013 George McNeill 22nd
Notes: Kirk and Kisner both played the easier Plantation Course on day one but Hughes led the way after a 61 at the Seaside Course. Two of the three went on to complete victory.
Focus on – The other leaderboard
The Seaside Course will be a tough test again Friday in the cold conditions so those who scored well there today are in nice position when they head to the Plantation. These were the under-par laps on the Seaside in round one:
-4 Brian Harman, Peter Uihlein,
-3 Brady Schnell, Graeme McDowell
-2 Derek Fathauer, Cody Gribble, Harold Varner III, David Hearn, Webb Simpson
-1 Stuart Appleby, Matt Jones, Keith Mitchell, Harris English, Nick Watney, Sangmoon Bae, Matt Every, Lucas Glover, Troy Merritt, Chris Kirk.
Focus on – Charles Howell
In Europe last week, Lee Westwood ended a four-and-half-year victory drought by landing the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa. “I’m a bit emotional to be honest, you’re never sure whether you’re going to able to do it again,” said Westwood, holding back the tears. Many gamers/bettors have a mental list of players who will contend but never win again and Westwood was probably fairly high up. For most, top spot belongs to Charles Howell III. The usual trick is to equate Howell’s position on the PGA TOUR’s career money leaders with his lack of wins. The numbers? He’s ranked 21st in all-time earnings with $35,896,795 and secured the last of his two victories in the 2007 Nissan Open. Since then – six second places, five thirds and five fourths. A couple of years ago, the Augusta native was rather tactfully asked why he thought he hadn’t won more. Howell hid behind self-deprecation, answering, “We don’t have enough time here,” adding that his best chance of a Masters return was playing in the Drive, Chip and Putt for juniors. Do we think he can win again? Sergio Garcia and Darren Clarke won majors when most had long given up on them. Howell may not be done yet.