Poulter sets the pace and Spieth turns it around at Hilton Head

Published 5:22 pm Thursday, June 18, 2020

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Ian Poulter and Mark Hubbard set the pace for good scoring through a brief spell of rain at Hilton Head.

Jordan Spieth was pleasantly surprised to join the chase Thursday in the RBC Heritage.

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Poulter holed a 30-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole and finished with a 5-iron to 4 feet for another birdie that capped a 7-under 64, a round without a bogey but not without flaws. Hubbard kept his 64 together with two par putts at the end.

They had a one-shot lead Viktor Hovland, Sebastian Munoz, and Michael Thompson among the early starters.

Spieth didn’t figure to be part of the conversation until bouncing back from a triple bogey with eight birdies for a 66.

Three holes into the tournament, Spieth stood under a cluster of trees just off the 12th fairway, looking some 20 yards to the right at his golf ball nestled in pine straw a few feet beyond the white out-of-bounds stakes.

He tried to figure out which tree it hit, not that it mattered. And then he three-putted from 25 feet for a triple bogey.

It was the kind of break Spieth has seen far too often during three years without a victory.

“All of a sudden, I’m 3 over through three, and you start to see guys going 2 under through two, 2 under through three early. It’s not a great feeling,” Spieth said.

So he told his caddie on the 13th tee, “That’s over. Let’s get four (birdies) today and shoot under par.”

“I ended up getting a few more than that,” Spieth said.

He answered with a birdie on No. 13, and then just like last week’s opening round at Colonial, got hot on his back nine. Spieth had a career-best six consecutive birdies.

The stretch started with an 8-foot putt on the par-5 second, and it included a 7-iron to 4 feet to a left pin near the water on the par-3 fourth.

He was on such a roll that Spieth began to contemplate eight straight birdies to end his round. But he saw enough mud on his ball from the fairway on No. 8 that he played conservatively to 30 feet, and then finished with another short birdie.

It was another positive step, and that triple bogey on his third hole was another opportunity to put to use his magic word during his return from a three-month shutdown: grace.

The idea is to not dwell on mistakes that are bound to happen as he keeps making strides, and Spieth worked as much on that with caddie Michael Greller during the break as his swing.

“Michael did a great job of reminding me that today when it wasn’t going well on my front nine,” Spieth said. “It’s definitely a trigger to get it going. The idea … is to work yourself into contention, get those experiences, start to feel more and more comfortable under the gun. I mean, that’s the longest I’ve gone without having a chance on a Sunday.

“So I’m giving myself grace,” he said, “but that’s not to say I’m not expecting to do better and better each week.”

Rory McIlroy was among those who struggled, and only a pair of birdies on the back nine kept it from being worse. He opened with a 72. That ended a streak of seven straight tournaments in which he broke par in the opening round dating to the ZoZo Championship in Japan last October.

He kept it entertaining. On the par-5 15th, he tried to hit a slice from behind a tree and carry it over more oaks from 275 yards away. It didn’t come off right, leaving him blocked by the trees, so he tried to hook the next one around the trees. That got caught up in the shaggy collar of a bunker, and he made bogey.

“I’m sort of missing my 3-wood left and missing my driver right,” McIlroy said. “If you’re in any way like in two minds what to do off the tees around here and get a little bit sort of guidey, it can bite you.”

Brooks Koepka was among those at 67, while the 50-and-older gang more than held its own. Ernie Els was tied for the lead at one point before settling for a 67. Bernhard Langer, the 61-year-old Masters champion, and Jim Furyk each had 69.