Willis leads rain-delayed Heritage by one after run of six straight birdies

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Garrett Willis was a shot in front of Arjun Atwal, Matt Bettencourt, Chad Campbell and Tim Herron at Harbour Town.
By
Pete Iacobelli
Associated Press

Series:

Garrett Willis couldn't give up on "Old Faithful," no matter how many flashy, new belly putters he tested out this week.

Willis entered the Heritage seeking answers to his poor putting and had planned to park his longtime Scotty Cameron model. As he walked to the range Thursday morning, though, Willis just couldn't go through with it and asked his caddie to "go back to my car and get 'Old Faithful.'"

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Good thing he did. Willis had a run of six straight birdies on the front nine on the way to a 7-under 64 and a one-shot lead in the suspended first round.

"Obviously, very excited about putting this well, and having a chance to making the cut for a change," Willis said.

He held a one-stroke edge over Arjun Atwal, Matt Bettencourt, Chad Campbell and Tim Herron and was two shots in front of Mark Wilson, Camilo Villegas and 2009 Heritage winner Brian Gay.

Luke Donald, No. 3 in the world, led a group at 67 in a round slowed by a late afternoon rain delay of 2 hours, 16 minutes. Because of the delay, 18 players were unable to finish before dark.

Donald could move to No. 1 with a win. That might be a tall order if Willis' maintains the putting touch he showed in the first round.

Willis' only PGA Tour victory came at the Touchstone Energy Tucson Open in 2001, also his first start on the PGA Tour. It has been a struggle for Willis to keep his pro career going at times. 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 as Willis has made only two cuts in eight tournaments, shooting 78-78 last week for an early exit in the Valeor Texas Open. He's 177th in the tour's putting rankings and got fed up 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 he 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. Willis' 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.

Willis had only broken 70 four times in 12 previous rounds at Hilton Head. His low round was a 68 in 2001, Willis' first time playing Harbour Town.

Donald, who won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February, is the highest ranked player in the field. He did little to hurt his chance for No. 1, rallying from a sluggish start with three birdies over his final six holes.

"A lot of people are telling me about" becomng No. 1, Donald said. "So it's hard to put out of your brain. But that would be awesome."

Defending champion Jim Furyk and reigning U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, fifth in the world, were in a pack at 68.

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. Bill Haas looked like he might chase down Willis with a tap-in birdie on No. 5 once play resumed to move a shot off the lead. But Haas followed with two bogeys and a triple bogey to fall back.

In all, seven of the world's top 20 players teed off in what could be the final Heritage. The tournament, a PGA Tour fixture since 1969, is searching for a title sponsor, something both the tour and event organizers called essential for keeping the springtime tradition on the golf schedule.

DIVOTS: John Daly caused an early morning stir with three birdies his first six holes to take the lead. Bogeys on the seventh and ninth holes dropped him back. He finished with a 70. ... Brian Davis returned to Harbour Town with a 68. Davis called a two-shot penalty on himself in last year's playoff with Furyk when he touched a loose reed with his takeaway. ... Matt Bettencourt's 65 came only days after he totaled his car in a highway wreck on the trip from his home in Upstate South Carolina. Bettencourt said he hit a camper top that fell off the car in front of him on I-26 and he had no choice but to brace for impact. He and his wife, Kim, were not hurt.