Luke Donald can be the No. 1 player in the world, as he was in 2012, or he can be 96th in the Official World Golf Ranking, as he currently is.
It really doesn’t seem to matter at Harbour Town Golf Links. Donald is going to play the course well and be in contention at the RBC Heritage regardless.
Donald shot a 6-under-par 65 in Thursday’s opening round of the 49th Heritage and is tied for second, two strokes behind leader Bud Cauley.
Cauley’s afternoon bogey-free 8-under 63 included birdies on the course’s final three holes, and he also has a two-shot edge over Canadian Graham DeLaet and Sam Saunders, who took part in a ceremony Monday to honor his grandfather and the tournament’s inaugural winner, Arnold Palmer. Saunders also birdied the final three holes.
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Six players including Webb Simpson, Ian Poulter and Russell Henley shot 5-under 66 and are three shots back. Calm weather and superb course conditions provided scoring opportunities Thursday and low scores were the norm. The scoring average Thursday was below 70.33 on the par-71 Pete Dye design.
“I knew it was out there,” Cauley said. “I played a practice round and I knew the greens were relatively soft and I knew I was driving the ball well.”
Cauley, 27, is an Alabama alumnus who is seeking his first PGA Tour victory. Though he has missed two cuts and finished 37th in his three previous visits to Harbour Town, with just one round in the 60s, he looks forward to the tournament.
“I love this place. It's different than anything else we play.” Cauley said. “It's a lot of fun to go out there and shape shots and kind of think your way around. It’s just a comfortable week.”
Donald concurs. He has finished in the top three in six of the past eight Heritage tournaments, and his four runner-up finishes include a tie for second last year behind winner Branden Grace after entering the final round with a lead for the third time in six years.
“I'm always excited to come here. I love this event,” Donald said. “I've done everything but win, and it would be nice to give myself another chance to try and finally get over that hurdle.”
The highlight of Donald’s round, which included five birdies and a bogey, was an eagle on the 507-yard par-5 second hole – his 11th hole of the day – where he hit a 210-yard approach from pine straw on the left side of the fairway to 4 feet.
“That was a good angle to attack that pin,” Donald said. “In the middle of the fairway would have been harder. That's the beauty of this golf course, you've got to know where to miss it and where not to miss it.”
Harbour Town winds through live oaks and other trees and demands accuracy and a short game more than power because of its tight fairways and small greens.
“It's like a puzzle, this course to me,” Donald said. “I think you really have to think your way around it very well. You certainly don't need to overpower this golf course. It's a lot of strategy involved.”
“It's a very claustrophobic place, a lot of overhanging trees. I think for some reason that real tight feeling narrows my focus and gets me more engaged in the shot, and that's why I seem to hit it very well around here. And also the greens are very small, so if you do miss greens you need to be really good around the greens. I've always putted pretty well around here, too.”
Donald, who has five PGA Tour wins and six European Tour wins, was atop the world golf rankings for a total of 56 weeks in 2011 and 2012.
He finished inside the top 10 of the FedExCup standings three consecutive years from 2010-1012. But he hasn’t won since the 2012 Valspar Championship and at 96th in the world he was not invited to participate in the Masters last week.
Donald has missed three of eight cuts this year with a top finish of 17th, and he’s coming off a missed cut at the Valspar Championship in Tampa, Fla., and a tie for 69th in the Shell Houston Open in his last two events.
“I still believe that I have the ability to win a major and win more tournaments,” Donald said. “I’m not hanging up the clubs yet. I'm very committed to working hard on the game, and get past a little bit of a lull in my results the last couple of years.
“It's certainly not been the golf that I wanted. But I'm working hard on it. And I still believe that I'm good enough. Anyone who can get to No. 1 in the world for over a year I think has the ability to bounce back and hopefully I will.”