Ian Poulter is known as The Postman for a good reason. It's a moniker that mainly relates to how he always delivers in the Ryder Cup; but, at one of his favourite PGA Tour venues, he again signed in with an impressive display of shot-making and course management to deliver a bogey-free seven-under-par 64 in the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
The Englishman's near-flawless play - which earned him a share of the clubhouse lead alongside American Mark Hubbard - was in some contrast to that of world number one Rory McIlroy, playing in the tournament for the first time since 2009, who appeared out-of-sorts off the tee and uncomfortable in managing his way around the tight layout.
Having struggled in the final round at Colonial last Sunday, McIlroy’s game was again inconsistent as loose shots went left and right off the tee, on occasions getting a friendly bounce from trees to avoid greater danger. “I’m just missing tee shots. I’m sort of missing my 3-wood left and missing my driver right. If you’re in any way in two minds what to do off the tees around here, it can bite you. I didn’t get it into play enough to give myself shots or looks at hitting it close into greens and making birdies,” confessed the Northern Irishman after an opening round 72, one-over-par.
In fact, McIlroy’s plight seemed set to be much worse as he turned in three-over-par without a single birdie on his card to that point. However, he rescued matters somewhat with a birdie on the Par 5 fifth, where he hit 3-wood off the tee and an iron approach left off the green, and then a long birdie putt on the ninth, his finishing hole, to finally get a smile on his face.
“I wasn’t particularly comfortable out there. I played here once before in ‘09, and I just can remember not being that comfortable around here then, and it’s still sort of the same. I’m just not comfortable and sort of trying to pick lines and really commit to shots. I just wasn’t as committed as I need to be around here,” said McIlroy who faces a battle to survive the midway cut. The last time he missed a cut was at the British Open at Royal Portrush last July.
McIlroy admitted it was all a bit of a “struggle,” but sought to find a remedy on the range in his attempt to survive into the weekend.
While McIlroy struggled to find birdies, others had a field day and none more so than Jordan Spieth who responded to a triple bogey seven on the 12th, his third hole, where he drove into trees and his recovery shot ricocheted off a tree and out-of-bounds, to hit the birdie trail in spectacular fashion: the American, without a win since lifting the Claret Jug in 2017, had a run of six successive birdies from the seventh hole to sign for a 66.
Of that early setback, Spieth remarked: “I hit a tree, and it went about 20 yards to the right across the car path out-of-bounds. It wasn’t an out of bounds shot, it just got kind of a tough break.”
For Poulter, a return to a favoured layout brought dividends. Without a win on tour since the Houston Open in 2018, and without a top-10 finish anywhere since the WGC-St Jude last July, the 44-year-old Englishman finished with two birdies to put the icing on a fine display which, nevertheless, necessitated a post-round visit to the range to work on some driving issues. His iron play, approach work and putting, though, was flawless.
“It’s very important being bogey-free. Any time that happens on this golf course, you’ve obviously played pretty well. I think it’s a great course. I love coming here. It’s a fiddly, testy, tricky golf course. You have to kind of sometimes manoeuvre the ball around trees that are on the right or left edge of the fairway. So I like it. I like the small greens,” said Poulter.
British Open champion Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell, a winner of the tournament in 2013, were both in the second wave of players in the opening round. Both will need to make big improvements to make the midway cut. Lowry, who finished third behind CT Pan in last year’s tournament, finished his first round three-over-par while McDowell hit a double bogey on the fourth hole on his way to a four-over-par 75.
RBC Heritage, Harbour Town Links (Par 71) - First Round clubhouse scores (US unless stated, Irish in bold):
64 Mark Hubbard, Ian Poulter (Eng)
65 Michael Thompson, Ryan Palmer, Viktor Hovland (Nor), Sebastian Munoz (Col), Brice Garnett, Dylan Frittelli (Rsa), Webb Simpson
66 Tony Finau, Matthew NeSmith, Mackenzie Hughes (Can), Erik Van Rooyen (Rsa), Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng), Jordan Spieth
67 JT Poston, Sepp Straka (Aut), Vaughn Taylor, Harris English, Daniel Berger, Brooks Koepka, Max Homa, Ernie Els (Rsa), Bryson DeChambeau, Christiaan Bezuidenhout (Rsa), Patrick Rodgers, Rickie Fowler
68 Brian Stuard, Matt Wallace (Eng), Andrew Landry, Chez Reavie, Wyndham Clark, Danny Lee (Nzl), Kevin Kisner, Corey Conners (Can), Chris Stroud, Stewart Cink, Chesson Hadley, Joel Dahmen, Dustin Johnson, Brendon Todd, Collin Morikawa, Cheng-Tsung Pan (Tai), Jim Herman
69 Carlos Ortiz (Mex), Jason Kokrak, Matt Jones (Aus), Branden Grace (Rsa), Gary Woodland, Wesley Bryan, Billy Horschel, Luke List, Bernhard Langer (Ger), Sam Ryder, Jason Dufner, Alex Noren (Swe), Kyle Stanley, Zach Johnson, Lucas Glover, Bubba Watson, Cameron Smith (Aus), Abraham Ancer (Mex), Joaquin Niemann (Chi), Jim Furyk, Harry Higgs, Ryan Armour, Spencer Ralston
70 Roger Sloan (Can), Harold Varner III, Scott Stallings, Danny Willett (Eng), Emiliano Grillo (Arg), Vijay Singh (Fij), Justin Rose (Eng), Russell Henley, Patrick Reed, Rory Sabbatini (Svk), Matt Kuchar, Brian Harman, Tom Hoge, Sergio Garcia (Spa), Patton Kizzire, Jhonattan Vegas (Ven), Troy Merritt
71 Peter Malnati, Bud Cauley, Adam Schenk, Jason Day (Aus), Charley Hoffman, Charl Schwartzel (Rsa), Brian Gay, Aaron Baddeley (Aus), Bill Haas, Sam Burns, Jon Rahm (Spa), Bol Van Pelt, Tyrrell Hatton (Eng), Kevin Tway, Luke Donald (Eng), Tyler Duncan
72 Adam Hadwin (Can), Nate Lashley, Bronson Burgoon, Si Woo Kim (Kor), Jazz Janewattananond (Tha), Doc Redman, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy (Irl), J.J. Spaun, Matthew Wolff, Xander Schauffele, Sung Kang (Kor), Davis Love III, Kyoung-hoon Lee (Kor), Michael Gligic (Can), Maverick McNealy, Adam Long, Keith Mitchell, Michael Kim
73 Pat Perez, Scott Brown, Aaron Wise, Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Andy Ogletree, Kevin Chappell, Kevin Streelman, Charles Howell III, Denny McCarthy, Kyung Ju Choi (Kor), Sungjae Im (Kor), Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Spa), Russell Knox (Sco), Ryan Moore
74 Nick Watney, Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Andrew Putnam, Byeong-Hun An (Kor), Matt Every, Ted Potter, Jr., Shane Lowry (Irl), Jimmy Walker, Brandt Snedeker
75 Talor Gooch, Graeme McDowell (Irl), David Hearn (Can)
76 Austin Cook, Victor Perez (Fra), Glen Day, Scott Piercy, Lanto Griffin
80 Martin Trainer