HILTON HEAD ISLAND — There were no major letdowns for Masters contenders Matt Kuchar and Jordan Spieth at the RBC Heritage on Thursday.
Kuchar, who tied for fifth at Augusta National, shot a bogey-free 5-under 66 to share the first-round lead with Scott Langley and William McGirt.
The 20-year-old Spieth tied for second behind Bubba Watson last Sunday and continued his strong play with a 69, part of a large group tied for fifth at Harbour Town Golf Links.
Kuchar and Spieth both spent much of Sunday in the pressure cooker that is the Masters’ final round. But neither player allowed any lingering disappointment or fatigue from a grueling week to slow them down here.
“I was anxious to get back out and play another competitive round,” Spieth said. “So today was going to be kind of therapy, in a sense, from last week.”
Langley and McGirt each had five birdies on the front nine to match Kuchar.
Harris English was two shots behind after a 68 before Spieth topped a group of 15 another stroke back. In all, 54 competitors shot par or better despite the gusts of 20 mph that swept through the course much of the round.
The week after the season’s first major is generally one of rest for many of golf’s big names and this year’s no different. Masters champ Watson took off as did Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy.
World No. 1 Tiger Woods continues recuperating from back surgery that kept him from playing Augusta National for the first time in 20 years.
Just six of the world’s top-20 ranked golfers teed it up this week, led by Kuchar at No. 6.
Spieth, who tied with fellow Masters rookie Jonas Blixt for second last week, didn’t consider withdrawing at Harbour Town, convinced of the benefits of quickly getting back to work.
It was also a get-to-know-you session for Spieth, who was paired with U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson and 2012 Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III.
“It was unbelievable just to be playing with them,” Spieth said.
For Kuchar, playing was a no-brainer considering the strong run he’s been on the past month or so.
He tied for fourth at the Texas Open three weeks ago and lost in a playoff at the Houston Open a week later right before the Masters.
And Kuchar understands being focused at the Masters can mean being zoned in at Harbour Town.
“You’re going to see a lot of guys, if they’re not too run down from a major championship, come out and play some pretty good golf the week following.”
Kuchar played with confidence and precision, avoiding the winds when possible and playing to the meatiest parts of the smallish greens.
After starting on the back nine, Kuchar birdied both the par 5 holes on the front side before finishing with a birdie on his final hole, the ninth, to shoot in the 60s for the sixth time in his past 11 rounds here.
“It was some awfully steady golf,” he said.
Langley, with his early birdie run, looked as if he might finish on top alone after a 17-foot birdie putt on the par-3 14th moved him to 6 under. But Langley wound up in the scrub along the 18th green and took bogey to fall into the three-way tie for first.
Langley has missed seven cuts this season, including his past two tournaments. But he felt confident in his game and took motivation from his friend Spieth’s run at a green jacket last week.
“Seeing Jordan do so well, almost win the Masters, inspired me a little bit,” Langley said.
McGirt played in the same group with Langley and matched his partner with five front-nine birdies. He chipped in on the par-3 17th to move up into the tie for first.
“Scott and I were both making birdies left and right,” McGirt said. “It was easy to feed off each other.”
Westwood takes early Malaysian Open lead
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Determined to end a two-year title drought, Lee Westwood shot a 7-under 65 Thursday to take the lead at storm-affected Malaysian Open.
Westwood had a bogey at his first hole but birdied four of his closing five to take a one-shot lead ahead of Nicolas Colsaerts of Belgium before play was suspended because of the risk of lightning.
A tropical downpour in the afternoon had previously halted play for more than an hour, and 45 players in the 156-man field will have to complete their first round on Friday.
The 36th-ranked Westwood is coming off a seventh-place finish at the Masters last weekend – his best so far this year – and is looking to repeat his Malaysian Open victory from 1997.
“I didn’t make the best of starts bogeying ... the first hole, but fortunately that didn’t set the tone,” Westwood said. “I hit it really well and hit it close a lot. I had to be patient because I was hitting good putts and they weren’t going in (until) I holed one from about eight feet on my 16th.”
Colsaerts recovered from a neck injury that forced him out of the Houston Open earlier this month and carded a 66. Northern Ireland’s Michael Hoey and Portugal’s Ricardo Santos were a stroke further back in the co-sanctioned European and Asian Tour event.
Colsaerts, a former Ryder Cup player who has slipped to 131st in the world, had eight birdies and two bogeys in his round.
“I’ve felt I’ve played pretty well since early in the season, but there’s always been a stretch of holes where I’ve shot myself in the foot for some reason,” Colsaerts said. “I’ve missed good opportunities to have good weeks. So the plan is to come back here to get some momentum and confidence back.”
Defending champion Kiradech Aphibarnrat of Thailand shot a 71 and 2012 winner Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa had a 72.
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