Rory Sabbatini wasn’t even sure he would be able to play this week after hurting his back “doing something stupid” on Sunday.
Turns out backing off because of a balky back was just what Sabbatini needed to find success in the opening round of the RBC Heritage.
The 42-year-old South African native fired a bogey-free 7-under-par 64 in the opening round – his best in 27 rounds at the Heritage – to claim a two-shot lead over a quartet that includes 2014 champion Matt Kuchar.
“I kind of took it easy for the last few days and was just happy to be able to play today,” Sabbatini said. “Just trying to simplify everything. Wasn’t trying to hit it hard, just put it in the fairway, find the greens.”
Sabbatini has three top-10 finishes at the RBC Heritage – a tie for eighth in 2009 and ties for ninth in 2013 and 2014 – but he has never had a round at Harbour Town Golf Links as good as Thursday’s.
He had the benefit of playing in the morning wave, before the coastal winds that protect Harbour Town from red numbers kicked up, and he took advantage, making four birdies on his first nine – the back – and three on his second nine, including back-to-back birdies to finish the round.
Sabbatini has six PGA Tour victories, but none since 2011. He had only one top-25 finish in 2016 and six last season but is looking to build off a strong showing on the Florida swing, where he tied for 17th at the Honda Classic in February and tied for fifth at the Valspar Championship in March.
He will have plenty of pursuers during Friday’s second round, including Kuchar, who has placed no worse than 11th at the Heritage the past four years. Kuchar started his round with two straight birdies at Nos. 10 and 11 but was just 1-under until making birdies on four of his last seven holes.
John Huh and Billy Horschel also carded rounds of 5-under 66 in the morning wave, and Chesson Hadley posted the best round of the afternoon group to join them in a tie for second.
Hadley will be in one of the first groups off the tee Friday and hopes to take advantage of the calmer conditions to put himself in good position for the weekend.
“I looked this morning, and saw there were some birdies being made,” Hadley said. “I figured there would be. Hopefully we’ll have some soft conditions in the morning. Tomorrow will be great.”
Defending champion Wesley Bryan and fellow South Carolina native Dustin Johnson both shot 2-under-par 69 and are tied for 20th.
Johnson, the world’s top-ranked player, got to 4-under after four consecutive birdies but made bogey on three of his last five holes in his first start at Harbour Town since 2009.
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