Beaufort News

Fear of change helps Willis to early lead at Heritage

Garrett Willis was fed up with the missed putts, and he was willing to try anything to turn things around. After auditioning 10 putters leading up to Thursday's first round of the Heritage, he had settled on a belly putter.

But a short time before his 8:50 a.m. tee time, he went with his gut, instead.

"As I was walking to the range," Willis said, "I said, 'You know what, go back to my car and get Old Faithful. I can't pull the trigger.' "

The cold feet led to a hot round for the Charlotte native, who made six consecutive birdies on the front nine en route to a 7-under-par 64 and held a one-shot lead when the first round of the Heritage was suspended because of darkness at 7:57 p.m. with 18 players left on the course.

Play was suspended because of thunderstorms at 4:54 p.m. but resumed after a delay of 2 hours, 16 minutes, allowing all but six groups to complete their rounds. The second round will begin as scheduled at 7:20 a.m. today. The players who didn't finish their first round will resume play at 7:45 a.m. and then begin their second rounds shortly thereafter.

Duncan resident Matt Bettencourt is among a group of four players at 6 under. He is joined by Tim Herron, Chad Campbell and Arjun Atwal, all of whom completed their rounds. Mark Wilson, Camilo Villegas and 2009 Heritage champion Brian Gay are tied for sixth at 5-under, making for a crowded leaderboard.

"I don't think it's that important to be the leader out in the first round," Atwal said. "It's good to get off to a good start, for sure."

Plenty of players did that Thursday, especially in the morning wave, when unusually benign conditions allowed for low scores -- 17 players from the morning groups posted scores of 68 or better. Only eight players from the afternoon wave did the same.

But none could go as low as Willis, who hit 15 of 18 greens and took advantage of Harbour Town's small putting surfaces to find his putting stroke.

Willis entered the week ranked 177th on the PGA Tour in putting average. He felt improving that statistic was the only way to reverse the negative momentum of having missed six of eight cuts this season.

So his less-than-trusty putter was on the chopping block, as he brought four new ones along for the trip. When those didn't feel right, he had three more made. And when none of those seemed to help, he had his father ship three more to him.

"I said this week is going to be the week I'm going to break away, I'm going to do it, I'm going to switch," Willis said. "I say that almost every week, but I don't have the guts to do it, and luckily it paid off."

Old Faithful -- a Scotty Cameron prototype (Willis isn't sure of the model) -- earned its reprieve. Willis needed only 24 putts, and he made three birdies from outside 10 feet, a rarity for him this season.

The putter has been the hurdle that has tripped up Willis from reaching the potential expected of him when he won the Tucson Open in his first PGA Tour event. That was a decade ago, and Willis is winless in 192 PGA Tour starts since, though he does have two Nationwide Tour wins during that span.

"Winning is great, but I just want to play good golf," Willis said. "If I never win again, I'll be 100 percent fine with that. I just want to be able to play the golf that I know I'm capable of playing."

For at least one day, he did that. And he believes Harbour Town is a suitable place for him to duplicate the fleeting success he enjoyed a decade ago.

"There's only about four or five golf courses on tour that I can compete on, this being one of them," Willis said. "If I can continue to hit the driver and control my golf ball the way I have and make some putts, I'm going to finish pretty decent."