By Stan Awtrey, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- Unsatisfied with his putting all season, Garrett Willis was ready to dump the Scotty Cameron model putter that refers to as "Old Faithful" and exchange it for a belly putter. He used the belly putter in a practice round at a nearby course on Wednesday and arrived at Harbour Town about 30 minutes earlier than usual to dial it in.
After breakfast Willis was walking to the range, preparing for his 8:50 a.m. starting time, and had a change of heart. He sent his caddie to the car to get "Old Faithful" and used it to hit a handful of putts to get ready for the round.
"I said, you know what, go back to the car and get Old Faithful. I can’t pull the trigger," Willis said.
That turned out to be a great decision.
"I haven’t missed a tournament in five years with it," Willis said. "I’ve been having 31, 32, 33 putts a round, which is leading to a lot of missed cuts. And this is the week I’m going to break away, I’m going to do it, I’m going to switch. I say that almost every week, but I don’t have the guts enough to do it. Luckily it paid off."
Willis had one of the best putting days of his career. It led to a run of six straight birdies on the front nine and a round of 64, which gave him the early first round lead at The Heritage.
"Obviously I’m very excited about putting this well and having a chance to make the cut for a change," Willis said.
Willis has made the cut only twice in eight starts. His best finish was a tie for 15th at the Transitions Championship, one of a handful of courses Willis said he’s capable of competing on. That short list includes Harbour Town, where he hasn’t played since 2003. His best finish at The Heritage was a tie for 38th in 2003.
It was an all-around good day for players who opted out of the belly putter. Tim Herron changed his mind at the last minute and stuck with his old putter and wound up shooting a 65, the best round of his career at Harbour Town.
Garrett Willis' scorecard:
Garrett Willis makes a good case for leaving the flagstick out while chipping:
Garrett Willis holes out on the par-5 14th on Saturday.
Garrett Willis got up-and-down from the bunker at the par-5 first hole for birdie, putting him at 10 under and the outright lead.
With perfect conditions, the field is chasing Vijay Singh's tournament record of 18 under. It will take a 67-66 finish for Willis to pull it off. Can anyone do it? Leave your opinion in the comments section below.
Garrett Willis is the player who shot 65 in the opening round of the Transitions Championship last year -- and wasn't even around to play on Sunday after missing the 54-hole cut.
He shot 66 on Thursday ... and promptly bogeyed his first hole Friday even though it's an easy 552-yard par-5.
"Same as last year. Here we go again," Willis said. "All I had to do was hit a 7‑iron up the middle of the fairway, hit a wedge on the green to give myself ‑‑ to make a putt. But no; I wanted to hit 3‑wood up in the neck, and if I hit it good to where I can have an easy birdie, and I just missed it a little bit. Goes under the tree, dumped under the bunker and made bogey."
Turns out, it was the last mistake he'd made. He pitched in for eagle on the par-5 fifth and made three more birdies coming in, polishing off a 67 that had him off work in time to see No. 9 seed Tennessee take on No. 8 Michigan in the NCAA West Regional in Charlotte (Willis played collegiately at East Tennessee State).
"I'll get to go home, hang out with the family, hang out with [infant son Gage]," Willis said. "Tennessee is playing basketball here shortly."
"Heading straight home. No practice, no nothing. Golf's behind me until tomorrow morning."
Willis' 133 total is good for the current lead, although Paul Casey, who shot 64 on Thursday, has just teed off.
Garrett Willis is 5 under after 14 holes after a run of four consecutive birdies at Copperhead -- mimicking his performance here last year, when he shot 65 in the first round.
The next two rounds didn't go so well for Willis -- he shot 77-74 and was cut after 54 holes.
Tiger Woods has just teed off, and it’s a sure bet at least one fan in his massive gallery will be easy to spot. One young man in an orange Tony-the-Tiger suit was walking into the gates at TPC Boston, carrying the oversized head under his arm.
Marc Leishman really turned things around after that 77 he shot on Sunday. He fired a final-round 68 that got him back into red numbers for the tournament – and more importantly positioned him safely inside the top 70 projections at No. 58. A year ago, Leishman had to eagle the 72nd hole to earn his spot at the BMW Championship.
Stephen Ames, who was among the leaders through two rounds, is now fighting to make it to the BMW Championship. He shot 75 in the third round and is currently 1 over for the day and the tournament. That means he’s projected at 72nd so he needs to start making birdies.
If the tournament were to end right now, six players would have played their way to Cog Hill. There will be plenty of pros with their eyes on the projections when they sign their scorecards.
Garrett Willis has withdrawn due to illness. He started the week ranked 97th in the FedExCup and currently is projected two spots lower. So he’ll have several weeks to get well.
Another player who had to withdraw, Scott Verplank, is currently projected at No. 71, down 17 spots from 54th but still with a chance at advancing.
Garrett Willis has just posted the lowest round of the early starters – a bogey-free 65. The round moved Willis to 11 under for the tournament and seven strokes behind the leader, Jeff Overton, who tees off in 53 minutes.
Willis has finished 16th or better in three of his last six starts. His best finish of the year is a tie for fourth at the St. Jude Classic presented by Smith & Nephew.
Garrett Willis birdied three straight holes (Nos. 13, 14 and 15) to get to 3 under on his round and 9 under for the week, but he is quickly running out of holes. With Lee Westwood and Robert Garrigus at 11 under, Willis still has some ground to make up, and a par on the par-5 16th, where he had to get up-and-down from a greenside bunker just to save par, certainly didn’t help.
On a positive note, this will be Willis’ best finish of the season -- his best to date was a tie for 13th at the Valero Texas Open -- so he’s got that going for him. -- Brian Wacker
Lee Westwood and Garrett Willis have moved back atop the leaderboard thanks to each making birdie on the par-4 ninth. Still, both are over par on the day. They’re probably be glad to be headed to the back nine, though, where both have fared much better this week – Westwood has played the final nine here in a combined 8 under, while Willis is 6 under on the back at TPC Sawgrass. -- Brian Wacker
There’s some serious carnage out on the golf course right now. The overnight lead was 9 under (Lee Westwood and Garrett Willis), but that number has already come back two strokes with five players now sharing the lead.
Westwood and Willis are among that group, but each has to bogeys through the first five holes. The first nine players on the leaderboard, in fact, are a collective 2 over on the day so far with only two players -- Bob Estes and Heath Slocum -- in red numbers.
The flip side to that is Fredrik Jacobson and Retief Goosen, who are 4 and 5 under, respectively. Still, with conditions as hot and humid as they are and a heat index over 100, not many players are going low today. -- Brian Wacker