Jeff Shain

Bud Cauley keeps his shirt on, zooms to top of Harbour Town chart

Bud Cauley tees off on No. 17 during the first round of the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing on Thursday at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island. Cauley ended his round in sole possession of the tournament lead at 8-under-par.
Bud Cauley tees off on No. 17 during the first round of the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing on Thursday at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island. Cauley ended his round in sole possession of the tournament lead at 8-under-par. jkarr@islandpacket.com

Jordan Spieth chose the Bahamas this week, where photos from his second annual post-Masters bro-cation with Rickie Fowler and two other PGA Tour brethren are starting to trickle in via social media.

Bud Cauley might have had a chance to join them. The Florida native is a contemporary, and even was part of a less-viral junket back in December while Spieth and Fowler were playing in Tiger Woods’ winter soirée.

This week, though, Cauley chose the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing.

Who had the better Thursday? Dress code aside, you might call it even.

“I had to keep my shirt on today,” Cauley said, “but we had a good time.”

An 8-under-par 63 will do that, one shy of his career best and good for a two-stroke lead after Thursday’s opening shootout at Harbour Town. He sprinkled eight birdies through his round, pouring it on with three at the end.

Here, at last, was another glimpse of the Bud Cauley that many thought would join Spieth, Fowler, Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger and others as the new wave of American talent to move onto the stage. And he might yet, though shoulder surgery has put him perhaps two years behind the curve.

“It’s just something that’s out of your control,” he said. “You can prepare and play and do all the things you’re supposed to. And then you get hurt and there’s kind of nothing you can do. ... Hopefully it’ll be something 20 years from now I barely remember.”

Folks may not remember that Cauley was a three-time All-American at Alabama, where he helped the Crimson Tide reach the NCAA Tournament in all three seasons.

He won the Players Amateur here in 2008, qualifying for his first of four previous Heritage starts. He held the nation’s No. 1 amateur ranking, even beating Fowler one year at the U.S. Amateur.

Turning pro in 2011, Cauley earned enough via sponsor invites to do something just seven men had accomplished before him — secure a PGA Tour card without facing the qualifying grind. Woods and Phil Mickelson also appear on that list, though not Spieth.

And even though Cauley’s PGA Tour career didn’t take off on an arc like Spieth’s, reaching as high as 58th in the world rankings as he racked up six top-10 finishes in 2012. Even after an off-year in 2013, he looked to be a mainstay.

In July 2014, though, a drive at the John Deere Classic caused Cauley’s left shoulder to pop out of its socket.

“Just a freak thing. I had loose shoulders,” he said. “I played the rest of the tournament, which wasn’t the best move on my part.”

He missed five weeks for rest and rehab, missed the cut at Greensboro and was forced to the Web.com Finals series to keep his card. He took care of business by winning the opener, then missed the cut one week later when the shoulder popped out again.

This time, surgery was the only option, as doctors inserted anchors to keep the shoulder in place. He sat out the better part of a year, and didn’t make a PGA Tour start for 15 months.

“I don’t want to ever do that again,” Cauley said.

Not only could he not play golf, he couldn’t pursue much of anything.

“I watched a lot of Netflix,” he said with a laugh. “I was not very productive. I put on some weight. Nothing good.

“That’s the thing — some of my other hobbies were things that were kind of active. So other than going to physical therapy and then coming back home and planting myself on the couch, there wasn’t too much to do.”

Even after getting a clean bill of health, it took another year to get his swing back to where it once was.

“It didn’t feel right,” he said. “It took me a while to be able to get the mobility, to get the club back as far as I used to. But if you put my swing up now, (it looks) kind of the way it was before.”

Thursday provided the most positive sign yet. The question now is whether he can keep it going for three more days.

If so, perhaps he’ll have to miss the Bahamas trip again next year — while he defends an RBC Heritage title.

Jeff Shain: 843-706-8123, @jeffshain

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