William McGirt wants to love Harbour Town Golf Links, and he thinks he and the course are made for each other.
He lives in Boiling Springs and Harbour Town hosts his home state’s only PGA Tour event. He’s even friends with several board members on the foundation that operates the tournament, and lists Hilton Head as one of his two favorite vacation spots on his PGA Tour profile.
McGirt isn’t a bomber, ranking 175th on tour in driving distance, and Harbour Town is one of the few tour stops that require more accuracy and placement through its age-old oaks than overpowering distance.
But the course keeps turning him away. In his three appearances in the RBC Heritage presented by Boeing, McGirt has two missed cuts and a tie for 88th.
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Maybe McGirt’s opening round of the 46th Heritage on Thursday is the beginning of a long and successful relationship.
McGirt shot a 5-under-par 66 and shares the first-round lead with Matt Kuchar and Scott Langley.
“Harbour Town and I have a love-hate relationship,” McGirt said. “My first two years here was a lot of hate on my part, but I’m starting to like it.”
The lead trio has a two-shot edge over fourth-place Harris English, and 15 players are tied for fifth at 2-under 69, including Jordan Spieth and Clemson alums Ben Martin and Lucas Glover. Luke Donald and five-time Heritage winner Davis Love III are among 16 players at 1 under.
McGirt’s 66 marks the first time he has broken 70 in eight rounds at Harbour Town. He opened with a pair of 70s last year to make the first cut, but shot an 80 in the third round and was headed home.
“I came down here last year and told myself the entire week of Augusta, ‘I’m going to love Harbour Town, I’m going to love Harbour Town,’” he said. “ And truly there’s not a better course on tour for me than here.
“Learning how to maneuver this place is the big thing, and the more I come here, the more I figure it out.”
McGirt is in his fourth season on the PGA Tour at the age of 34. The 2001 Wofford graduate and native of Lumberton, N.C., has finished second twice in the RBC Canadian Open in 2012 and ‘13.
He took two-stroke lead at 12 under into the final round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club on Feb. 16 but shot a 2-over 73 to tie for sixth. It’s his only top-10 in 14 starts this season.
“After Canada the last two years I felt like I could win out here,” McGirt said. “Walking away from Riviera just confirmed it. We’re doing everything we can right now to improve some of my weaknesses and put ourselves in this position as many times as possible.”
After tying for 31st at the Valero Texas Open two weeks ago to culminate five consecutive weeks of tournaments, he put the clubs down for more than a week. He missed seven greens in regulation but needed just 24 putts, and holed out from a bunker for a birdie on the 17th hole.
“I felt like I putted well today, which is surprising because after San Antonio I took 10 days and did not touch a club,” McGirt said. “I wheeled them in from the airport, went to Charleston, threw the whole travel bag in my car. So it was nice to get away for 10 days or so and do very little.
“I was sick and tired of golf. I played five times on the West Coast and then five in a row in Florida. Yeah, I was past my limit.”
The strong early start on a windy day might prove to be valuable considering the wind is forecast to be significant for the remainder of the week, and rain is a likelihood during at least portions of the rounds Friday and Saturday.
“It’s always the goal to get off to a good start,” Langley said, “but especially this week, seeing the conditions for the whole tournament. I mean, I’ll take birdies whenever I can get them because it will be tricky the rest of the way.”
Kuchar’s bogey-free 66 is his best round in 12 trips to Harbour Town. He went off the 10th tee Thursday morning and made birdies on the course’s three par-5s in holes 15, 2 and 5, as well as the par-4 13th and ninth holes, closing out his round with a 12-foot birdie putt.
“I would not expect to shoot my low round in tournament competition on a day like this,” Kuchar said. “It was blowing early. It was difficult, it was cold and windy. But I’ve been playing some good golf for a little stretch now and it was nice to keep it going. I’m pretty darn pleased to have shot 5 under in these conditions.”
Kuchar has played some consistent if not spectacular golf at Harbour Town, making nine consecutive cuts over the last 10 years with a tie for seventh the best of only two top-10s. He likes the course more than his finishes would indicate.
“It’s always been one of my favorites,” Kuchar. “ We really have to shape your ball around the golf course, position yourself in the right spots. I think it’s just one of the better designed courses I’ve played.”
Kuchar hit 15 of 18 greens Thursday. “It was some awfully steady golf,” he said.