In a star-studded field, Jimmy Walker leads the RBC Heritage

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — With 17 of the top 20 players in the world golf rankings competing in the 2023 RBC Heritage this week — the cream of the crop was expected to rise to the top of the rankings.

That was the case on Friday after an early morning wave at Harbor Town Golf Links as world No. 1 Scotty Scheffler shot up the leaderboard with Justin Rose, Tommy Fleetwood, Patrick Cantlay, Jordan Spieth and Adam Scott all in the mix. But there were a few unexpected players who made their presence felt with excellent rounds.

Jimmy Walker, who entered the week ranked No. 406 in the world, shot his second straight 6-under 65 and went into the clubhouse with a three-stroke lead at 12 under, three shots ahead of Scotty Scheffler and Justin Rose. The 44-year-old Texan was on top of the golf world when he won the 2016 PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club, one of his six Tour victories.

But he was diagnosed with Lyme disease just before the 2017 Masters and has struggled to regain form ever since. The former Baylor star made seven birdies on Friday, including a 51-foot chip on the 184-yard, par-3 seventh.

“Yesterday I started and I was like, well, wow. Now we have to put the pedals down, keep it going today,” Walker said. “It was take advantage, keep your head in the game, keep stroking it good, just keep doing all the things that I felt like I’ve been working on, some old feelings, old thoughts, and just stay on top of them and be really attentive to that’s because it’s so easy to just check. It was for me, especially since I was sick.

Walker took a break from the game in April 2022, and then in September the opportunity to take an exception to the top 50 all-time winners came when the Tour removed players who joined LIV Golf, and they were dropped from that list – allowing Walker to climb nine spots in the rankings to No. 50.

He failed to qualify in eight of 12 appearances this season, but has three top-25 finishes in the cuts he has made.

“It was a pretty easy decision to be honest. I was 50 and if I didn’t play I would never get it again. I just wouldn’t. So when it happened, it was kind of like, wow, this is amazing,” Walker said. “I immediately shifted gears and talked to my family and said, this is it. This is what we’re going to do.

Walker said he has experience and knows what it takes to win, but his illness has taken its toll.

“I haven’t put together two really good rounds back to back here … ever since I got sick, mentally and physically I’ve felt different almost every day and that’s been the hardest part,” Walker said. “The things I work on one day, I don’t feel them the next day. Some days I’ll get two days out of it. So that was the hardest part.

“I’ve never felt like I’ve ever been afraid to win a golf tournament. I’ve won golf tournaments in all sorts of ways, big events played on the biggest stages. So there’s nothing I haven’t done. Nothing this weekend is any different than anything I’ve ever done honestly. Just do it again because it’s fun if you win.”

Mark Hubbard shot a solid 66 to move to 8-under par and into a tie for third after the morning wave. The 33-year-old San Jose State graduate has never won a PGA Tour event. He entered the week ranked No. 132 in the world and was looking to improve on his best RBC Heritage finish of 33rd last year.

Hubbard’s only miss on the scorecard came at the 16th, a hole that required a par for the driver — a shot that didn’t fit his eye. But he responded with his sixth birdie of the day on No. 18, draining a nine-footer to end his round.

He withdrew from the pro Wednesday with a 24-hour bug, but after sleeping in, got off to a great start with birdies on Nos. 1, 2 and 4.

“I think that’s a part of the course that can be scored, and it’s been very calm this morning, really all day,” Hubbard said. “The greens were a little softer, then they started to firm up a little bit in the afternoon. I think you should just start with two of the three par-5s in the first six holes. I felt good.”

Fleetwood is making his fourth appearance at Harbor Town and the 32-year-old Englishman was at the top of his game, making eight birdies, with a pair of bogeys on the back nine (his front nine on Friday). His iron game was on point as he hit 14 of 18 greens and hit 112 feet of putts, the longest being a 37-foot bomb for birdie on No. 18.

“My consistency is kind of good, but I’m not at the top of the charts and that’s where I want to get,” said Fleetwood, who is No. 25 in the World Golf Ranking.

He said Harbor Town suits his game and he likes to compete in tournaments the week after a major.

“It’s not somewhere you can beat. I think you have to be very patient. I think you have to be a good iron player,” he said. “There are definitely aspects of the golf course that I enjoy and I enjoy playing. I wish the wind was stronger this weekend and had that challenge to play with.

“I really enjoy playing the week after major tournaments. I feel like they are the best in every aspect of your game and the challenges the game can throw at you. I think the majors are the best and I love coming next week. That way, you’ve prepared so hard for them and feel like you’ve done everything you can. So you kind of come in here with the mindset that it’s all done and you just go out and play. I don’t know if it’s the timing of the event or the course, but I seem pretty happy with both.”

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The story originally appeared on GolfWeek

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