HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – Garrett Willis may have regained his putting touch at The Heritage. He'll need it with some of the world's best trying to chase him down.
Willis used a run of six straight birdies to shoot a 7-under 64 and grab a one-shot lead after completion of the first-round at Harbour Town Golf Links on Friday. The tournament featured seven of the world's top 20 golfers — many within striking distance of the top.
Third-ranked Luke Donald was three shots behind after a 67. The group at 68 included U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell (No. 5 in the world), Matt Kuchar (No. 10) and defending Heritage champ Jim Furyk (No. 13).
Willis, who's only PGA Tour victory came in his first event at Tucson 10 years ago, is confident he can rise to the challenge.
"I just want to be able to play the golf that I know I'm capable of playing," he said.
He'll need it this week with 24 golfers within four strokes of the lead. Arjun Atwal, Matt Bettencourt, Chad Campbell and Tim Herron were at 65, while Mark Wilson, Camilo Villegas and 2009 Heritage winner Brian Gay were another shot back.
The round was slowed by a rain delay of 2 hours, 16 minutes that forced 18 players to return Friday before starting their second rounds. Ben Martin made the most of his morning finish with birdies on the 16th and 17th holes for a 67.
Donald could move to No. 1 with a win. The Match Play Championship winner, the highest ranked player in the field, rallied from a sluggish start with three birdies over his final six holes. He'd rather not think about what a victory could mean.
But "a lot of people are telling me about" number one, Donald said. "So it's hard to put out of your brain. But that would be awesome."
It has been a struggle for Willis to keep his pro career going at times since his fast start. He fell to 228th on the PGA Tour money list in 2005 and regained his playing privileges in 2009 with a 12th-place finish on the Nationwide Tour money list.
The putting problems surfaced this season. Willis has made only two cuts in eight tournaments, shooting 78-78 last week for an early exit in the Texas Open. He's 177th in the tour's putting rankings and has gotten fed up with giving away strokes on the green.
"We can't make them all. I'm fully aware of that," he said. "But for some reason some of these guys do week in and week out."
Willis was on a full-out search for a winning replacement putter this week. He brought four putters with him, had three more made at Harbour Town and had his father ship in three more. Willis was ready to go with a belly putter he used in Tuesday's practice round and in warmups before his starting time. Suddenly, Willis' resolve disappeared and "Old Faithful" was back.
"I can't pull the trigger," he said.
Willis wasn't so confident in his last-second choice after missing a simple 12-footer for birdie on the first hole. His game — and attitude — changed for good on the next hole when Willis made an 8-foot birdie putt to start his run.
"I said, 'Wow, maybe I can make a putt,'" Willis recalled.
Willis one-putted the next five holes, all for birdies, to move in front. His approach shots didn't hurt, either — all his birdie putts were inside 15 feet. When bogeys on the ninth and 11th holes dropped him back, Willis returned the top thanks to his putter with birdies on the 15th and 16th holes, the last a tricky 15-footer.
"I made putts today that I normally don't make," he said.
Ernie Els, 15th in the rankings, had a difficult start on a course he traditionally plays well with seven top 10s in 11 appearances. Els switched to a belly putter for the first round and struggled to a 75. Els also incurred a two-stroke penalty on his nex-to-last hole, the eighth, for testing the playing surface by raking a bunker of his footprints before his shot.
All but one of the eight top finishers teed off in the afternoon when the storm blew through Harbour Town and delayed the round. It looked as if Bill Haas would chase down Willis when he tapped in a birdie on No. 5 once play resumed to move a shot off the lead — but Haas followed it with two bogeys and a triple-bogey.
The Heritage, a PGA Tour fixture since 1969, is facing an uncertain future. It does not have a title sponsor, something both tour and event organizers called essential for remaining on the schedule.