No matter what is ailing Luke Donald, it seems Harbour Town Golf Links is the panacea.
Coming off a couple seasons in which he finished no higher than 80th in PGA Tour FedExCup Points, the former No. 1 golfer in the world is 123rd in FedExCup Points this season and has dropped to 95th in the Official World Golf Ranking.
But Donald’s magic elixir appears to drip from the moss that drapes Harbour Town’s live oaks and seep from Calibogue Sound along its finish.
Donald shot a 5-under-par 66 Thursday in the opening round of the 48th Heritage and is tied for the lead with South African Branden Grace on a course that he loves and has played well for nearly the past decade.
“I have some good memories and good mojo here, so it's nice to continue that with a very solid round today,” Donald said. “This course sort of stands the test of time. It's a course that doesn't demand a lot of length off the tee, but it makes you think. And I think that's why I certainly enjoy playing it.”
Since 2009, Donald has three Heritage runner-up finishes and two ties for third in seven appearances, and his tie for 15th last year was sandwiched between a pair of missed cuts at the Masters and Players Championship.
“It's a golf course that should suit my game, and I kind of proved that over the last six or seven years I've been playing it,” he said.
Donald and Grace are a stroke better than world No. 1 Jason Day, 2014 Heritage champion Matt Kuchar, David Lingmerth of Sweden and Tony Finau. Eight players tied for seventh at 3-under include Charley Hoffman, Johnson Wagner and Kevin Chappell.
I do like this golf course. I think it’s one of those very classic golf courses where we just have to position it around here. It’s not obviously a bomber’s paradise. It’s a positional golf course, a classic golf course with small greens. You have to scramble well.
Donald made six birdies and a bogey Thursday, missing just four fairways off the tee and four greens in regulation, and he holed putts between 5 and 7 feet on the final three holes, including one for birdie on the 17th.
“It was a pretty simple 66 in the end,” Donald said. “I didn't have to work too hard to scramble, which at times you can around this place.”
Not that he needed any more urging to improve, but the Englishman and Northwestern University graduate was motivated by missing the Masters last week, and was watching the tournament at home based on the multitude of tweets he made during the final round.
“I feel like I've got a few good years ahead of me,” Donald said. “I don't want to be sitting at home watching the majors on TV yet. That's the first one I missed in 11 years. I worked very hard on my game this whole year, but especially last week, and it's nice to see it come through today.”
Donald identified scrambling and putting as the two things that have failed him in the past couple years and led to his decline in scoring, and his short game has traditionally been his strength. He has gone from No. 1 in the total putting statistic on the PGA Tour in 2012 to 79th last year and 186th this year.
“For five straight years I was No. 1. That's a big difference,” Donald said. “That’s one or two strokes a round and those shots add up quickly. Getting those back will hopefully see me playing a little bit better and get my name up in those leaderboards.
“It's been a big focus on my practice, to get back to my strengths, which is from 100 yards and in.”
Despite the course seemingly fitting his game, Donald didn’t play well at Harbour Town in his early years on tour. He missed two cuts and finished 69th from 2002-04 before skipping the Heritage for four years and returning in 2009.
“My rookie year and my first few years people said it was going to be a perfect golf course for me: I hit it straight and being decent around the greens is the model for playing well around here,” Donald said. “But for some reason I didn't play very well the first few years, and I took a break. It didn't seem to fit my eye, and I wasn't able to be successful around here.
“But I came back because I still felt like it should be a good golf course for me. For whatever reason something clicked, I started seeing shots better.”
Grace, who is ranked 14th in the world, played the Heritage for the first time last year and tied for seventh, and his 66 matches his best round in the tournament.
“Last year was my first time I actually had a pretty decent finish in the season. This is where it really kick-started everything,” said Grace, who finished in the top 20 in six of his nine PGA or European tour events following the Heritage last year. “And I was stoked to come back. I really like getting around this place.
“It's short and fitly. Obviously the winds do defense, and there's a couple of shots that I've got up my sleeve, that I like hitting, that I grew up hitting and I think it goes well with this place.”
Grace did much of his work on the greens Thursday, hitting just 10 of 18 greens in regulation but needing just 24 putts – three fewer than Donald.
“I hit the ball great. I know my stats are not showing it that good, but I managed to get around,” Grace said. “I had a couple of lucky bounces, made a couple of good up-and-downs to save par and made a couple of good putts, which is nice.”
Grace plays predominantly on the European Tour and is looking for his first PGA Tour title in his 51st start. His best tour finish is third at last year’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, and he’s coming off a missed cut at the Masters.
He has seven career European Tour victories, including one this year, and is sixth on the tour’s 2016 Race to Dubai standings.