ST. SIMONS ISLAND, GA. — By Bubba Watson standards, 2016-17 was a lost season.
The two-time Masters champion finished a career-low 113th on the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup points list, failed to win a tournament for the first time in four years and missed the cut in three of the four major championships and The Players Championship.
Watson added the RSM Classic to his schedule for the first time in his eagerness to get a head start on 2017-18. The shorter Sea Island Club courses negate his huge driving distance advantage, and he admits to having problems playing in the wind but Watson responded on Friday with six birdies on the front nine of the Seaside Course to tie the front nine record of 29. He went on to shoot a 64 to finish at 7-under-par 135, seven shots behind leader Austin Cook (62) at 14-under 128.
Brian Gay (64 at Seaside) is in second at 13-under and C.T. Pan (65 at the Plantation course), 18-hole leader Chris Kirk (70 at Seaside) and Vaughn Taylor (66 at Seaside) are tied at 9-under.
Blayne Barber (67 at Seaside) of Lake City is among a large group at 8-under that also includes Brandt Snedeker (67, Plantation) and Watson is tied with 2015 RSM winner Kevin Kisner (68, Plantation), Bud Cauley of Jacksonville (63, Seaside) and last week's Tour winner, Patton Kizzire of St. Simons Island (69, Plantation).
Although Watson has some work to do on the weekend when the entire field shifts to the Seaside Course, he thinks he's on the right track.
"I had no idea until I signed my scorecard that I made 8 3s," he said. "That makes me made about the 5 [on the front nine]. I thought I played good [Thursday, with a 71 at the Plantation] and I felt great making a birdie on the last hole. Then I birdied the first two today and it pushed me in the right direction."
The only blip on the card was a double-bogey 6 at No. 14, after Watson's tee shot was stuck in a tree. He then struggled to par the only par-5 on the back, No. 15, but made a 9-foot putt for birdie at No. 17 and a 2-footer at No. 18 after his second shot scared the hole.
Watson needed only 23 putts and five of his birdies were on putts of 10 feet or less.
"I felt like Jordan Spieth out there," he said of the player considered the best putter on the Tour these days.
Watson explained last season as a jumble of family considerations that included his son starting kindergarten and his wife Angie's knee surgery.
"It was me being home," Watson said. "We had in-laws enough to take care of her and I was itching to get back. It was, 'do you love the game?' The answer is yes. I love the game but the mental part wasn't there. After the next two days I'll figure out what I need to work on and get ready to chase the FedEx Cup."
Cook, a rookie who played college golf at Arkansas, birdied five of seven holes during one stretch, then birdied two of his last three to pass Gay and take the lead. He missed only one green matched the lowest opening 36-hole score.
Gay, a 45-year-old Florida graduate, missed only two fairways and had 26 putts and recorded his best first 36-hole score in his PGA Tour career.
Cauley, who tied for 15th and 20th in his first two career starts at Sea Island, snapped a three-year streak of missed cuts with his best score in the tournament since a 62 in the first round in 2012. He birdied five of his first seven holes.
Missing the 1-under cut was defending champion Mac Hughes, Jonathan Byrd of St. Simons Island, Ga., Sam Saunders of Atlantic Beach, Steve Wheatcroft of Jacksonville and tournament host Davis Love III.
This article is written by Garry Smits from The Florida Times-Union and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.