St. Simons Island, Ga. – Charles Howell III had an advantage of playing the right course for the cold, windy conditions Thursday at the RSM Classic. He made the most of it with a game so complete that he never played from the rough and had a birdie putt on every hole.
Howell bundled up from the cold and shot 8-under 64 on the Plantation course at Sea Island Resort, giving a two-shot lead to par in the opening round of the final PGA Tour event of the calendar year.
Howell was two shots ahead of defending champion Austin Cook and J.J. Spaun, who were at 6-under 66 on the Plantation course. Tournament host Davis Love III had two bogeys and still managed a 67 at Plantation.
The Seaside course, where the final two rounds are held, is more exposed to the wind. The best score at Seaside belonged to Brian Harman and Peter Uihlein, who each had at a 4-under 66.
“I was awfully glad I was on Plantation and not Seaside,” Howell said. “But someone just told me that I hit every fairway and every green, so I can’t think of the last time I’ve done that. I think sometimes playing these difficult conditions, it forces you to stay a bit more present. It’s hard to get too far ahead of yourself because of the difficulty of every shot coming.”
He finished strong by two-putting for birdie on the 16th from about 20 feet, and finishing with a birdie on the par-5 18th.
The difference in courses, especially in such weather conditions, reminded him of Torrey Pines, where players used to shoot low on the North Course and hang on for dear life on the South Course. That’s one reason Howell wasn’t thinking too far ahead of trying to win for the first time since 2007 at Riviera, 332 starts ago.
“There’s plenty of golf left,” he said.
Uihlein, the former U.S. Amateur champion, sounded just as pleased with his 66. The wind is stronger on Seaside, and temperature felt about 10 degrees colder. Judging how far the ball goes in cold weather is tough enough, even more when the wind is blowing.
“I just kept the ball in play,” Uihlein said. “When it’s this windy and this tough, just being able to get it off the tee and having a chance to hit the green … you’re not going to blitz it. You’re not trying to do anything to really kind of mess it up.”
Cameron Champ, the 23-year-old rookie who won in Mississippi last month in his second start as a PGA Tour member, opened with a double bogey on Plantation. He atoned for that with one of his big tee shots that led to eagle on the par-5 18th. He wound up with a 4-under 68. Patton Kizzire, one of several players who live at Sea Island, looked as though he would fail to take advantage of being on the Plantation until he closed with four straight birdies for a 68.
Howell long memories of Sea Island, where he briefly lived, and he feels somewhat of a spiritual connection to its roots.
He grew up in Augusta, and Sea Island was a popular getaway for golf as a junior. Howell was 9 when his father arranged for a getaway to Sea Island to get lessons from one of the pros, Jimmy Hodges. A week before he was to arrive, Hodges was on the small plane with Davis Love Jr. and John Popa when it crashed near Jacksonville and killed all three pros and the pilot.
“I was actually lucky enough last year to meet Jimmy’s wife,” Howell said. “She came out and watched me play a few holes and then brought the story up. I knew I knew it, I didn’t know that she knew it. … We’ve been coming down here for quite a bit.”
Howell would love to add another chapter to his times at Sea Island, this time posing with the trophy. It’s been a long time for him, a point driven home a year ago when he received a text message from the PGA Tour congratulating him on his 500th career start.
Even more amazing to Howell is that he turns 40 next summer.
Love is 54 and still not ready to abandon playing the PGA Tour. He knew he needed a good week with his putter, and he got that Thursday with seven birdies. He heads to Seaside on Friday with high hopes for his game and the weather.
“The sun will be out, and it will be a much nicer day,” Love said.
Amy Olson shot a 9-under 63 at Naples, Florida, to take a one-shot lead over Brittany Lincicome and Nasa Hataoka after the first round of the LPGA’s season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.
Olson had two separate streaks of four consecutive birdies, finished with nine overall and never dropped a shot on what became a fantastic day for scoring at Tiburon Golf Club.
Lincicome started with five straight birdies on her way to a 64. Also at 8 under was Japan’s Hataoka, who entered the week as one of five women with the best chance of winning the Race to the CME Globe and $1 million bonus – and left Thursday in command for that prize.
Lexi Thompson had five birdies and an eagle in a 7-under 65, putting her alone in fourth.
Matt Kuchar and Keegan Bradley were big movers at the Australian Open at Sydney, with Kuchar moving into a tie for the clubhouse lead after a morning round of 5-under 67.
Kuchar, who won last week’s PGA Tour event in Mexico, his first victory in four years, was level with Australian amateur David Micheluzzi, who shot 69. They had 36-hole totals of 7-under 137 at The Lakes.
Bradley shot 66 and was among those tied for third, one stroke out of the lead.
Byeong Hun An, who opened with a 67 to lead by one stroke after the first round, had an afternoon start Friday.
The Australian Open is the first qualifying tournament for next year’s British Open at Royal Portrush, with the top three players not already exempt earning spots.
Francesco Molinari missed two par putts from less than two feet in his opening round of the World Tour Championship at Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to give Tommy Fleetwood a sliver of a chance of keeping the European Tour season title.
Molinari was cruising at one stage, having reached 6-under par after 14 holes, but three-putted the 15th and 18th holes to finish on 4-under 68 at Jumeirah Golf Estates.
Fleetwood, his only remaining rival in the Race to Dubai, completed his bogey-free round with a wonderful 25-foot birdie putt from off the green on the par-5 18th, and finished just one shot behind Molinari at 69.
English golfer Jordan Smith was 6 under over his last six holes, and Spain’s Adrian Otaegui was bogey-free with six birdies to share the tournament lead at 6-under 66.
The resurgent 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett and defending champion Jon Rahm were tied for third place after 5-under 67s.
Rory McIlroy, the three-time European No. 1 in the last six years, started with a 3-under 69, tied for 10th place alongside Fleetwood and Masters champion Patrick Reed.
Molinari, the British Open titleholder, became only the third player to feature in all 10 World Tour Championships.
Only Fleetwood can deny Molinari, his closest friend on the tour, from becoming the first European No. 1 from Italy. Fleetwood will have to win the tournament and hope his partner from the Ryder Cup finishes outside a two-way tie for fifth place.
Molinari was without a bogey in his first 14 holes and caught up with the leaders in the clubhouse before his wobbly finish.
“It was a good day. Especially not having played my best,” Molinari said. “There were a few too many wayward tee shots probably, but I fought hard. The putting was fantastic for the first 14 holes, so I can improve on a few things.”
Fleetwood said he was happy with his score, especially as he did not hit the ball great on the back nine.
“As long as our head is above water, we will be happy and keep going,” Fleetwood said. “You can play great and not shoot 3 under. So having struggled on the back nine and done it, that’s really, really good.”
Lee Westwood, winner last week of the Nedbank Challenge, started with a 2-under 70 and was tied for 22nd.